The Four Horsemen May Charge Over the Earth—but Coca-Cola Will Remain

How alcohol prohibition made soda king

Within months of Prohibition’s introduction, drugstore soda fountains had replaced bars and taverns as the social epicenters of Main Street America. But it wasn't just soda drawing in the customers.

Under the Volstead Act, drugstores became the only place where alcohol could be purchased legally, provided it was for medicinal purposes. Strangely, the need for medicinal alcohol grew rapidly after Prohibition. In 1921 alone, pharmacists withdrew more than eight million gallons of medicinal whiskey from federal warehouses, twenty times the amount they dispensed before Prohibition. Soda fountains also did a roaring trade serving their regulars with drinks that were anything but soft. The J-Bar at the Hotel Jermone in Aspen, Colorado, reinvented itself as a soda fountain but spent most of its time whipping up Aspen Crud, a cocktail of vanilla ice cream soda laced with bourbon that became an illicit favorite with the Sunday after-church crowd.

The authorities weren't dumb. Soon drugstores were playing cat and mouse with the law enforcement agencies that began raiding pharmacies and seizing barrels of suspect medicine. In one 1929 raid, federal agents busted a soda fountain liquor ring in Meridian, Mississippi, after receiving reports that young men and women were “getting hilarious” on their Coca-Colas.

The fountains had been offering customers a mix of Coca-Cola and Jake, the most notorious black market liquor of all. Bootleg booze had a reputation for harshness and dubious ingredients, but Jake took the danger of illicit liquor to a whole new level. Formed from fermented Jamaican ginger, this perilous beverage contained an adulterant that was supposed to fool the feds but proved highly toxic. Within weeks of going on sale, the vicious drink had left an estimated 15,000 to 100,000 people impotent or partially paralyzed for life. The hobbling walk of those crippled by the drink became known as “Jake leg.”

But for the hip young things of the Jazz Age, the illegality and danger of moonshine were all part of the thrill and romance of Prohibition drinking. Alcohol was never far away from the rebellious bobbed-haired flappers and their male counterparts, the sheiks, as they swung their way through the Roaring Twenties. To counter the harsh burn of bootleg liquor they turned to soda-based cocktails or mixed drinks, which had been uncommon in the days before Prohibition, when soda was more often used as a chaser than as a mixer for alcohol. In speakeasies they would order “set ups” of cracked ice and ginger ale or club soda into which they could discreetly slip a measure of bathtub spirit from their handy and oh-so-chichi hip flasks. Cola may have overtaken ginger ale as America’s favorite fizz by the dawn of the Jazz Age, but the appeal of the latter as a mixer drove its sales to new highs in the 1920s.

It is often claimed that ginger ale was first developed in Ireland by the American apothecary Dr. Thomas Cantrell around 1850, but drinks bearing the same name were being advertised as early as 1818. Regardless of its exact origin, ginger ale was a variation on ginger beer, the sweet, dark, yeast-fermented drink that had become popular in Britain during the early 1800s. Initially there was little difference between ginger ale and ginger beer, but over time ginger ales evolved into ginger-flavored drinks carbonated with soda water rather than yeast that were clear rather than cloudy.

Ginger ale lived in the shadow of ginger beer for several years until the introduction of Cantrell’s Belfast ginger ale turned the drink into an American favorite. Cantrell’s drink inspired a wave of what are now called golden ginger ales. One of the drinks inspired by Cantrell was Vernor's, the 1866 creation of Detroit pharmacist James Vernor that gained a reputation for being so fizzy it caused people to sneeze. Vernor's ginger ale became a regional favorite in Detroit and Michigan and stands today as America’s oldest surviving soda brand.

The next leap forward for ginger ale came in 1900 courtesy of Canadian pharmacist John McLaughlin, the reserved Presbyterian son of a carriage maker from Enniskillen, Ontario. McLaughlin entered the soft drinks business in 1890 using the dowry from his marriage to Maud, a haughty redhead from a wealthy New York family, to open a Toronto store where he sold bottles of sarsaparilla, lemon, and cream soda under the brand name Sanitary. In 1900 he added a ginger ale to the range, but his wife and customers found his drink too syrupy for their tastes, so he began work on a lighter colored and less sweet version. Four years later he launched McLaughlin’s Pale Dry Style Ginger Ale, a new form of ginger ale that offered a lighter, less pungent taste. A year later he renamed it Canada Dry and, at his wife’s suggestion, started promoting it as “the champagne of ginger ales.”

(x-ray delta one/flickr)

Canada Dry spread rapidly through the Canadian provinces, and while most people drank it straight, McLaughlin’s dry ginger ale also gained a reputation as a mixer thanks to its mellow taste. In 1923 the drink’s appeal as a mixer prompted two businessmen, Perry Saylor and James Mathes, to buy the business for a cool million dollars. The Canadian-born Saylor and his American partner took Canada Dry into the United States with a direct appeal to Prohibition drinkers. They billed it as a New York nightclub favorite, sold it in miniature champagne-style bottles and rode the speakeasy boom to enormous success. In just four years Canada Dry went from selling 1.7 million bottles a year to more than 50 million in 1926. Almost everyone who bought Canada Dry used it as a mixer, with surveys suggesting that as many as three-quarters of ginger ale drinkers used it to mask the taste of bootleg liquor.

Ginger ale became so big during Prohibition that even the notorious gangster Al Capone got in on the act, setting up ginger ale and club soda bottling plants so that he could monopolize the mixer market in Chicago. He and his older brother Ralph “Bottles” Capone, who was put in charge of the mobster’s soda operation, made millions from the business. The marriage of soda and alcohol established during Prohibition would prove to be one of the temperance movement’s most enduring legacies, prompting a change in American drinking habits that still lingers on today.

But while Canada Dry built an empire in the speakeasies, Coca-Cola was enjoying even greater success. By the time Robert Woodruff took charge in 1923 the company was in great shape, with the challenges of the late 1910s resolved. The 1920s lay before the company ready for the taking, and Woodruff used this rosy inheritance to turn Coca-Cola into the epitome of modern business. During the first twenty-five years of his leadership, Coca-Cola would not just dominate the fizzy drink industry but transform how all businesses operated and weave its product into the very soul of America. Woodruff’s Coca-Cola captured the spirit of the 1920s. It was an age of bold dreams, expansive plans, and modernist thinking in which synthetic plastics, refrigeration, cars, color advertising, radio, airplanes, and telephones fundamentally reshaped the world. One of the fruits of this push for the modern was a vision of the corporate boss as a decision-maker reliant on the expert knowledge of PR specialists, lawyers, researchers, salespeople, and advertising creatives to run their businesses. Woodruff was nothing if not a professional manager. Under his stewardship Coca-Cola became a firm at the cutting edge of modernist corporate management.

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Tristan Donovan is the author of Replay: The History of Video Games and Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. He has written for The Sunday TimesThe Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, and The Big Issue.

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