When Prohibition came to an end, American distilleries were at a huge disadvantage in the spirits market. It is very similar to what the smaller artisan distilleries are facing in the 21st century – there were big companies with plenty of aged whiskey they had to compete with for consumers. In the 1930s, it was the Scotch, Irish and Canadian distilling companies that had plenty of aged whiskey to bring into the market to attract the consumer dollars, while American distillers were rebuilding and starting to make whiskey. Fortune Magazine was an American business magazine that started publishing in 1929 and they played a major role in recording the history of this era. I have several articles from the 1930s from Fortune that cover the distilling industry of that era.
The first article of interest is from November 1933. Prohibition is about to end, but repeal has not yet passed. Fortune published a series of articles on distilled spirits. The first article is about whiskey. It states that they expect Prohibition to come to an end sometime between 9:00 and 5:00 on December 5th of that year. They think it would be ironic if Ohio – the birthplace of the W.C.T.U. (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), should be the State to repeal Prohibition, but it was more likely to be Utah (which it was). They point out that before Prohibition, Americans were drinking 140 million gallons of liquor per year. During Prohibition, that number rose to 200 million gallons. The demand after repeal therefore will be at least 200 million gallons of liquor.
Before Prohibition, Americans were drinking mostly American whiskey (Bourbon and rye) at 133 million gallons. Next there was 5 million gallons of Gin and 1.5 million gallons of Scotch (plus a little Irish). The question then was how is that going to change. American whiskey distillers did not have the whiskey to meet that demand.
That issue follows with articles on some of the major players – National Distillers and Publicker in the United States and Hiram Walker from Canada, Distillers Co. Ltd. from Great Britain and Bacardi, Champagne, etc. to cover the other spirits. These articles discuss the companies and what they were doing to meet the need for whiskey. Hiram Walker built a huge distillery in Peoria, Illinois. Publicker was experimenting with rapid aging (sound familiar?). Publicker was claiming that they could make a 17 year old whiskey in 24 hours! These articles examine these challenges. It is well worth reading.
In May 1936, Fortune printed an article on Schenley. Schenley had become the largest seller of whiskey in the United States in 1936. The article discusses the company and its leaders, how they were started during Prohibition and how they became the largest spirits producer in the United States. There are several photographs of the distilling process from Schenley distilleries. It is a good article to read for those interested in how the industry was operating in the tough times of the 1930s.
Finally, I have a December 1937 article that I find very amusing. It is about Schenley and its attempt to expand their advertising of Old Quaker Bourbon and rye whiskeys. Schenley president Lewis Rosenstiel, jumped on the idea of training parrots to say “Drink Old Quaker”. They purchased 6 parrots and sequestered them in one of their New York offices with a tutor, who would repeat “Drink Old Quaker” to the parrots at different times of the day. Rosenstiel envisioned purchasing 5,000 parrots to send to bars in the United States. These parrots would, at the least, make people think about Schenley and Old Quaker. However, the trainer had no success at getting the birds to speak the phrase. It became an embarrassment to the people at Schenley.
Fortune magazine played an important role in recording the history of the distilling industry in the 1930s. There are more articles in other issues of the magazine that are of interest. It is worth the time for those researching the industry at the time to look up these articles.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller