The Second World War had a huge impact on the distilling industry. It was an industry that had just come out of Prohibition in December 1933. It was 1935 before many distilleries were back up and producing whiskey. When the war started in 1939 these distilleries were just beginning to get their first crop of bonded whiskey in the market. The bigger companies such as Schenley were still depending upon imports of Scotch for their profitable sales. Scotch continued to flow when possible because the British needed the trade dollars to pay for the war material they were purchasing from the United States. The U.S. was not in the war officially but they supported the Allied cause with sales of war material. Schenley was having trouble getting Dewars to the market and offered to send trucks to Great Britain to facilitate the movement of goods, but were told not to as they would “be taken by the government for the war effort as was the fate of our own Lorries”.
When the U.S. joined the war officially in December 1941 the distilling industry became an official war product. Alcohol was needed to make ammunition but more importantly it was needed to make synthetic rubber. The source of natural rubber had been cut off by the Japanese expansion in the South Pacific. The distilleries went on war time Prohibition and were not allowed to make beverage alcohol. They had to produce high proof neutral spirits to produce these two main supplies for the war. Alcohol was used for many other necessary items such as anti-freeze, antiseptic and other medical needs as well.
The distilleries were making alcohol at as high a proof as possible and if it was not high enough it was sent to a distillery that could distill at the required proof for re-distillation. The distilleries were paid for the cost of the manufacturing plus a small profit of a dollar per gallon produced. The alcohol was then shipped to the required factory to turn it into the needed supply. That is why Louisville had several chemical plants built in Jefferson County and an ammunition plant was built across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana. They needed to be close to the source of alcohol.
The war also caused changes in the industry. Women entered the work force in even greater numbers and took jobs other than on the bottling line as men were leaving to serve in the military. Schenley went a step above most companies and considered these men still to be employees but on military leave from the company. Their employees serving in the military still earned a monthly wage that was sent to the family of the serving worker. They wanted to make sure the families had some money to survive and pay bills while the man was off fighting the war. And fight they did. Every distillery from that era has tucked away somewhere a memorial with the names of employees serving and special attention to those who gave their all for country.
There was a brief lifting of the Prohibition in 1943 as stocks off alcohol reached a level that allowed for beverage production. Still there were changes made as barrel size was increased to 53 gallons and the hoops on the barrel were reduced in number from eight to six. This was done to save on wood and iron for the war effort. Glass was also saved as the bottle size of 4/5 quart became the recommended size instead of the quart. Grain was rationed to meet the needs of war production but there was no excess for beverage production as excess grain was needed to feed cattle to feed the troops. Spent mash was dried and used as cattle feed and the government encouraged the construction of drier houses to make the processed feed.
The consumers saw a shortage of spirits in the market. Aged products were often stretched by blending them with neutral spirits. Whiskey was available but straight whiskey was much more expensive. Distilleries were reluctant to bottle to much of their aged product because they did not know when they would be able to replace their dwindling stocks.
When the war ended Prohibitionists tried to prevent grain from being shipped to distilleries and turn it all into cattle feed. The distilleries fought back proved that distillers grain was a better cattle feed. By 1946 the distilleries are back into production of whiskey and replenishing their diminished stocks from the war.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl