Friday, January 26, 2024

The Effect of World War II on American Whiskey Production


Julian P. Van Winkle Jr. (bottom, right) and his tank crew, on their way to liberate the Philippines, October 1944 (from But Always Fine Bourbon).

As we reported in the most recent issue of The Bourbon Country Readervery little whiskey was distilled during World War II. Whiskey distilled before the fighting began became available as it matured, but because all the distilleries were making neutral spirit for munitions, synthetics, and other war needs, and not whiskey, there was panic buying, hoarding, profiteering, and other ills. Whiskey was scarce on the front lines and at home. 

As a follow-up, and thanks to the inimitable Chris Middleton, here are American whiskey production totals for 1934 to 1952, after which this data was no longer publicly reported. A "proof gallon" is one gallon of 100° (50% ABV) spirit. Reporting was for a July-June fiscal year.

1934/35........149,112,923 proof gallons
1935/36........300,658,508
1936/37........223,457,850
1937/38........102,895,872
1938/39..........93,003,917
1939/40..........98,993,303
1940/41........121,851,983
1941/42........120,257,424
1942/43..........19,529,698
1943/44......No whisky produced
1944/45...........41,562,203
1945/46.........147,464,516
1946/47.........167,994,805
1947/48.........129,597,067
1948/49.........149,595,230
1949/50.........118,760,487
1950/51.........205,702,460
1951/52.........103,543,953

Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933. There had been limited production since 1929, but the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, so it took time to get the distilleries operating again. As you can see, extraordinary amounts were produced in 35/36 and 36/37 before settling down to a normal level of about 100 million proof gallons per year, ramping up to 120 million on the eve of Pearl Harbor.

Although it was winding down, WWII did not technically end until August of 1945, so 46/47 was the first full year of normal whiskey production. The numbers probably reflect an industry operating close to capacity and still in the process of ramping up, both to make up for missed production, and to exploit the post-war economic boom.

The fact that 51/52 production was half of 50/51 might reflect the Korean War, or it might just be a reporting anomaly as the Treasury changed its reporting system.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are the data for production capacity during these years available? With such wide swings in production there must have been excess capacity most if not all years.

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's an interesting question. My guess is that the 167,994,805 proof gallons produced in 1946/47 was pretty close to industry capacity at the time. The largest distilleries had had their stills converted to produce GNS and they had to be converted back into whiskey stills, which is probably part of why production didn't peak until 46/47.

Chris Middleton said...

Apologies, a bit slow in responding.

The Treasury data points were for 'whisky'

Take FY1935

Whisky (sic) 140,122,923
Rum 3,102,473
Brandy 9,877,256
Gin 3,908,279
Other spirits 1,125,541
Total potable: 169,128, 279proof gallons

Chris Middleton said...

Chuck, as I posted, I noticed a typo (not 140,122, 923, but 149,112,923). It might be a double typo as the numerical type on the original table is so small and distorted when I checked the Bureau's Annual Report; it might be '140,122,923', not '149,122,923.'

I was using these Reports on production volumes for some other research comparisons; I was not concerned about each year's specific number, only the trend, especially during WWII cut-backs.