Sources of Excellence

Perseverance under Pressure: The Scotch whisky industry during World War II

The Macallan’s commitment and perseverance during the hardship of the second World War

There are a certain points in history that have lasting impact, for better or for worse. The choices you make during these times can define you, and the decisions made in the past often reverberate into the present. World War II is one of the events that irrevocably shaped the Scotch Whisky industry and The Macallan, and its impact is still seen today.

With the declaration of WWII in 1939 came a government-imposed restriction on the production and sale of whisky. A number of factors led to this, amongst them enforced rationing by the Ministry of Food. Barley stocks normally used for distilling spirits were diverted to help feed the population, resulting in a rapid decrease in malt whisky production – in fact, from 1940 to almost the end of 1944, legislation prevented grain distilleries from distilling whisky to the point that almost no Scottish whisky was made, unless it was done illicitly.

The result was that the total amount of whisky distilled for the entire duration of the war was approximately the amount distilled in pre-war 1939. The rationing also drove up the price of any available stock allocated to whisky making, causing many small, independent distilleries to struggle to purchase goods at inflated prices.

The Macallan was one of these small Scotch whisky distilleries.

At the beginning of the century, the Kemp Trust had been set up by Roderick Kemp to safeguard the family’s investment in the business after his death. After WWI it was managed by his son in law Dr Alexander Harbinson. Into the Second World War the Trust fought along with the rest of the industry to maintain their production levels – already reduced from the first world war restrictions, while also preserving a level of quality that met the standards they were becoming known for.

Scotch Whisky industry WWII facts

10.7

Million proof gallons. The amount distilled in pre-war 1939

3.2

Million proof gallons. The amount distilled as a result of reduced production in 1941, before being reduced to almost nothing until 1945

3.7

Million proof gallons. The amount produced for 1944-45 after lobbying by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to alleviate restrictions to permanently avoid crippling the industry

1954

The year that government imposed allowances on whisky cereals was finally removed

Combined with the limitations on new production, and the lack of mature whisky stock as a repercussion of the previous war 21 years before, the result was that the industry was in a bind. To stay in business they could choose to dramatically deplete their mature stock which would damage their stability in the long term, or take the risk to reduce the quality of their whiskies by using less mature spirits.

No time to compromise

The pressure to compromise on quality of whisky was intense, and the strength of many supplies were substantially lowered to make the whisky go further. A number of distilleries also became casualties in another way – through bombing. It’s estimated that approximately 4.5 million proof gallons of whisky was lost to the entire industry in this way, which is the equivalent of one year’s worth of wartime whisky production.

The difficulty of this period was also manifested through a further, more distinct pressure: because the price of ingredients was so inflated, the taxes on selling so high, and mature stock so rare, the smaller distilleries found that it was actually more lucrative for them to sell out of their current stock and benefit from the capital appreciation of their matured stock. In fact, many smaller distilleries became ‘casualties’ of this time, bought by larger firms primarily for their mature goods. Larger companies and distillery groups fared better during this time as they possessed the financial resources to weather the restrictions. This trend continued into the post-war era, as smaller distilleries were purchased both by local larger firms and foreign companies, and the drive to export increased.

Despite this immense external pressure, The Kemp Trust refused to undermine the quality of Macallan whisky. During the points in time where the industry was forced to stop distilling because of resource diversion, the Trust had the foresight keep their mature stock safe rather than make short term gains by selling it during these times.

With great tenacity, the Trust continued to hold on.

Despite the constant threat of being bought out and the harsh taxes placed on the industry at the time, The Kemp Trust refused to give in. They persevered, maintaining the distillery as a family business with no outside investment throughout wartimes. They chose not to take any steps that could undermine their future, and while it required sacrifice and fortitude, this dedication and perseverance is still integral to our vision today.

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