Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Five Questions for Garrett Peck

Next Saturday, December 5, is the second Repeal Day Ball, the party put on the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, which celebrates the 76th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. I attended last year's festivities, and it was one of the best parties of the year.

The Repeal Day Ball will be held at PS7's, which means snacks from Peter Smith, one of my favorite D.C. chefs. The theme is the "Spirit of '76," so expect members of the guild to be dressed as the founding fathers. Tickets are $100 (VIP $150). Click here to order tickets.

I recently chatted with Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover, about the social history of alcohol in America, who lives in the area. Peck will be giving his Temperance Tour the day of the Ball, and he answered five questions for me.

AC: What's the appeal with celebrating the end of Prohibition?

GP: It was such a huge success last year and really fun. All these bartenders came last year, like Jeffrey Morgenthaler from Portland, and people from Philly and New York.  There’s also a wider appeal — there’s a whole nostalgia now for that era, with funny waistcoats and groovy facial hair and old cocktails. This was only 76 years ago. It’s still incredible that we changed the constitution to deal with alcohol and then changed it back. It’s fun to celebrate the quirky past of American history.

AC: Are you helping with this year’s Repeal Day Ball in any way?

GP: I’m definitely going, but my piece is to do the Temperance Tour earlier that day.

AC: What are some spots you hit on the Temperance Tour? How often do you do them?

GP: I do them at least twice a year through Walking Town D.C., which handles the marketing. This year, Derek Brown asked me to lead it in conjunction with the ball. We start at Cogswell Temperance Fountain on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and the Capitol. It’s a symbolic location. Then we walk up to Chinatown and the Cavalry Baptist Church where the Anti-Saloon League held their first convention in 1895. They got the 18th amendment passed and existed for 40 years. We end at Woodrow Wilson’s house. He was the only president to retire in D.C. and he was also president when Prohibition went into effect. You get to see Wilson’s wine cellar, which was hauled over from the White House.

AC: D.C. seems to just be a cocktail city, though more beer-centric places are opening. Do you think D.C. will ever really become beer-friendly?

GP: Beer is still what the majority of Americans drink, though not so much in D.C. Drinking culture here is centered around spirits at happy hour or wine at dinner, and we don’t have a huge beer culture unlike in New England. Boston is a beer-drinking city, and New York is a heavy cocktail city.

Generation is also a factor — I’m a gen x-er, and overall we’re beer drinkers, though now that we have more disposable income, we like fine Scotch, bourbon and wine. Each generation won’t stick with the same drink their whole lives.

The way the economy is now, we’re shifting where we buy drinks and reassessing what value means. A lot of people are saying, 'Do I need a $65 bottle of wine? Is it that much better than the $20 bottle?'

AC: How did you happen to study American drinking culture and write a book on it?

GP: I had an epiphany moment for the book during Christmas 2003. I brought a bottle of wine, and my grandmother got snooty. ‘What are you doing bringing wine? You know I don’t drink!’

A light bulb went off. My mother and I both drink, but why didn’t my grandmother’s value about temperance get passed on? She was born in 1913 and was taught that alcohol was sinful and wrong. I thought – that’s a subtle but huge social change in American society.

Photo by Manuel Claros

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