Liquor in the 20th Century: History of Distilled Spirits Timeline

Liquor in the 20th century underwent major challenges. The biggest was prohibition. During the early 20th century some countries established, and later repealed, prohibition. They included Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States. Referenda to establish prohibition failed in Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden.1

Liquor in the 20th Century & Beyond by Date

Canada began its prohibition.2


  • Vodka accounted for 89.3% of the total alcohol consumed in Russia.3
  • Iceland established prohibition.4
  • The Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group,  began as the  Wine & Spirit Brand Association.


  • Consumption of absinthe increased when phylloxera destroyed much of France’s wine production. ‘Only in the first years of the twentieth century, when viticulture flourished once more in Languedoc, did wine growers begin to blame absinthe for the poor sales of their own product.’ Consequently, ‘An anti-absinthe movement gradually came into being: the Academie de Medecine demanded a ban in 1903, and other scientific and temperance organizations supported the cause.’5
    In 1914, France yielded to pressure from wine producers and banned the sale of absynthe.6
  • ‘During the First World War, the English army was fortified primarily with rum, the German with schnapps and brandy, and the French with cheap wine.’7
  • Russia imposed prohibition.8

The Danish West Indies, the source of Denmark’s widely used rum, was sold and the price of rum increased sharply. Within five years Denmark became a beer-drinking (rather than spirits-drinking one) country and remains so today.9


  • Both Norway and Finland established prohibition.10
  • A prohibition referendum failed in New Zealand.11


  • liquor in the 20th century‘Unlike the saloons they replaced, speakeasies were patronized by both sexes.’12
  • ‘Cocktails spread from the public [speakeasies] to the private [home] sphere during Prohibition’ in the U.S.13
  •  ‘Reversing a historic pattern, hard liquor took the place of beer, contributing about two-thirds of total alcohol consumption by the end of the 1920s
    because of National Prohibition in the U.S.14

The U.S. imposed prohibition.

A prohibition referendum failed in Sweden.15  

The National Distillers Products Corporation was formed and began buying the alcohol stock of defunct distillers. When prohibition ended, it owned over half of the aged whiskey in the U.S.16

Russia repealed prohibition.17

Norway repealed prohibition.18

liquor in the 20th century1930s
‘Starting in the 1930s, cocktain parties became popular forms of entertainment This is also when the social practice of having a drink (or two or three) before dinner became widespread [around the world].’19

A prohibition referendum failed in Australia.20

Both Iceland and Finland repealed prohibition.21

The U.S. repealed prohibition.

“Cocktails for Hitler.”  These weren’t drinks at all. During World War II, distillers in the U.S. shifted production to industrial alcohol for the war effort. Thus, they said they were making “cocktails for Hitler.’22

Late 1940s-1950s

  •  ‘By the late 1940s and 1950s, cocktail rituals were woven into the fabric of the dominant culture’¦’ in the U.S.23
  • ‘Drinking’¦began to shift from an occasional, often public, act to one that was incorporated into daily life in the home as a marker and accompaniment of leisure.’24

The last Canadian province to repeal prohibition, Prince Edward Island, did so.25

The U.S. Congress declared bourbon whiskey the country’s official distilled spirit. It also laid out the specific regulations that are to be met in order to label a whiskey as bourbon.26

The last U.S. state to repeal prohibition, Mississippi, did so.27

The U.S. federal excise tax on alcohol had risen so high that a moonshiner could produce and sell it for half the amount of the tax alone.28  

Three trade groups, the Bourbon Institute, the Distilled Spirits Institute, and the Licensed Beverage Industries, Inc. merged. That formed the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).

The European Union (EU) introduced crisis distillation for use in emergencies caused by excess production of wine. However, it operated in 22 of the 26 years following years.29


  • The American Whiskey Trail was launched to promote many historical sites and operating distilleries.
  • The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism released a major paper. It serves as the National Institute of Health’s official position on the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.30

Vodka outsold whiskey in the U.S.31

France lifted its 96 year ban on absinthe.32

The U.S. Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recognized cachaca (distilled from fresh sugarcane juice) as a distilled spirit distinct from rum (distilled from molasses).33  Therefore, producers will no longer be forced to label their product as ‘Brazilian rum’ when sold in that country.

The Irish Whisky Association, a trade group,  was formed.

Resources for Liquor in the 20th Century & Beyond

Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History.   Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948.

Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008.

Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Putnam’s: 1973.

Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition. NY: Knopf, 1925.

1  Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003, xxxi-xiv.

2 Blocker, ibid.

3  Sidorov, P. Russia. In: Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995..  Pp. 237-253. P. 239.

4 Blocker, ibid.

5  Sournia, J.-C. A History of Alcoholism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 76 and p. 753.

6 Blocker, ibid.

7  Lukacs, P.  Inventing Wine. NY: Norton, 2012,  p. 191.

8  Blocker, ibid.

9 Schioler, P. Denmark. In: Heath. Pp. 51-62. Pp. 54-55.

10  Blocker, ibid.

11 Blocker, ibid.

12  Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008, p. 376.

13  Gately, p. 377.

14  Blocker, J. Kaleidoscope in Motion. Drinking in the United States, 1400-2000. In:Holt. M., (ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 2006. Pp. 225-240. P. 232.

15 Blocker, 2003, ibid.

16 Blocker, 2003,  xlii.

17  Blocker,  2003, xxxi-xiv.

18  Blocker, 2003, ibid.

19  Lukacs, p. 197.

2o   Blocker, 2003, xxxi-xiv.

21   Blocker, 2003, ibid.

22   Lyman, H. The Science and Art of Wine Making. Course at State U of New York at Binghamton, 1996.

23  Blocker, J., 2006, p. 234.

24 Blocker, J, 2006, p. 235.

25  Blocker, 2003, ibid.

26   Defining ‘Bourbon.’ The State (SC), 5-1-02, p. D1.

27  Holder, H., and Cherpitel, C. The End of U.S. Prohibition: A Case Study of Mississippi. Contemp Drug Prob, 1996, 23(2), 301-330, p. 301.

28  Nelson, D. Moonshiners, Bootleggers, & Rumrunners. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, 1995. Fascinating coverage of liquor in the 20th century.

29   Gately, p. 476.

30  It’s official: The benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are confirmed. AIM Digest, 2004, 13(3), 1, 10 & 12.

31  Nisen, M. All hail king whiskey. The Atlantic, 2014.

32  AIM Digest, 2011, 30(2), p. 2.

33 Simonson, R. Cachaca.  New York Times, July 10, 2012. Morgan, B. Brazilian Cachaca. TED Case Study #721.