Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What to Read: Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't

Last week, we learned something we probably already knew: D.C. singles are the nation's biggest boozers. The week before, Glamour magazine via The Washington Post informed us that the District's single ladies are the nation's happiest. (Yes, I subscribe to both. You shouldn't be surprised.) For me -- and I'm confident I'm not alone on this one -- the two are related.

Drinking makes me happy.

No, no, I don't have a problem; rather, I have a hobby!

When I was in college, I drank well -- at the time, that meant avoiding the "working man's beer" and all booze sold in plastic bottles. Over the last seven years or so, I have actually developed a fairly refined palate (though I'll still knock back a cheap-ish bottle on half-price wine night) and acquired a deep love for craft beer and thoughtfully prepared cocktails.

D.C. has become a renowned hub for both ... but it hasn't always been that way, at least not officially so.

How many of you remember learning about the 18th and 21st Amendments to the Constitution* in school? Most, I'm guessing. How many of you think "teetotaler" is a fun word to say? All, duh. How many of you appreciated what that actually meant for citizens/drinkers? Fewer, I'm sure. It definitely didn't mean much to me at the time, but now that I'm older, wiser, and less sober, I recognize how flustered distillers, imbibers, and bar owners must have been.

* How many of you immediately thought of a bar (18th Amendment on Capitol Hill) and a beer (21st Amendment out of CA) instead of laws? If we aren't already friends, we should be. 

Garrett Peck's Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't chronicles our town's sneaky ways around the law.
Notice the flask in the garter... how classy!

I first learned of the book just before its release last spring on Twitter ... where else? Derek Brown, of The Passenger fame, wrote the Forward and was publicizing the book.

You may already be familiar with Peck's other books or maybe even his "Temperance Tours" of downtown, but I wasn't in-the-know until reading the book.

I've recently put this tour on my to-do list -- a new twist on being a tourist in your own city! There's also a map in the Appendix. 

Have you ever visited our Temperance Fountain?
Photo Credit: dcist

Peck describes it as "both a history and a guidebook," and it's a great balance of the two. There are lots of maps and photos to help you picture where the speakeasies were located and how the bootleggers snuck in/out of town. For the more hands-on reader, you'll even find a handful of old-school recipes. The first, of course, is The Rickey (and its variations; I'm partial to the gin version) -- D.C.'s official cocktail.

For those of you who are Hill staffers, you'll probably appreciate one of my favorite parts of the book -- the chapter about how wet the dry Congress really was. Peck tells the story of George Cassiday, the "official" Congress supplier during the (not so) dry years. One senator referred to Cassiday as his "librarian" and placed his booze orders by asking for new "reading material." 

This stuff cracks me up!

Let's face it ... in addition to being drunk and happy, most of us are also a bunch of over-educated nerds who gobble up knowledge like the tourists do cupcakes. Why not arm yourself with a few more factoids about the city you love ... and the hobby that makes us all so jolly?!

If you aren't already on your way to check it out from the library (or to the liquor store for more "reading material" to test out the cocktail recipes), I'll leave you with one final data-point from the book's back cover:

"In 1929, it was estimated that every week bootleggers brought twenty-two thousand gallons of whiskey, moonshine, and other spirits into Washington, D.C.'s three thousand speakeasies." 

Not quite the desert they'd intended, huh? Kudos, D.C., and thank you, Repealers!



  1. New goal, to drink an entire flask all at once while leaning against the Temperance Fountain.

    1. We all need goals in life. Maybe I'll join you!

  2. Thanks for the nice shout-out!

    My third book *just* came out this past week, "The Potomac River: A History and Guide," and we're hosting a publication party at Congressional Cemetery on April 26. Details are at

    1. Partay in the Cemetery ... that almost rhymes. I'll put it on my calendar.