By Clair McLafferty
Just about everything you’ve heard about Prohibition is, unfortunately, false.
Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s recent film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” and shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” the typical modern perspective on Prohibition is that it was a glamorous, glittery, and occasionally dangerous time for just about everyone.
But that wasn’t quite the truth. Most Americans who drank in speakeasies would likely have been drinking straight liquor, wine, or beer, depending on what was available. Alcohol was still available for legal purchase, but only with a prescription, and alcohol could legally be consumed recreationally in the comfort of your own home.
Most importantly, cocktail culture wasn’t born in the 1920s. It had been in full swing for about half a century when Prohibition hit America, and a generation of bartenders moved abroad or retrained as pharmacists or soda jerks. Until the resurgence of the craft cocktail movement in the late 1990s, recipes, techniques, and products common in pre-Prohibition America were difficult to find – or no longer existed at all.
The Noble Experiment, as Prohibition was sometimes called, began on January 17, 1920, with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although it was mostly repealed by the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, its effects have lingered to present day, especially in the South. Some states, like North Carolina and Alabama, directly govern, regulate, and heavily tax liquor through a state-level, alcoholic-beverage control board (ABC). Dozens of dry counties still dot the South.
But December 5 — Repeal Day — has become a holiday within the bartending world. Bars and other drinkeries around the country throw lavish parties in celebration each year. And in the South, the Tampa Bay Repeal Day Conference, which has evolved into an education conference — but one anchored by a gala Repeal Day Party for almost 1,000 people.
“Our party started as a small gathering of cocktail enthusiasts and bartenders in the basement of the Don Vicente, a former local historic hotel, in 2010,” says Repeal Day Chair Ingrid Shawn Rodriguez. “After a few years, the collective brain behind the even believed they could create a grander experience.”
In 2014, the party was expanded into a five-day educational conference, complete with sponsored seminars, parties, brunches, and, of course, a grand gala.
“Our students are our invited volunteers,” she says. Interested bartenders apply to volunteer, and those who are selected travel to Tampa for the full experience. “We partner with brands, who bring in speakers, distillers, and experts in fields related to what’s currently trending in the spirits industry.”
Even with the event’s growth, the Repeal Day Party remains its focal point. For conference volunteers, it’s a learning laboratory that teaches how to run a public, large-scale event featuring high-end cocktails while still ensuring the highest level of graciousness and hospitality, says Rodriguez.
“The gala is now the grandest party in the country,” Rodriguez says. “Last year, 868 people wearing their finest gowns and tuxedos were transported back to 1933 to imbibe, be entertained, and hobnob.”
Bars from all over the country decorate their space and serve signature cocktails to locals and volunteers alike. “It gives local consumers the ability to ‘travel’ to other parts of the state and country, and experience the cocktails and meet the bartenders from a few of the world’s best bars,” Rodriguez says.
This event serves as the main charitable aspect of the gathering. Since it was founded in 2010, it’s raised more than $90,000 for local and national charities including The Cuban Club (the site of the gala and a local aid organization in the Ybor City neighborhood), the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, and Beat Nb (Repeal Day’s oldest partner, which is dedicated to eradicating neuroblastoma).
The following evening, the gala will bring each part of The Cuban Club to life with lush decorations themed after iconic modernist works such as “Brave New World,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “A Farewell to Arms,” and, of course, “The Great Gatsby.”
“[Tampa Bay’s] Repeal Day is the ultimate annual celebration of the repeal of the Volstead Act and the artistry of the American cocktail scene,” she says. “It showcases the skills and social importance of the scene and the ingenuity of our bartenders.”
“We call it the celebration of the American’s ability to drink,” she continues. “It celebrates the life, the embodiment, of the American spirit, both metaphorically and literally.”