1919 – Prohibition and ways of getting around it

A really serious blow to the Finnish hotels' food & beverage operations came at the beginning of June 1919, with the entry into force of prohibition on the manufacturing, import, sale, storage, and transport of alcohol throughout the country. 

With every passing year of Prohibition, it became more and more obvious that “going dry” was not going to be the magic remedy that the temperance movement had in mind. In Kämp, just as in most other restaurants and cafés, alcohol was served, although such a thing would have been vehemently denied in public. The tipple of choice was a cup of so-called "hard tea”, a simple mixture of equal quantities of tea and neutral grain spirit, with a little sugar to sweeten it. Many places also served similarly-turbocharged coffee, known familiarly as “plöro", or mixers with lemonade and strong spirit. In private dining rooms, more protected from the prying eyes of the temperance committees, alcohol could perhaps be served in glasses. The schnapps shot of the Prohibition era was a concoction of neutral grain spirit, water, and burnt sugar: the object of the exercise was to make alcoholic beverages look the same color as very mild beer (below 2%), which was still permitted. It was perfectly normal for customers to bring in their own bottle of spirits concealed somewhere about their person, and this was poured into the coffee, tea, or soft drinks supplied by the establishment. 

In classy, up-market restaurants such as Kämp, it was also possible to find “proper" alcohol, such as cognacs, whiskies, liqueurs, and wines. The restaurants managed to get hold of these bottles under the table, for instance bought in from contacts working on merchant ships sailing in and out of Finnish ports. Even under prohibition, quality was never compromised at Kämp. Quality of a very special kind could be offered off the premises at catered functions enjoying diplomatic privileges, where local laws could be waived. Kämp's Swedish maître d'hôtel Thor Blom recalled an 800-seat dinner buffet served on a visiting Italian warship during the first years of the Prohibition Act. The waiters were from Kämp, and Blom also quickly trained up a number of the ship's crew as assistants and busboys. The large tables and the orchestras for the guests were set up on the upper and lower decks, and the spaces were decorated with flowers and ornamental bay trees. A fully-stocked bar was erected at the stern of the ship. Fine Montebello champagne and Mediterranean wines were served, for after all the vessel was Italian soil. What followed was a glittering celebration, with a guest-list that included the country's political and military leaders, featuring General Gustaf Mannerheim himself as the guest of honor. The ladies in their ball gowns were well-known figures from the social pages, and things climaxed when the ship – moored just offshore – was illuminated stem to stern with thousands of small lights, creating the effect of “a fairy-tale castle", as Blom recalled it.

Within the hotel's own premises, consumption of branded alcoholic beverages naturally declined during Prohibition, not least because only the very wealthiest could afford to enjoy these delights. On the other hand, Kämp navigated its way through the dry years without too many setbacks. On only one occasion did the alcohol inspectors manage to penetrate the defenses in an unannounced raid, and this led to a considerable media storm. In the autumn of 1926, inspectors uncovered a cache of 137 bottles of Estonian neutral grain spirit in a hotel bedroom that was closed for renovations. Estonia was the most important source of smuggled alcohol during Prohibition. The matter was passed to the police, and several people were called in for questioning. The newspapers rubbed their hands at the scandal. Hotel manager Ville Weman pleaded his innocence and pointed out that he had been abroad on business when the incident occurred. In the end, head waiter Hilding Törnberg and a waiter named Mäenpää admitted to possession of alcohol with intent to sell. Officious and temperance-minded Finland could not pass up a chance to punish the offending establishment, and the Regional Governor ordered Kämp's restaurant to shut its doors for two months.

Kämp's maître d'hôtel Thor Blom
Hotel Kämp

The stories are compiled from Laura Kolbe's book Kämp – The Hotel and Its City (2015). Get your own copy at the hotel reception.