The Prohibition era was an interesting time for the liquor industry in America. In the short time in which booze was illegal in the States, it didn’t stop Americans from drinking it. In fact, black market spirit sales sprang to an ultimate high, making way for money to be made from illegal booze. And the rum runners made a killing.
Rum runners were smugglers who specialized in bringing alcohol into the United States via boat. What started with Caribbean rum (hence the term rum runner) eventually moved to include Canadian whiskey and English gin. Rum runners would go to any number of Caribbean islands, buy enough rum to fill their boats and head back to a U.S. port. Originally, they traveled from Bimini to southern Florida, but as authorities started tightening down on booze smuggling, ships would make runs up and down the entire eastern seaboard.
Rum was inexpensive to procure, but the rum runners couldn’t turn much of a profit on it because rum was so inexpensive. Typically, runners employed “profit enhancing” techniques such as watering down the rum or putting expensive brand labels on cheaper or unmarked rum. One of the more famous rum runners, Captain Bill McCoy, made a name for himself by never stooping to these “cost cutting” tactics. This is where the term “The Real McCoy” comes from.
McCoy was also known for the Rum Line. In order to avoid the crack down on the major ports by federal authorities, the runners had to use mid-sized boats to transport the rum and other spirits. After running rum for a while, the intrepid captain realized that they could make most of the trip in much larger boats and then move the cargo to smaller boats offshore and make more profit per trip. Utilizing this model, they could use even smaller boats to make landfall, allowing them to use smaller ports or even beach access points. Once they started implementing this, making the cargo transfer five miles from the U.S. coast (where International waters begin) the idea took hold. The large vessels coming in would sit in a long line just outside of U.S. waters and wait for the smaller vessels to pick up the rum, eventually earning the name, “The Rum Line.”
Rum runners brought in roughly $200,000 in product per week when the average American was making $50 per week. It was a highly lucrative business for the few short years that alcohol was prohibited in the U.S. After prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933, rum running became far less profitable, and fell mainly to less boisterous smugglers. The golden era of the rum runner was gone.