Exploring the Perils of Bathtub Gin: A Dive into Prohibition's Dark Side

Before we plunge into the murky depths of bathtub gin – not literally, mind you – let's clear up any confusion between bathtub gin and Bathtub Gin. One is a dubious concoction churned out by bootleggers during America's Prohibition era, while the other is a distinguished brand of gin crafted with cold compounding techniques. Got it? Great.

Contrary to popular belief, bathtub gin isn't directly linked to the infamous Gin Craze that swept through 18th century London, as immortalized in Hogarth's iconic print 'Gin Lane.' This historical phenomenon stemmed from a convergence of factors, including abundant grain harvests, deregulation of the distilling industry, and hefty taxes on imported brandy, resulting in a deluge of gin flooding the streets.

Gin Lane Bathtub Gin Hogarth’s Gin Lane, devoid of any bathtub gin antics

During this tumultuous period, gin production was no longer confined to established distillers but was taken up by amateur enthusiasts, leading to a surge in availability and consumption. By 1742, gin consumption skyrocketed to a staggering 19 million gallons annually, with much of the spirit being of dubious quality, often tainted with harmful additives like turpentine.

But hold on – what exactly is bathtub gin?

To uncover the origins of this notorious libation, we must delve into the annals of 20th-century American history. With the enactment of the Volstead Act in October 1919, followed by the National Prohibition Act the subsequent year, the sale and production of alcohol in America were abruptly outlawed, save for a few exemptions for medicinal purposes. This draconian legislation thrust the nation's alcohol industry into the hands of criminals overnight, spawning a thriving underground market of speakeasies and bootleggers.

Prohibition bathtub gin speakeasy "Mine’s a Dry Martini, easy on the sulphuric acid"

But what libations graced the tables of these clandestine establishments? While the affluent may have indulged in smuggled Scotch whisky or Champagne, the majority resorted to less savory alternatives. Industrial ethanol, often diluted and flavored with dubious ingredients, served as the base for ersatz "gin" and "whiskey," while clandestine distillers peddled homemade spirits laced with toxic compounds like methanol, posing severe health risks to imbibers.

So, why was bathtub gin so perilous?

In the worst-case scenario, unsuspecting drinkers could be consuming spirits contaminated with lethal substances, leading to fatalities or debilitating health issues. Compounds like tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, found in a concoction known as Jamaican ginger or "Jake," caused paralysis and earned its victims the notorious "Jake walk." Songs lamenting the perils of Jake, such as the haunting "Jake Leg Blues," are a testament to the era's grim reality.

But was bathtub gin actually brewed in bathtubs?

Contrary to the name, most of these concoctions weren't brewed in literal bathtubs but rather in makeshift containers, reflecting the amateurish nature of illicit alcohol production during Prohibition.

As for imbibing these hazardous libations, cocktails of the era leaned towards sweetness and fruitiness, masking the harsh flavors of inferior spirits. Notorious gangster Al Capone favored the Southside, a concoction of gin, lemon, sugar, and mint, while the Bronx cocktail, featuring orange juice, sweet vermouth, and gin, gained popularity.

So there you have it – the cautionary tale of bathtub gin. Thankfully, we now have access to professionally crafted spirits, like Bathtub Gin, ensuring a safer and more enjoyable imbibing experience. Cheers to progress and leaving the perilous past behind!

Image credits: Masters of Malt and Naught Distilling