New York has a fascinating history when it comes to alcohol. With nationwide Prohibition, legalizing the sale and production of liquor in this state and many others has been a wild ride. In this guide to the history of alcohol in New York, we’ll cover three significant periods — pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and the end of Prohibition.
During this era, New York housed thousands of saloons that became popular spots for men to gather, chew tobacco, gamble and drink. Many of these saloons were run-down, dimly lit and foul-smelling. They became rampant with thieves, vagrants and streetwalkers. Saloon environments were crude and hostile, and fights would break out regularly.
The Raines Law of 1896 was designed to end businesses such as these. It enacted the following regulations, among others:
- The cost of an annual liquor license was raised to $800 — three times what it had cost before.
- Saloons could not open within 200 feet of a church or school.
- The New York drinking age was raised from 16 to 18.
- Saloons could no longer serve free lunches.
- The sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited on Sundays except in hotels that served guests drinks as part of complimentary meals.
The Sunday drinking ban, in particular, was disliked by many. This was the only recreational day for many men, as most of them worked six-day weeks. To ensure saloon owners followed this rule, the law required them to keep their curtains open every Sunday.
Bars responded to the Raines Law with a rather bizarre approach. They created a cheap, inedible sandwich called the “Raines sandwich.” The sandwich was crafted with two stale pieces of bread and old cheese or ham. Other times, they would put some rubber or even brick between the two pieces of bread. There was no specific recipe — it was simply a mixture of whatever leftover foods or inedible items they had on hand.
The sandwich’s ingredients weren’t the most jarring thing about them — it was their reusability. A server would bring out a Raines sandwich with each drink order, then pair the same sandwich with the following order and bring it to another table. Some of these sandwiches remained in circulation for over a week.
This distasteful sandwich allowed bars to exploit a loophole in Raines Law — only lodging establishments that served complimentary meals could sell liquor on Sundays, so saloons obtained hotel licenses and rented out space above their taverns so they could serve alcohol with their free “sandwiches.” The saloons became known as “Raines hotels” and began to open everywhere. This loophole and law continued into the early 20th century, ceasing when Prohibition began.
When was alcohol illegal in New York? If you’re familiar with the Prohibition era, you likely know this time was characterized by the 18th Amendment, which illegalized the manufacture, sale and transportation of all alcohol. Prohibition was enacted in 1920 and lasted until 1933.
The purpose of Prohibition, also known as the “Noble Experiment,” was to reduce crime, social issues and heavy taxes created by prisons and poorhouses. Additionally, it aimed to improve overall health and hygiene in America. The 18th Amendment was mainly passed to protect families — many women believed that alcohol was a root cause for domestic abuse, divorce and marriage problems.
How Did Prohibition Affect New York?
Overall, this movement showed more success in rural Western and Southern states than it did in urban states. Though one of the law’s main goals was to lower the country’s crime rate, Prohibition in New York City had the opposite results.
While the state’s liquor consumption decreased at the start of Prohibition, it began to rise more with each passing year. The banning of alcohol increased bootlegging, a term for the illegal production and sale of alcohol. It also produced many illegal drinking spots such as nightclubs and liquor stores — these illicit establishments became known as “speakeasies.”
Prohibition also brought extended corruption to the highest levels of government. Harry Daugherty, the U.S. attorney general at the time, was guilty of illegally selling alcohol and granting pardons and licenses to offenders. He would accept bribes from other bootleggers as well.
Because gangs, violence and organized crime grew rampant in the city due to Prohibition, prison and court systems were stretched to the breaking point, and support for this law had plummeted considerably by the late 1920s.
End of Prohibition
1933 marked the end of the Prohibition era. After seeing the negative effects of Prohibition on the public, Congress passed a proposed 21st Amendment which officially repealed the unpopular nationwide prohibition laws of the 18th Amendment.
In December 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech proclaiming the ratification of the 21st Amendment. He also reminded the country’s citizens to drink responsibly and not abuse this new freedom they had.
Lowered Drinking Age
When did New York change the drinking age? Let’s look at a brief timeline of the New York drinking age history.
- 1933: With the ratification of the 21st Amendment and the end of Prohibition, states had the freedom to set their own drinking age. Most states chose 21, including New York.
- 1971: After the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, most states — including New York — lowered their drinking age to 18 as well.
- 1982: Due to a high number of state driving fatalities, New York raised its drinking age from 18 to 19.
- 1984: Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that required states to increase their drinking age to 21, or they would lose 10% of their highway funds. As a result, New York raised its drinking age to 21.
National Minimum Drinking Age
Today, the national minimum drinking age remains 21. Thanks to the repeal of Prohibition, New York’s alcohol industry continues to flourish. The state is now home to various wineries and distilleries for visitors to sample delicious wines and spirits, book tours and experience their complete distilling and winemaking processes.
Additionally, many classic New York cocktails such as the Manhattan, Martini and Cosmopolitan are enjoyed each day in this state and across the country.
Browse Wine and Spirits at Marketview Liquor
After learning about the ups and downs of the liquor industry and these defining moments in history, it’s easy to appreciate the opportunity we have to enjoy great wines, liquors and spirits.
At Marketview Liquor, we strive to provide delicious and flavorful spirits made from fresh, natural ingredients. Perhaps you’re looking to satisfy your wine cravings with a rich red, elegant white or sparkling wine. On the other hand, maybe you’re searching for a hearty whiskey, bourbon or scotch spirit to drive your tastebuds wild with flavor. No matter your desired taste or sweetness level, we’ve got you covered at Marketview Liquor. Browse our selection of wines and spirits today!