Sipping Savannah: a dispatch from America's first prohibition museum

Jacqui Agate

written by
Jacqui Agate

updated 14.12.2020

The first ever prohibition museum in the States opened in Savannah, Georgia earlier this year. And it’s a pretty apt place for it. Until recently, prohibition-era laws here prohibited breweries from selling beer directly to punters – but that’s all starting to change. Jacqui Agate goes to meet the new wave of craft brewers shaking up the city’s drinks scene.

Spanish moss drips from the oak canopy shading East Jones Street. Mottled sunlight plays on the brick paving, and the air hangs heavy with the afternoon heat. Here, in the Historic District, Savannah is at its most genteel.

The story of Savannah

But revelry rumbles across these oak-cloaked streets and has done for almost 300 years. Savannah was built by English colonisers who, led by General James Oglethorpe, settled on the land that would become Georgia in 1733. Such was their merrymaking – they made rum from molasses and spent days on end in a pie-eyed stupor – that Oglethorpe banned all ‘strong waters’ from the colony. This was the first act of alcohol prohibition in America.

Artillery Bar, Savannah, USA

Artillery Bar in Savannah

Fitting then, that Savannah, the ‘Hostess City’, is home to the USA’s first prohibition museum (book your entrance ticket here). Opened in 2017, it chronicles the temperance movement from its early beginnings in America, to the national Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933. It shines a light, too, on the moonshine makers and rum runners who did everything in their power to buck the dry law.

But the sultry streets of Savannah could be a museum of Prohibition-era history themselves. About half a mile from East Jones Street is The Distillery Ale House. Today it’s a sleek craft-beer spot – but, so the story goes, in the 1920s it was a pharmacy-cum-speakeasy and bathtub gin was made on the second floor.

Savannah legend spills into the Crystal Beer Palor too. It was once the Gerken Family Grocery Store, later changing to The Crystal restaurant. It was also the first spot to serve alcohol after Prohibition ended – most likely because it never stopped.

“We like to be a bit tricky in Savannah,” smiles Kayla Black, director of the American Prohibition Museum. We’re now sat outside Collins Quarter, a trendy café-restaurant that serves brunch by day and whips up modern plates and artisan cocktails by night.


Savannah in Georgia

Georgia’s conservatism, and its location along the Bible Belt, meant the state actually went dry in 1908, twelve years before nationwide prohibition took hold. So “tricky” Savannah had had more than a decade of dealings with underground booze before the rest of the country followed suit in 1920.

Some really big names had illicit operations in Savannah during Prohibition, too," she continues. "Even Al Capone had an operation here…

“First, Savannahians set up a system called ‘locker clubs’. They weren’t private clubs, but you paid dues to be member,” Black explains. “As part of your due, you’d get alcohol. But, you weren’t paying for liquor – you were paying to enter the club. The Savannah Yacht Club was one of those.”

“Some really big names had illicit operations in Savannah during Prohibition, too,” she continues. “Even Al Capone had an operation here…”

When a bullet-hole-ridden car pulled up in mechanic Sherman Helmey’s yard, he didn’t know who it belonged to. But he fixed it up as requested and drove it to Savannah’s ritzy De Soto Hotel (Black points south of where we’re sitting), where he was promised payment. Here Helmey met one of America’s most notorious gangsters, Al Capone, who handed over the money as assured.

From then on, Helmey would fix up Al Capone’s rum-running cars as they came through town, customising them so they could store illicit liquor and replacing radiators shot out by police.

As well as whip-smart mechanics, when it came to bootlegging, Savannah had another factor on its side: geography.

“All Georgia’s little inlets, all the jetties, every little island – the federal government didn’t know it that well,” Black explains. “And so these little fishing boats full of liquor could go out there, zip into an inland stream, disappear and never be seen again.” If you head out to Skidaway Island State Park, some 14 miles south of the city, you can still see the remains of an old liquor still, left behind by a bygone bootlegger.

So, given Savannah’s many tippling tales, it seems strange that Ghost Coast Distillery, opened in 2017, is the first distillery in the city since Prohibition. But a tricky law, a hangover from that era, meant that until recently brewers and distillers were not permitted to sell their products directly to punters.

