Over the weekend, images began to circulate online of what can only be described as boozy Tide Pods. Dubbed “The Glenlivet Capsule Collection” in a winking reference to limited-edition high-end fashion lines, these pods are clear, ice-cube-size pouches filled with mini whiskey cocktails. They come in three flavors, all photographed on a small, stately platform in front of a bottle of scotch. Pop one in your mouth, burst it with your tongue, and get an amuse-bouche of flavor. People on the internet immediately started discussing whether it was possible to put the pods in their butts.
The pods are a super-limited promotional item, available in a single bar during London Cocktail Week, which ends on Sunday. They were devised by the staid scotch brand The Glenlivet and the award-winning bartender Alex Kratena, who have said the capsules, which are bound by seaweed protein, are a stunt of sustainability marketing. Such boring strictures of reality did not prevent people from making jokes about how the pods would soon be omnipresent at outdoor concerts and frat houses. The pods drew quick comparisons to everything from Jell-O shots to Gushers fruit snacks, in addition to the laundry-detergent capsules that became a meme in 2018 after several dozen teens ate them on YouTube.
Many other people looked upon the scotch pods and saw nothing but pure, open-container-law-circumventing brilliance. The capsules seemed perfect for sneaking booze into nearly anywhere. When asked whether the pods were intended to be a futuristic evolution of the flask, a representative for The Glenlivet seemed vaguely horrified and assured me that the capsules were intended to be consumed by adults as a novelty during the week’s cocktail convention. They’re “almost like a cocktail version of El Bulli’s spherical olive,” she said via email, apparently distressed that the internet had taken up a litany of less luxurious comparisons.
Still, The Glenlivet can’t really blame anyone for jumping to conclusions about the capsules’ best use. In America especially, Byzantine liquor laws have inspired do-it-yourself ingenuity from drinkers for a century. A seaweed pod would hardly be the weirdest method devised to imbibe discreetly.
The idea of translucent mini pouches swollen with alcohol sent me straight back to my freshman year at the University of Georgia, where I would pour Jim Beam into sandwich baggies with the other girls on my dorm hall. We’d duct-tape the bags to our thighs or nestle them in our bras, don our red-and-black sundresses, then head out to the weekend’s football game. At the time, league regulations prevented the sale of alcohol. We were 18 and broke, so we wouldn’t have been buying anyway.
William Rorabaugh, an alcohol historian and a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, told me that while my thigh-taping method of bourbon smuggling was new to him, the use of things like boot flasks date back at least to soldiers in the American Revolution. “For most of American history, alcohol was totally unregulated, so the obstacle to carrying it around from place to place was whether you had the money for a container,” he says. “You can find photographs of 8-year-old kids carrying growlers to saloons to bring beer home, and of course they’d sip some along the way.”
“We were an incredibly drunken culture,” Susan Cheever, the author of Drinking in America: Our Secret History, says of America’s early years. She cites the 1830s as the zenith of American drinking. This early history of drunkenness is often sanitized, she argues: Children aren’t taught the version of Paul Revere’s midnight ride that includes how drunk the militia was when the British eventually arrived, or that the pilgrims were sailing for Virginia but stopped at Plymouth, Massachusetts, because they were running out of beer. Nevertheless, heavy drinking was part of everyday life, and plenty of it was done publicly. “Farmers kept a bottle, and at the end of every row they had a drink,” Cheever says.
Industrialization helped pump the brakes on day drinking for some workers as more Americans took indoor jobs with standardized schedules in the 1800s. “[Farming] was incredibly hard, but if you fell down, it wasn’t a big deal,” Cheever says. “In a factory, if you fall into a piece of machinery, that’s not so forgiving.” During that time, people who hid liquor on their person mostly did so for practical reasons. “You didn’t want to carry a bottle that’s too visible because it made you a target for theft,” Rorabaugh explains. “So the idea of a hip flask or a flask that goes in the boot or is strapped around the thigh—those were pretty common.” In the 1800s, it wasn’t considered polite for women to drink, so they would often sneak their own liquor by filling up old perfume bottles.
Then, from 1920 to 1933, Prohibition outlawed alcohol sales and consumption throughout the country. In addition to rumrunners and bootleggers, who moved massive quantities of contraband alcohol into and throughout the country, everyday citizens became masters of alcohol disguise. “Egg farmers would empty out the eggs and fill them with whiskey,” says Cheever. Men hid small bottles under their hats. Hollow canes that could be filled with liquid became popular. Women’s decorative hat pins? Also hollowed and filled with booze. At home, false-bottomed lamps and flasks disguised within books were common. If you needed to move a whole bottle, you just nestled it under a sleeping baby in a carriage.
Rorabaugh says it wasn’t necessarily legal trouble that drinkers were trying to avoid in the 1920s by hiding their personal stashes. For most people caught with contraband, the penalty was merely a small fine. But “Prohibition bureau agents and local police could confiscate any liquor that they could find, and they could keep it. They didn’t have to turn it in to the court or anything,” Rorabaugh says. “The Prohibition bureau was stuffed full of alcoholics who were stealing liquor from people who weren’t supposed to have it, and that’s why people were trying to hide it.”
Once Prohibition ended, many of the state and municipal alcohol regulations that stand today became law across the country. Rorabaugh says changes made since then—including tighter open-container restrictions—are mostly the result of social advocacy from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which succeeded in raising the national drinking age to 21 from 18. Deaths from drunk driving have plummeted in the intervening decades, though rates for many other types of alcohol-related deaths remain high—and in some cases are rising.
Despite those grim numbers, America appears committed to proving that when there’s a will to get drunk in illicit places, there’s a way. Today, the proliferation of opaque, multiuse water bottles has made it easy to take plenty of wine to the park. Flasks remain in style for any occasion. Online shopping is a veritable treasure trove of cheap alcohol-concealment devices, from fillable “booze bellies” to hide under your clothing to stickers that make your beer cans look like soda while you imbibe at the beach. There’s also a classic college trick that requires no extra equipment: opening a soda, drinking some of it, and filling the bottle back up with the liquor pairing of your choice.
The Glenlivet’s limited-edition seaweed pods don’t seem to be made for anything but publicity, and that’s probably for the best—Americans don’t need any help drinking more. “We do really well getting drunk all by ourselves the old-fashioned way,” Cheever says. “We’re great at pouring it out of a bottle and drinking it out of a glass.”