Savannah's American Prohibition Museum, US: What getting a drink in America's south in the 1920s was like

There's something about Savannah, Georgia, that just feels a bit naughty. For a start, there are almost as many versions of Old Fashioned whiskey cocktails as there are tree-lined squares (22, at last count).

Anybody who read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil knows the genteel city of grand old mansions has a debaucherous streak. It's the sort of place groups of young women love for hen's weekends; those in search of a cool crowd and inventive low country cuisine book far ahead for restaurants like The Grey.

So to learn Georgia was one of the first US states to outlaw alcohol – back in 1908, a full 12 years before the nationwide ban known as Prohibition – invites a deeper look at the strong current of conservatism that runs through the South. Enter, the American Prohibition Museum. Opened in 2016 in Savannah's historic City Market, it's the first permanent Prohibition museum in the US. Refreshingly, it doesn't serve up information overload.

Instead, it serves delicious cocktails in a hidden speakeasy bar, found behind – what else? – an unmarked door. Visitors sip on Gin Rickys (gin, lime, soda water) and Sidecars (cognac, Cointreau, lemon) from a list of 15 cocktails with names that pay homage to the 1920s. Through a glass panel sheathed in red velvet curtains, you can watch unsuspecting museum-goers practise their jazz dance steps before a one-way mirror. You've been warned.

Billed as "not another dry museum", curators have done a terrific job of blending historic artefacts – an original 1918 beer truck, Repeal neckties from the '30s – with hands-on interactive displays and video presentations. Life-like wax figures of Al Capone and his crew were created by Historic Tours of America, dressed in gangster chic fashions and then positioned in getaway cars with waxy ladies of ill repute.

Prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, brought into effect by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, changed American life in many unintended ways. By 1928, the nation was drowning in illegal liquor, and violent law-breaking was the norm. The ripple-on effect saw a dramatic increase of funding for the FBI, border control and police forces. Law enforcement expenditure expanded 500 per cent from 1920 to 1930. State and federal prisons were constructed on a grand scale to accommodate prison populations that went up by 400 per cent.

To walk through the museum is to fill up on knowledge of a time when strong currents of evangelical Protestant perfectionism clashed dramatically with more liberal ideas that arrived with more than 20 million immigrants who moved to the US in the early decades of the 20th century. The demon drink was painted as the root cause of every problem from unemployment to hungry children: "We Children Want Sugar – Don't Waste it on Beer", reads one sign, proving that everything eventually goes in and out of favour.

To this day, many US states still have dry counties, despite research that suggests banning the sale of alcohol never quenches the thirst for it. In 1933, after 13 years of draconian laws and underground speakeasies, Prohibition was repealed with the Twenty-first Amendment. After he signed the documents, US President Roosevelt made a statement many would say is as true today as it was then: "What America needs now is a drink."

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Delta and Virgin Australia codeshare from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles with onward connections to Savannah. See delta.com

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STAY

Doubletree by Hilton Savannah Historic District is moderately priced (rooms from $US170) and within walking distance to all the city's main attractions. Warm chocolate chip cookies are served, free of charge, every afternoon. See doubletree3.hilton.com

TOUR

Entry for the Prohibition Museum is from $US13.50 for adults (see americanprohibitionmuseum.com) Collette's seven-day Southern Charm tour starts at $2299 and includes two nights in Savannah. See gocollette.com

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traveller.com.au/USA

visitsavannah.com

Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of Collette.

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