Co-owner of Ghost Coast Distillery Chris Sywassink raises his voice over the clatter of cocktail shakers. We’re perched at a varnished wooden table propped up by whiskey barrels. Punters line the distillery’s lengthy bar, fruit-garnished cocktails in hand.

“When a distillery cannot showcase what it makes, that’s really challenging from a business standpoint, if not impossible,” Sywassink explains.

But that changed last year when a boozy new bill permitting direct sales was passed. “That was when we were like: ‘OK, green light…'” Sywassink claps his hands together, then throws them towards the bar. Chief mixologist Sydney Lance gives us a wave from behind it.

Now the distillery produces 19 variants including rum, bourbon, whiskey, vodka and an agave product like tequila. The first spirit made was their much-loved Vodka 261. It was so named because, upon production, it had been 261 years exactly since the end of Savannah’s first prohibition on spirits, imposed by Oglethorpe way back in the 18th century. “But I can’t pick a favourite product,” Sywassink chuckles when prompted. “These are all my kids.”

Looking ahead, Savannah’s prospering drinks scene shows no sign up drying up. The city’s second distillery, Savannah Spirits, is set to open up in the Historic District this year. It will have a fully fledged bar and a chophouse onsite too.

Sywassink welcomes the new addition. “It’s the meshing of philosophy and ideas, this newness and this creativity that is really pushing the boundaries of what the beverage world is all about,” he says. “We’re the ‘Hostess City’ for a reason.”

The best places to drink in Savannah

Looking for a tipple in the Hostess City? These are Savannah's top watering holes:

For craft cocktails

Cocktails are Savannah's bag, and there's no shortage of spots to sip them in the city. Artillery, named for its location in the Georgia Hussars' former armoury, is one of Savannah's finest cocktail lounges. The gilded columns out front drop hints about the interior, which is all green-velvet booths, exposed brick and chandelier rings.

Try Savannah's signature cocktail, the Chatham Artillery Punch: it's a heady mix of rum, brandy, Rittenhouse rye and sloe gin, topped with green tea, lemon and sparkling wine, and served in a golden pineapple.

Special mention, too, for blink-and-you'll-miss-it basement spot AlleyCat Lounge and their extensive craft-cocktail list.

Artillery Bar, Savannah, Georgia, USA

Cocktails at Artillery © Jacqui Agate

For drinking until the early AM

Loud, proud and pulsing with 80s rock music, dive bar The Original Pinkie Masters has been watering Savannahians since the 50s and is little short of a local institution. It's said that, in the 70s, then-Georgia-governor Jimmy Carter clambered onto Pinkie's well-worn bar to announce his intent to run for president.

Pop some coins in the jukebox, order a beer and hole up here for the night. You're sure to rub shoulders with some colourful characters.

For a great pint

It's cocktails that really set the city apart, but Savannah boasts some great beer too. "No crap, just craft" is the ethos of the Distillery Ale House, which has 21 craft brews on tap and a huge selection of bottled beer. Pick your poison with the help of the knowledgeable staff, and sup it propped at the mahogany bar.

If you'd prefer to visit a brewery, make for Service Brewing Co. It's entirely owned and operated by veterans, producing large-scale and small-batch brews from pale ales to pilsners.

Service Brewing Co. © Jacqui Agate

For a speakeasy-style spot

Given Savannah's past, it's little wonder that many bars want to emulate the roaring twenties. Get a true flavour of the era at Congress Street Up, the American Prohibition Museum's bar. Choose from a list of classic and craft cocktails, including Prohibition Portia, a gin concoction served in a tiny bathtub (rubber duck and all).

For live music

There's live music six nights per week at basement bolthole Jazz'd Tapas Bar, which has a tasty American tapas menu too. Performances range from jazz sets to solo country warblers, and there's a long list of martinis to try.

And if you want to combine your drinks with a fun tour visiting the top haunted sites of Savannah, join a pub crawl through historic Savannah.

Jacqui stayed in The Grant by Lucky Savannah.

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