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Discover the Forbidden Art of Bathtub Gin Making

Step back into the shadowy days of Prohibition, an era defined by rebellious spirit and clandestine creativity. From 1920 to 1933, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages were banned in the United States. However, this did not stifle America's thirst for alcohol. Instead, it sparked a nationwide wave of ingenuity and defiance, leading to the birth of the infamous "bathtub gin."

gin and tonic

A Desperate Measure: The Origins of Bathtub Gin

As the roaring '20s surged forward, Americans found inventive ways to quench their thirst for spirits. One of the most notable methods was the production of homemade gin in less-than-ideal conditions, often within the confines of their own bathrooms. This makeshift approach earned the product its evocative name: "bathtub gin."

The term "bathtub gin" captures the essence of this underground movement. It originated from the crude, do-it-yourself spirit-making techniques that emerged during the Prohibition era. Deprived of professional distilleries, people resorted to creating their own alcohol-based drinks. The quality of these homemade concoctions varied, but their appeal lay in their sheer availability.

The Genna Brothers and Their Illicit Empire

In Chicago's Little Italy, the Genna brothers capitalized on Prohibition’s demand for illicit alcohol. They provided residents with one-gallon copper stills, or "alky cookers," allowing families to produce homemade liquor in their kitchens. The Gennas supplied the necessary corn sugar and yeast, creating a mini-economy of illegal booze.

Each day, the Gennas' henchmen collected the homemade alcohol, paying the families $15 per day – roughly $188 in today’s money. The gang then sold the product to speakeasies for $6 per gallon, a significant markup considering it cost them only 50 to 75 cents to produce each gallon. In New York, gangster Frankie Yale employed a similar scheme, paying Italian-Americans in Brooklyn to operate alky cookers.

The Art of Moonshining

These family moonshiners were just a fraction of the many illegal alcohol producers during Prohibition. Equipped with small stills, they fermented "mash" from ingredients like corn sugar, fruits, beets, and even potato peels to produce high-proof alcohol. A touch of juniper oil was often added for flavor. However, this potent brew was far from palatable and needed to be watered down by half to become drinkable.

The makeshift bottles used were often too tall to fit under the kitchen sink spout, leading to the use of the bathtub faucet – thus giving the infamous concoction its name.

The Birth of the Cocktail Culture

The taste of bathtub gin was notoriously harsh, and few could stomach it in its pure form. This led bartenders in speakeasies to mix it with various ingredients to mask its unpleasant flavor. Bitters, soda pop, juices, and fruit garnishes became the gin's best friends, transforming it into something more palatable.

While mixed drinks existed long before Prohibition, the era's speakeasies made the cocktail an essential part of the drinking culture. Bathtub gin, in its myriad disguises, played a pivotal role in popularizing the cocktail.

Modern Day Bathtub Gin

Today, making your own gin infusion at home has become a creative hobby rather than an act of defiance. With a bottle of commercial alcohol, some fresh fruit, sugar, and a bit of patience, anyone can recreate the spirit of the Roaring Twenties without the risk of a police raid. This modern interpretation of bathtub gin pays homage to the ingenuity and resilience of those who lived through Prohibition.

The tale of bathtub gin is a testament to human creativity and the indomitable spirit of those who refuse to be deprived of life's pleasures. From its origins in the bathtubs of the Prohibition era to its modern-day reincarnation, bathtub gin remains a symbol of rebellion, ingenuity, and the timeless desire for a good drink. So next time you enjoy a gin cocktail, raise your glass to the underground artisans who, out of necessity, turned their bathrooms into distilleries and kept the party going through America's dry years.


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