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
1943/44......No whisky produced

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.


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.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting question of how much the shortages of matured whiskey in the post Prohibition and WWII periods had to do with the rise and then later fall of American Blended Whiskey as a product category. That seems to have tied rather closely to the rise and later fall of Seagram as a company. The fact that most blends were either a 65/35 or 70/30 mix of grain neutral spirits to straight whiskies meant that any given supply of matured whiskey would allow production of about three times that amount of saleable product as a blend. The Seagram's Seven Crown American blend was always a top seller from the 1930s into the 1970s. Now American Blended Whiskey has almost completely faded into history.

Another interesting question is how this all ties into the rise of vodka from the 1950s. If someone likes whiskey, they now have no difficulty finding great straight bourbon or straight rye. If they like grain neutral spirits, A/K/A vodka, they have no difficulty finding that either.