Abstract: War Alcohol and Liquor Holidays: American Whiskey Distillers and the State during World War II

Lisa Jacobson


This paper examines the complicated relationship between American whiskey distillers and the state during World War II, when distillers converted their entire production to industrial alcohol to aid in the manufacture of smokeless gun powder and synthetic rubber. Distillers still sold whiskey, thanks to substantial reserves of aging whiskey, but liquor black markets returned with a vengeance when consumer demand exceeded expectations. The distillers campaigned for (and eventually won) "liquor holidays" from war production to replenish dwindling whiskey inventories, but the delay in getting such a reprieve, the state's ambivalent response to the problem of liquor shortages, and the liquor trade's own misdeeds damaged whiskey makers' reputation. Scholars have argued that the federal government steered clear of alcohol questions after Prohibition, but the state was hardly a neutral umpire. Not all of the state's calls went for the distillers, but in significant ways World War II strengthened the distillers' alliance with the state. This largely unexamined episode in World War II history reveals much about how national crises created both new opportunities and new hazards for a still morally suspect industry as it sought to rehabilitate its public image, recalibrate regulatory regimes, and shape its prospects for peacetime expansion.