This month brewers are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the legalization of 3.2 percent beer, several months before the full end of Prohibition.
These days, Prohibition is merely a distant memory or just a story told in history books. But American society still is not fully comfortable with alcoholic beverages, as is evident in the mixed messages to young people painting it as sinister yet alluring.
Certainly it is dangerous to drink alcohol in excess. But does that make all alcohol evil, or moderate drinking dangerous? Soused or sober - that is too often the choice American young people see.
Prohibition ranks as this country's most memorable answer to that dichotomy. This experiment in restricting public consumption of alcohol lasted from 1920 to 1933. But the impulses that gave birth to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution were present long before 1920. In its history of alcohol prohibition, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse cites Colonial laws passed as early as 1629 that were designed to control the consumption of alcohol.
Even now, 70 years after Prohibition ended, the government has strong control over the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The impulses behind these laws seemed a sharp departure from attitudes in the British Isles and European countries, to which many Americans traced their roots and where drinking alcohol, especially cider, wine or beer, was a routine part of daily life.
Americans developed a more volatile relationship with alcohol, as noted by Andrew Barr in his book Drink: A Social History of America (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999). Barr observes that Americans tend to "swing from one extreme to another, from prohibition to license, from abstinence to revelry, from condemnation to celebration."
As Barr and other historians document, Prohibition did not produce a permanent reduction in the consumption of alcohol and seemed to prove the common-sense wisdom that the best way to increase the appeal of a product is to make it hard to get.
Perhaps the question is not so much at what age people should be allowed to drink, but how we as a society can show them that the choice posed by alcohol need not be all or nothing.
We need education about the dangers of strong drink. But there's an important case to be made for moderation, for sipping and savoring. Come to think of it, that approach could give us a healthier enjoyment of food and many other pleasures life offers.
One solution is to educate young people as they become old enough to drink - helping them to appreciate and respect a beverage, not just guzzle it. A book, The Glory of Wine (Ibrod Press, 2001) by Gloria Bley Miller, included instructions for holding wine tastings, and was promoted as a way of steering drinkers, especially young adults, toward responsible drinking habits.
By learning to pay attention to the characteristics that distinguish one taste from another, people are more likely to savor a drink and less likely to binge.
So here's to sipping, and to healthier attitudes toward alcohol. We do need to know the reasons to avoid overindulgence. But a well-tempered society can also make room for the pleasures of a well-savored sip.