Starting this Sunday, PBS airs a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz). Apparently not all the Beachbum’s friends are in low places, because he was recently sent a preview copy.
This time Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick, but all the usual Burns trademarks are there: compelling archival footage, equally compelling photos, and an epic narrative personalized with stories of famous, infamous, and anonymous people caught in the undertow of American history.
In this case the history is of American drinking, and what happened to it when the decades-long crusade of temperance activists resulted in the Volstead Act. Prohibition makes an admirable companion piece to what is still the best book on the subject, Herbert Asbury’s 1950 The Great Illusion. The film serves up some delicious ironies, such as that temperance groups were segregated by both race and gender, and that one bootlegger’s biggest weekly delivery was to the chambers of the U.S. Senate; we also learn that drinking was so pervasive in the early years of the Republic that instead of coffee breaks, American workers took “grog breaks.”
Prohibition clocks in at around 6 hours. That makes it a short subject for Burns, who spent 18 hours on baseball and almost 19 on jazz. Which brings us to our sole quibble: like baseball and jazz, the cocktail was an American cultural phenomenon. While long on the political, economic, and sociological consequences of Prohibition, nowhere in Prohibition’s 346 minutes do Burns and Novick find time to discuss Prohibition’s effect on the cocktail itself: how making alcohol illegal between 1920 and 1933 almost destroyed the American mixed drink as a culinary art form.
We could have used a little less about Al Capone (a History Channel perennial) and a little something about the diaspora of America’s mixologists to Havana, London, and Paris — which, coupled with the ghastly drink recipes concocted in speakeasies to mask the taste of bootleg liquor, drastically set back cocktail culture in the country where the cocktail first gained prominence.
On the other hand, as spirits journalist Camper English has pointed out, the vacuum created by Prohibition was filled by Don The Beachcomber and his Tiki drinks — which may never have happened at all if U.S. cocktail bars had continued purring along without the rude interruption of Andrew Volstead and company.
For screening times and DVD info: