According to my story about the Southeast’s brewing sake scene, which ran in today’s print edition, rice spirits never made much of a splash in the lowcountry. That’s technically true, but food historian and sake connoisseur David Shields points out that rice beer had a very big year in 1893.
As Shields explains, three years before Ben Tillman told voters he’d skewer President Grover Cleveland in the rump with a pitchfork, he persuaded Prohibitionists to support legislation making South Carolina a control state. But the governor’s bill defined alcoholic beverages as drinks with an alcohol content of at least 2.5 percent, which meant the state couldn’t stop the private sale of near-beer.
“The Palmetto Brewing Company of Charleston, a self styled ‘soft drink’ company that had begun manufacturing a rice brew acceptable in prohibitionist southern locales in 1888, began manufacturing oceans of “Rice Beer”—a light beer with an alcohol content under the legal ceiling,” Shields writes.
Tillman viewed the beverage as an affront to his revenue-generating scheme, so tried to preserve the state’s monopoly by arresting rice beer sellers. Although rice beer fell within the permissible alcohol range, Tillman refused to allow scientific testing of the beverage, instead relying on officers’ accounts that they got just as drunk on rice beer as lager.
On Nov. 9, 1893, Tillman ordered the arrest of a State Fair vendor “who was doing an immense rice beer business on the grounds.” The vendor proclaimed he’d rather die than be arrested without a warrant, and the crowd sided with him so overwhelmingly that Tillman’s agents retreated, fearing a riot.
Within months, it became clear that the state was incapable of fully enforcing the Dispensary Law, paving the way for the development of a robust black market. Illegal liquor was so readily available that demand for rice beer dried up. “By spring of 1894, the brief Rice Beer boom was over,” Shields writes.
Shields says nobody knows exactly what rice beer tasted like. But an early News & Courier ad for the stuff claimed, “It has the taste of lager beer of the finest flavor: besides to add to its purity and medicinal qualities is specially made of our celebrated world-renowned original Artesian well water.”