Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Not exactly what you would expect to read--but that was the headline in the London Evening News 75 years ago this week. In November 1933, Utah was the last state needed (the 36th) to approve the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition.

Needless to say, the state with the largest number of LDS voters--all taught to avoid alcohol in any form--became unlikely heroes to "wets" (drinkers) across the nation. According to a recent story in the Salt Lake Tribune, as voters went to the polls to vote on local races as well as the amendment, LDS Church President Heber Grant even told Mormons: "I am not asking any man to vote against his conscience, but I am urging that before he votes for repeal he gets down on his knees and asks God if he is doing right."

Nonetheless, the long, misguided, national nightmare came to an end in Zion. Why? Economics were one big factor. There was money to be made in distillation and fermentation, as the longstanding beer and liquor industry in Utah suggested. That profits increased during Prohibition caught the attention of many. In the midst of the Great Depression, the state would profit from moving the underground liquor economy to a legal, taxable one.

Furthermore, many Utahns were not Mormon. White ethnics in the mines south of Salt Lake City, as well as Gentiles in the railroad and industrial town of Ogden were just two non-LDS populations with a sizable voice (and interest in regaining access to legal booze). Finally, Mormons themselves were only a generation removed from socially-acceptable drinking. Thomas Alexander, the current dean of LDS historians, argues in his book Mormonism in Transition (1986) that the Word of Wisdom, which banned alcoholic drink among true believers, was evenly enforced within the LDS church only in the early 1900s. Even then, some of the faithful were known to bend the rules if the good stuff was within reach.

For a little taste of this history, pour yourself some rye tonight. If you're really feeling historic, make it a rye and ginger. Regardless, raise your glass to the clear-eyed, dyed-in-the-wool patriotic voters of Utah (circa 1933) that delivered us all from darkness and brought us back into the light. Take a long, satisfying sip. And then take a look at this.


DrDaRyL said...

Booze and Utah, like jumbo shrimp.

Nineteenth-century Mormons (including Brigham Young) were like-as-not to enjoy a stiff drink every now and then--brandy or wine for Bro Brigham (according to Wallace Stegner), but Valley Tan for the common Saints [I like that oxymoron, or is it oxymormon?].

Mark Twain reported that "Valley tan (or, at least, one form of valley tan) is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone." Likely a rough distillate of wheat and potatoes, it definitely wasn't the "good stuff," but it made Saints into sinners (and vice-versa).

Utah still lacks the good stuff. Rye Drinker, see what you can do to get the good folks at Templeton to put us on their shipping list. We need it more than Minnesotans.

Finally, a salute to Bernard DeVoto, Utah's bastard child, historian and curmudgeon, champion of the perfect cocktail and poet of The Hour. Cheers!

A rye-drinker said...

Thanks, DrDaRyL (a real Utah historian), for giving us the straight skinny on "Valley Tan."

As for Bernard deVoto, you know we here at Rye Whiskey is for Patriots see him as a patron saint. Perhaps there should be a post about that...

Seth R. said...

I remember reading a paper on the evolution of the Mormon doctrine on the "Word of Wisdom" as it is called.

It started out as a recommendation from God (if you believe there is such a thing). Even the language in Mormon scripture - to this day - reads "not by way of commandment..."

From that point it saw highly sporadic enforcement. Even top ranked Church leaders were known to use chewing tobacco or alcohol. The move to a more hardline stance was gradual. But I think that it was Heber J. Grant (the prophet you mentioned) himself who really made the push for the Word of Wisdom to become a hard commandment rather than just a "divine suggestion."

Today, of course, abstinence from alcohol and tobacco is a requirement for full LDS participation.

Of course, the part of the Word of Wisdom in LDS scriptures about eating healthy and avoiding meat consumption is steadfastly ignored...

SwampApe said...

Well, leave it to me to take this discussion down a few notches with a joke. But its appropriate for both this subject and the holiday season!

"Many Christians don't recognize Hanukhah, many Jews don't recognize Christmas . . . and most Mormons don't recognize each other in the liquor store!"

Seth R. said...

Well, as kid who grew up in Southern Utah during the 1980s, I will note that there seemed to be an awful lot of beer cans in evidence around fire pits in the backwoods and during the annual Deer Hunt for a locale that was supposedly 90% Mormon.

The adults at Church blamed it on the "Gentiles" from out of state.

Best just leave it there I guess...

DrDaRyL said...

It's the same as:
Q: Why should you bring two Mormons fishing with you?
A: Because if you bring only one, he'll drink all your beer.
[I might add, "and the other one will be busy marrying your wife, and daughter, and sister, and niece..."]

It's a JOKE. But sometimes fact is stranger than truth.

BTW, if you're a real historian geek (as I know Rye Drinker and SwampApe are) you'll need to know that "valley tan" appeared the first year in Utah as a reference for anything home-manufactured. Locally (valley) tanned leather for harnesses and shoes was an early example and probably where the term originated. Utah's second newspaper (1858-60) was the "Valley Tan." But man/woman doesn't live by leather or newspapers or Mormon crickets alone, so...

In the spirit of producing locally, fire up that still, DeVerle, and make your own gosh darn Valley Tan. Or just place an order through Binny's for The Good Stuff.