Bathtub Gin marks our South African version of Prohibition

Imagine a lockdown lasting 14 years… a total ban on the manufacturing, sale and transportation of alcohol.  Too horrifying to even contemplate?

Not so fast – history proves the reality of such misery. During the fourteen years between 1919 and 1933 the US government did just that under the United States Constitution’s Eighteenth amendment.

Substantial pressure from the Temperance Movement in the US had resulted in the National Prohibition Act being effected on 16 January 1920. While Prohibition may have been successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, it certainly was successful in undermining society by other means as rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity took flight.

On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt amended the act, allowing the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages. On 5 December Eighteenth Amendment was repealed and the world once more returned to relative normality.

Gin in a bathtub…

What happened during those 14 years? For one, it gave raise to Bathtub Gin, which today actually refers to any style of homemade spirits which is made under amateur conditions. The term first appeared in 1920, in reference to the frightful potions which were created in people’s homes (sound familiar?)

As gin was the most popular and prevalent drink during the 1920s, thirsty consumers became creative by making a mash from corn or sugar, fruit or even potato peels. Using small stills they produced 200-proof alcohol, which was mixed with a range of flavourings and elements such as juniper berry juice and glycerine.

To turn this highly potent liquid into a rank “gin”, it had to be watered down by half. But where to find a big enough vessel? The metal and ceramic bathtubs used at the time proved ideal – they were large enough to mix a decent amount to supply friends and family, but small enough to go undetected by the police. And voila – bathtub gin.

It also has to be said that many gin cocktails owe their existence to bathtub gin, as they were often created to cover up the unpleasant taste!

Fast forward to exactly 100 years later, to Covid-19 and a series of government imposed bans on the sale, distribution and transport of alcohol.  

It is against this miserable backdrop that entrepreneur par excellence, Ansie de Beer, rose to new creative and innovative heights and produced South Africa’s own version of bathtub gin – the award winning Bootlegger Prohibition Gin.

“This gin was born during Covid-19,” she says, reassuringly explaining that it wasn’t made in her bathtub! “I effectively created a compound gin rather than redistilling. The distillate was infused with orange and a selection of other botanicals, finally creating an extraordinary gin with earthy spices and a lingering finish of orange.