Twelve-Mile Limit

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the American Era of Prohibition is a an object lesson in hunger-driven, wildly-imaginative creativity in the noble pursuit of booze. Between 1920 and 1933, the ne’er do wells of the USA, particularly those in Chicago, went on a want-driven orgy of rule bending, inventive criminality, and sharply executed mixology – all in the name of supplying Americans with ethanol.

While the French 75 is the most famous cocktail to emerge from the era of Prohibition, there were plenty of other, merit-worthy sibling drinks. In his book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh describes a furiously alcoholic Prohibition era cocktail known as the Twelve-Mile Limit.

The drink’s peculiar name comes from the American offshore nautical limit outside of which the possession and consumption of alcohol was legal. In 1923 William S McCoy was running rum from the West Indies and stopping just short of the 3-mile limit of US Coast Guard jurisdiction – this was known as the ‘Rum Line.’ There, he would sell his cargo to the captains of smaller fishing boats, who would land the booze along with their catch, and keep the United States stocked with illegal rum. McCoy was highly regarded in the trade because he never watered down his neat alcohol, giving rise to the term ‘The real McCoy,’ which describes something that is unfettered and authentic.

William S McCoy (1877–1948) – famous rum bootlegger

McCoy is on record as saying:

“There was all the kick of gambling and the thrill of sport, and, besides these, there were the open sea and the boom of the wind against full sails, dawn coming out of the ocean, and nights under the rocking stars. These caught and held me most of all.”

The smaller boats, laden with McCoy’s rum, could outrun the Coast Guard and could hide in small inlets and coves where they would transfer their goods to trucks waiting on the shore. The Coast Guard hit back with a scheme that would make it harder for smaller, less seaworthy boats to make it to the Rum Line. They extended their catchment to a 12-mile limit.

In the end, The US public purse realised it missed the tax revenue on alcohol, the Eighteenth Amendment became the Twenty-first Amendment, Prohibition was over, and the 12-mile Rum Line limit was no more. It lives on only in this stupendously boozy drink.

The Twelve-Mile Limit contains dangerously sweet grenadine that gives you one of those drinks in which you barely know you are consuming booze. If you are looking for an easy drink, or even a session cocktail if there is such a thing, then you need to look elsewhere. Rye whiskey can be hard to come by in general UK supermarkets. You may need to go to a good off licence or to Waitrose for this. Ocado will send you some in a van. You could use bourbon, but be prepared for a slightly sweeter drink in which you really need to watch that grenadine.

Twelve-Mile Limit

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Serves: 1
Cooking Time: None


  • 40ml decent white rum
  • 20ml rye whiskey
  • 20ml brandy
  • 15ml grenadine
  • 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Lemon twist for garnish



Put all the liquid ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well, and strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.


The original recipe in Ted Haigh's book calls for equal volumes of grenadine and lemon (20ml). We found that a shade on the sweet side, so we played around a bit, and managed to find a good balance by knocking back the syrup by a hair. We drank three versions of this so that you don't have to – that is dedication to the art. 15ml is 1 tablespoon, if that helps.

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