Prohibition and Denatured Alcohol

There is an interesting history connecting denatured alcohol and prohibition. The passing of the 18th amendment, as we all know, led to a booming black market in bootleg liquor. What is less known is the bootleggers did not simply smuggle imported liquor or build hidden stills to manufacture their own bath tub gin and moonshine. They frequently stole industrial alcohol.

Ethyl Alcohol was used then, as it is now, in a large number of industrial applications. The 18th amendment did not halt the production or use of alcohol for industrial uses, rather it demanded a greater use of denatured alcohol for those users. Denaturing alcohol is making it non-potable, so as to eliminate the Excise Tax. The use of denatured alcohol actually started before prohibition in 1906.  

During prohibition, criminals would steal the denatured alcohol, process it in an attempt to distill out the denaturants, and sell it as a consumable alcohol on the black market. In response, the government began expanding the requirements of the denatured formulas in an attempt to eliminate this stream of illicit alcohol. These new laws included either a significant increase in the quantity of a denaturant being used, or on some occasions new denaturants were added, which were far more difficult to distill out.

Many of the current denatured alcohol formulas have their roots in the prohibition era.

There is an interesting article by Deborah Blum (author of The Poisoner’s Handbook) linked below. Her article incorrectly uses Industrial alcohol and Denatured alcohol interchangeably. Industrial alcohol is really a broader category of alcohols, which can include pure ethanol, that are used in non-beverage applications.

The article concentrates on the dangerous public health aspects of the increasing denaturants used as well as the politics of prohibition.