If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back. I’m sharing news about a new sale! Then come on back and join Alan and I as we look at the oddities that have evolved from regulating drinking.
JANE: Well, Alan, last time you asked if Prohibition was still an issue here in the
United States. The answer is, as with so many things, yes and no.
The “no” is that there is no longer a Federal law prohibiting the drinking of alcohol on a national level. However, there is a crazy quilt of state and county regulations that make the issue confusing to say the least.
For example, in the same state you may have “dry” and “wet” counties. As far as I can tell, all this does is raise the revenues for sale of alcoholic beverages in those “wet” counties bordering the “dry,” but maybe it makes the people who live in dry counties feel more secure.
ALAN: We used to have something similar but the “dry” and “wet” areas were suburbs in the same city. Every time there was a local government election, the dry suburbs would also have a referendum to see if they should become wet. The dry suburbs seem to have completely vanished now. Our liquor laws were extensively revised a few years ago and now you can buy beer and wine in the supermarket (and even at the corner shop) along with your groceries. Strangely, the supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell spirits.
JANE: Our supermarkets can also sell spirits – also called “hard liquor” – at least in New Mexico.
Another restriction is against selling alcohol on Sunday. Even in relatively cosmopolitan Albuquerque, you cannot buy alcohol on Sunday before noon. I guess morning is for religion but afternoon is for watching sports – a religion that cannot be practiced by many of its devotees without alcoholic stimulus.
ALAN: Again we used to have something similar but now, since the bars and shops and supermarkets are open seven days a week, that restriction too has completely disappeared. Interestingly, it still seems largely impossible to buy alcohol on Sunday in Australia – their liquor laws are much more restrictive than ours.
JANE: Supermarkets handle the Sunday restriction by putting a rope as a symbolic barrier between the public and the booze. I’ve often envisioned how it must be when a duly appointed clerk removes the rope and the panting customers rush in to get their supplies before the Big Game starts.
I believe that sales of alcohol are also regulated on Election Day, although I cannot remember right off if that’s all day or just part of the day. I think this one dates back to the bad old days when the custom was to get voters drunk and then encourage them to vote for your candidate.
ALAN: That’s bizarre! In our elections, touting for votes in any way, shape or form on election day is illegal and anyone found trying to influence the voters in that manner would quickly find themselves in court facing stiff penalties. Even the hoardings have to come down the day before the election.
JANE: Uh, hoardings? That doesn’t have anything to do with dragons, does it?
ALAN: Hoardings are synonymous with billboards. But I tend to think of hoardings as temporary structures (often raised in people’s front gardens), whereas I think of billboards as somehow being more permanent.
JANE: Certainly the days when voters would get drunk at the candidates expense are over, but billboards and signs remain up. The only restriction is that any such must be moved a relatively short distance from the polling places – I think a hundred feet.
Another restriction on drinking surrounds the legal age to drink. These rulings can get confusing in the extreme as, once again, they vary from state to state. When I was in college in New York State, the legal drinking age for wine and beer was 18, but 21 for hard liquor. I assure you, students can get quite “pissed” on beer and wine. They just need to process more liquid to do so.
Later, I believe still during my college career, the law was changed to 21 for all types of alcoholic beverages. This was really annoying for those students who, at 18, had been legally permitted to get trashed, but now could not do so. Did this stop them?
ALAN: Of course it didn’t! Our legal drinking age has oscillated a bit as well. Currently it is 18 but there are moves afoot to try and raise it again. Part of the problem here is our tradition of the six-o’clock swill. It used to be that the bars all closed at 6.00pm. And so everyone would leave work dead on the dot of 5.00pm, race down to the nearest bar and spend the next hour hurling as much beer down their necks as they could manage before they got chucked out into the street.
The six-o’clock swill is long gone now, but the culture of binge drinking that it encouraged is still very much with us and many people, particularly young people, seem to think that the best way to spend an evening is to get paralytic as quickly as possible and then spend the rest of the night throwing up, picking fights and driving very fast.
I doubt that raising the drinking age again would stop this behaviour. That would require a cultural change rather than a legal change
JANE: I’m a little confused here. Is the six-o’clock swill a New Zealand thing? I’m sure I’ve read British novels where “last call” (as in the title of the Tim Powers novel we discussed a few weeks back) comes much later.
ALAN: Yes – the six-o’clock swill is completely Antipodean. The British licensing laws are something else again. They were originally introduced at the start of WWI because the Prime Minister (David Lloyd George) didn’t want the munitions workers to be too drunk to make artillery shells. And so the pubs closed mid-afternoon, re-opened in the early evening and closed again at 10.30pm. All that nonsense was finally done away with early this century and now, as I understand it, pretty much anything goes.
JANE: I really like the historical roots to that. Here I’d love to know the source of some of our really weird regulations. When I moved to New Mexico in 1994, it was illegal for a liquor store to sell a drink in a glass. However, in some parts of the state, there were liquor stores with drive up windows where it was possible to purchase a bottle and a glass – complete with ice.
ALAN: I can’t match that! But I do have a strange term for you to ponder. Sly grog refers to the illegal sale of liquor, often homemade (with an implication of poor quality). It is sold from unlicensed premises and, of course, the government gets no revenue at all. Sly grog has also largely vanished now. It was another reaction to the lunacy of the six-o’clock swill, but since you can now legally buy alcohol here twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, there seems little point in it any more. I suppose that sly grog shops were the equivalent of the American speakeasy. I think it is a lovely phrase, beautifully descriptive.
JANE: Moonshine is our poetic equivalent for illegal liquor – probably because it was made at night, by moonlight. Other names for illegal liquor are far less attractive: hooch, bathtub gin, rotgut. Home brewing remains a tradition, though. You can easily buy kits for making your own beer and wine. Occasionally, the amateurs become professionals. My friend Pati Nagle’s brother Darragh has a small but successful meadery – nice stuff, light, not thick or sweet.
That reminds me… A week or so ago, we were discussing how when a local gem gets taken over by larger businesses, so often what was unique is lost. I’d like to ask you about local gems next time…