Altitudinal Drinking Returns

“The Scholar and the World”

In mid-1935 an American, Albert Abrahamson, authored The Price Study: The Price of Whiskey. It was not conventionally published, being an internal document the U.S. government commissioned when examining pricing for key consumer goods. (I’ve referenced the HathiTrust version, and Google Books has it as well, in full text).

Abrahamson, born in Portland, ME in 1905, was a Columbia-trained economist with a long career at Bowdoin College in Maine. He was also regularly engaged by governments to advise on economic policy, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

He was only 30 when the study appeared but it shows an uncommon sophistication. The book, about 60 pages long, has three sections. The first examines the lead-up to National Prohibition and drinking and alcohol supply during the Volstead period (1920-1933).

The second reviews current industry pricing for whiskey, and the last part discusses pricing through the prism of the consumer interest.

The full study is absorbing, but we found the first part of especial interest. Abrahamson considers that Prohibition largely resulted from the need to end the abuses of the saloon and the “tied house”, or brewers’ (mostly) control of saloons and bars. He also notes the ingrained, indeed continuing, moral opposition to drinking in large parts of the country.

Among the many interesting observations, this one may be cited, on the multifarious reasons for alcohol use.

One must distinguish the various shades — the quenching of thirst, the derivation of a slight glow to ease the incidence of social formalities, the desire for partial escape and the quest for complete forgetfulness and unconsciousness. Poets have forged immortal verses in praise of the virtues of whiskey; psychiatrists have justified its use as an escape from arduous endeavour; and a distinguished historian of English society has contrasted the rival consolations of religion and the public house. How much one drinks and what one drinks depend upon the goal one sets and how soon one wants to get to it.

A further element in demand arises from the wishes of some consumers to do the smart thing. This means that some people drink in emulation of movie actors, professional endorsers, social leaders, and other members of the tribe that sets the consuming pace for so many Americans. It is difficult to say when a vague desire to do the smart thing shades off into more compelling demands and finally results in a stubborn habit. The case histories of alcoholics would doubtless reveal many items of interest.

Can the demand for whiskey, partially indicated in the preceding paragraphs, be described by a word or a phrase? Can the demand in future years be predicted? Statistics are of limited value in describing so miscellaneous a phenomenon. The industry is too new to have a significant quantitative history. The figures of pre-prohibition days are not applicable, and the prohibition data are simply guesses.

I was struck, too, by his statement that once gin transferred from the distillery to the “bathtub” during Prohibition, gin replaced whiskey for the bulk of Americans. By this, he meant cheap home-made gin was available to almost all who wanted a drink, whereas whiskey had to be smuggled from Canada or elsewhere and hence cost more to buy.

An exaggeration perhaps, as whiskey did regain a major part of the liquor market after Repeal, but the later Dry Martini craze shows a certain truth in his observation.

He also considered that despite new alcohol control laws, the saloon in large cities continued in its essential form, hence his jaunty term altitudinal drinking (for standing at the bar, leitmotif of the old saloon).

He notes that following Prohibition the liquor industry gained enormously in sophistication, both in business structure and advertising techniques. The newly-legal distillers borrowed developments other industries, for example the public utilities, had pioneered in the 1920s. He found some of these questionable, citing as an example selling what appeared the same grade of whiskey at different prices. His “Royal Flush” example (see the text) is worth pondering.

Abrahamson was evidently much admired at Bowdoin, and while he died in 1988, is still remembered. This college blog by a 1976 graduate, whence our sub-title is taken, is warm in reminiscence. See also the comments from numerous former students and associates.


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