World War I and the whisky industry

15 Aug 2014

One hundred years since it began, last week's services at Glasgow and Westminster Cathedrals were a poignant reminder of the human tragedy of World War One.  

Many communities, from industrial central Scotland to the rural Highlands, were left scarred by the conflict.  Society was changed in profound ways. 

From a Scotch Whisky perspective, the passage of time also makes it easy to forget the impact the war had on the industry. 

The pre-war period itself was challenging for distillers.  Falling sales at home were compounded by Lloyd George's 'People's Budget' which dramatically raised taxes to help fund social reform.  A Royal Commission had considered the very nature of 'what is whisky?', causing vigorous debate within the industry.  

As war broke out, however, the focus of attention quickly became government intervention in the trade.  This was driven by Lloyd George's view that lower than anticipated armaments production was due to absentee-ism caused by, among other things, drinking rather than any lack of manpower or equipment.   Putting aside the hyperbole, his comment that 'drink is doing more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together' shows clearly the strength of feeling.

Proposals aimed at prohibition of the sale of alcohol and to nationalise the industry followed but were averted.   In the end, a Central Control Board was set up to regulate the trade and agreement was reached on the 1915 Immature Spirits Act, introducing the first legal requirement to mature whiskies for at least two years, which was extended to three years in 1916.   Another year on, under pressure from the Central Control Board, the equivalent of a 40% vol. requirement was also introduced.  Today both are key elements of the definition of Scotch Whisky, as well as the European rules on whisky. 

Whilst in 1914, over 130 distilleries had been in production, only a small number of patent still distilleries were in production by the end of the war.  The 1917 U-boat campaign and the impact on grain shipments had ended all pot still distilling.  Patent stills, however, continued in operation, with distillers playing an important role through the supply of yeast for bread making, acetone for cordite and high explosives, and industrial alcohol for medicines or as a solvent to make waterproof clothing for the navy and soldiers in the trenches.  Naval buoys, rafts and wooden packaging all came out of the industry's cooperages.  

Field Marshall Haig of course came from a whisky family but a number of leading industry figures also played an important 'backroom' role in the war effort.  James Stevenson, Alexander Walker, James Robertson, and William Ross all, for example, received honours for the services they gave.   Winston Churchill said of Stevenson's work at the Ministry of Munitions that 'among all the ablest business men, striving under wartime pressure to do their utmost for the country, he was always first or among the first.'

One other footnote was the establishment of a new Whisky Association from May 1917.  The Wine & Spirit Trade Record reported that the aim was 'the creation of a strong, centralised, homogenous body …  which will be capable of adequately voicing the opinions and defending the interests of all Scottish and Irish whisky distillers, blenders and exporters.'  

The new body faced plenty of issues.  Indeed, just around the corner was the shock of prohibition in the United States.  That is, however, another blog altogether. 

David Williamson, SWA government and communications director