Like all British industries, Scotch Whisky was heavily affected by the First World War. Subject to numerous pressures including various legal limitations and a depleted workforce, most distilleries were left with little option but to close, many failing to ever re-open.
A year after war was declared, The British Government established The Central Liquor Control Board in order to control the alcohol industry. Although the board never quite nationalised the industry, one of its first acts was to immediately limit the production and sale of alcohol surrounding the large munition factories in Carlisle and Invergordon. The act aimed to ensure the sobriety, and therefore safety, of the workforce within these highly hazardous workplaces.
As the war drew on, the role and rules set by The Central Liquor Control Board grew. In 1917, the board took the decision to outlaw malt distillation entirely in order to protect the now highly limited supply of Barley. Although this closed the remaining few distilleries in Scotland, a small number continued, licensed to supply the military with industrial alcohol and grain whisky.
Although the board’s action had effectively ended Whisky production in the UK, many of the distilleries had already closed due to their depleted workforce. Believing strongly in the cause, many within the Scotch Whisky industry had actively incentivized their staff to enlist at the beginning of the war.
This included The Distillery Company (now Diageo), who offered full pay to distillery officials and half-pay to workmen, all on top of their forces pay. Arthur Bell & Sons also gifted bottles to their workers joining the war effort, the gesture is still remembered today with their famous ‘Afore Ye Go’ slogan.
Mercifully, the war ended in 1918. However, this didn’t relieve the enormous pressure faced by the remaining distilleries. The strict laws placed upon the industry during the war weren’t relinquished for a further year. And even once free from the restrictions, fixed pricing structures remained for years to come.
The servicemen fortunate enough to survive the horrors of war, returned to find their jobs lost, their industries shattered, and prospects at an all-time low. Unfortunately, this led to many emigrating with over 10% of the Scottish Highland population leaving over the coming years.
Thankfully, through sheer hard work and determination, the industry survived the crippling effects of the Great War. And although further dark days were yet to come, the true pioneering spirit of the Scottish distillers ensured the survival and revival of many distilleries. As we look back this Remembrance Sunday, we raise a dram to all those tragically lost and wonder just how different the Scotch Whisky story may have been, had we not lost a generation of talented distillers.
Lest we forget.