Whisky Amid the World War: Decline and Resurgence

Haruki Murakami quite rightly opined,”…There’s no war that’ll end all wars.”

When the First World War broke out in 1914, nobody could foresee the bloodbath that would ensue. The never seen before massacre caused by four continuous years of armed attack, and mindless killing was not warning enough. In a matter of just 21 years after the Great War, the Second World War was already burning on the horizon. Both the wars came at the cost of manslaughter, a tragedy unmatched in the history of mankind. Of all things lost in war, it is astounding what both the wars did to the alcohol industry all over the world. From witch hunting illegal breweries, enforcing new licensing laws, and increasing taxation, alcohol production underwent a massive crackdown.

And Then Came Llyod…

David Llyod George, Britain’s liberal gentleman politician, who was to become a Prime Minister in the coming years was pivotal in enforcing new licensing laws that affected British whisky distilleries even before the First World War broke out. His ‘People’s Budget’ paved the way for the decline of smaller distilleries of the Highlands, Ireland, and British isles. Masked under the philanthropic appeal of aiding social reform, Llyod George, an advocate of Temperence caused a mammoth decline in the sale of whisky. Once the war was waged, he turned his attention to the whisky trade, passing the Immature Spirits Act in 1915. This Act made it compulsory for all Scotch whisky to be aged for a minimum of two years, which was increased to three in 1916. By 1917, owing to the U-Boat Campaign, pot distillation suffered a sudden death. Of the 130 odd distilleries functional during pre-war, only a handful were still in business at the end of 1918.

Soldiers Never Die…

But, as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. British soldiers on the front were rewarded with rum, after a hard day at war. Officers would often pour a tot of rum into the glasses of a line of soldiers, who’d eagerly wait their turn. Only officers were permitted to buy fancy liquor, making whisky their most-loved liquor. The 9th Hole was a wartime favourite, cheap whisky that’d sell like hot cakes. An occasional peg of Johnny Walker was an indulgence that only the most high-ranked officers could engage in. The fighter pilots in particular were heavy drinkers. Jokingly nicknamed ‘The Suicide Club’, they were rumoured to have chugged peg after peg. Talk about liquid courage! Rules, or no rules, the British Army didn’t shy away from downing whisky. The British women were not far behind. They were rather ahead of their male counterparts, thronging London pubs, and drinking whisky without a care in a world that was falling apart.

May 1917 saw the formation of the Whiskey Association, with the promise to uphold, and defend the interests of all Scottish and Irish whiskey distillers. Fraught with incompetent officials and loopholes, the Whiskey Association could not make much headway in terms of stabilising whisky trade. But, is was successful in momentarily putting whisky back on the shop shelves. It was around the same time that the threat of the Prohibition Era was looming large over the US, in the other corner of the world. 

Strike Two…

The alcohol industry found itself in dire straits one more time when the Second World War broke out. With the war came the growing demand for food grains. In face of growing food shortage, grain rationing was the only way of feeding the masses. Naturally, this meant a dearth in grains that could be used for brewing whisky. Scotland’s famed single malt production came to halt, as distillery after distillery shut down in the wake of the grain crisis.

Meanwhile, in America, whiskey distilleries were put to a different use. The winding halls were needed by the army, and while distillation suffered, the distilleries were useful in military service. Most of the alcohol was used for medicinal purposes, and even as torpedo fuel. Owing to the lack availability of whiskey, pubs came up with a makeshift concoction called ‘imitation whiskey’. Like the name suggests, is was a cocktail of sorts, made to fool the drinker into believing it was a cheap glass of whisky. Coupon rationing of whiskey started in 1942, where only a watered-down trifle of the tipple could be bought in exchange for coupons. Needless to say, there was a mad rush for coupons, and not much whiskey to sell. Brawls over whiskey were a common sight in such whiskey rationing stores.

The world wars may not have been kind of whisky, and the alcohol industry at large, but the people’s love for whisky shines bright in their struggle to lay their hands on the drink of the gods.