A Farewell to Sobriety, Part Two: Drinking During World War II


World War II, considered the deadliest conflict in human history, is distinguished for also being the largest military conflict ever, an honor it will hopefully keep indefinitely. The conflict affected hundreds of millions of people, some 60-80 million of whom would lose their lives before its end. Marked by famine, genocide, industrial scale death, and the unprecedented use of atomic weapons, hardship was ubiquitous in WWII. With nearly every major power and a host of minor ones locked in a state of total war, never before or since has such a large portion of human industry, resources, and scientific research been devoted to making war. That bears repeating: the bandwidth of humankind’s material and intellectual capability was mostly dedicated to war, and that effort left its mark in surprising ways.

One of the less-studied aspects of the conflict is the production and consumption of alcohol during the war. Unlike the preceding “Great War,” World War I, little is written on the overall role of alcohol during this period. This is unfortunate because the little documentation that does exist shows alcohol as a colorful microcosm of the conflict itself. In some theaters the role of alcohol mirrored the wider struggle playing out; in others it lent insight into the psychology of a society’s war effort. Of course, in a state of total war, a study of any industry would provide similar insights, but alcohol is special for carrying national or regional character. Steel is steel; rubber is rubber; and oil is oil. But alcohol is wine; alcohol is vodka; alcohol is whiskey and rum. While industry is concerned with materiel, alcohol is concerned with people.

Disappointingly, accounts of the nature and fate of Germany’s alcohol industry during the war are rare, possibly due to the localized nature of it. Beer in particular was still a decentralized industry, with most decently sized towns possessing at least one or two breweries. Likely a vestige of Germany’s former life as dozens of principalities, the practice of producing and consuming beer locally continued throughout World War II. Given the ubiquity of Allied air raids in Germany towards the end of the war, it’s plausible that a good number of German breweries were damaged or destroyed, as happened to Hofbrauhaus. One compelling topic of study would be the differing fates of breweries in what would become East and West Germany. For the soldiers’ part, Wehrmacht officers permitted and initially encouraged their charges to consume alcohol as a coping mechanism, believing it essential to good morale. This attitude shifted with the capture of France, when Hitler issued a statement proclaiming, “I expect that members of the Wehrmacht who allow themselves to be tempted to engage in criminal acts as a result of alcohol abuse will be severely punished.” Severely was no understatement — medical officers were instructed to admit soldiers with alcoholism to treatment facilities where they were evaluated for risk of passing on hereditary diseases. Adhering to Nazi doctrine, that evaluation could result in forced sterilization or euthanasia.

Germany’s nearest ally in the war, Italy, had two prominent alcohol industries at the time, wine and amaros. Like German breweries, the Italian amaro distilleries found their origin in monastic life and were carried on by tradition, which made it a patchwork industry of local producers. Amaros (or amari in Italian) are bittersweet spirits of (generally) lower alcohol content, made from guarded recipes of herbs, spices, and aromatics. As is evidenced by popular varieties such as Fernet, Averna, and Campari, the catchall term “amaro” doesn’t mean they all taste the same or are made similarly. Flavors differ from amaro to amaro on a much greater scale than other spirits. During WWII, many amaro producers saw a shortage of raw materials that led to production halts. Luxardo Maraschino, the essential cherry-nut spirit for classics like the Last Word, Aviation, and Martinez, was very nearly lost forever when its distillery (not based in Italy at the time) was destroyed and most of the Luxardo family killed. The lone survivor reconnected with a former colleague and launched his business again in Torreglia, Italy at the war’s end.

The Axis power of the pacific, Japan, had it rough from the start of the war as well. Grain shortages led the government to issue price controls on staple foodstuffs, including rice. When this failed to stabilize supply, they began rationing the country’s food. This resulted in a 20% decline in caloric intake for Japanese civilians. Japan’s traditional alcoholic beverage, saké, is a rice wine, so naturally it fell victim to the shortages as well. The industry saw a 70% drop in the amount of rice available to it during the war, which had a lasting impact on the production of saké. Manufacturers began adding alcohol to saké to increase their volume of production, ending the tradition of using purely fermented rice. To this day there are two major variations of saké, those with alcohol added and those without. Unfortunately this resourcefulness in the face of genuine starvation was another common experience of the war.

France fared poorly against German advances early in the war, with the government of the Third Republic collapsing in June 1940. Following the establishment of a pro-Nazi collaborationist regime, no state-on-state fighting would occur within French borders until the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. While a number of military personnel rallied to de Gaulle’s aid in the Atlantic and North African theaters, French civilians mounted a determined underground resistance against the occupation. This effort included espionage and sabotage conducted for the protection of France’s profitable wine industry. After the Nazi invasion, Hitler appointed a bureaucracy of weinführers to manage the seizure of French wines for supply to the Wehrmacht, or for sale to the international market. During their use of old-fashioned spy craft to preserve France’s best vintages from requisition, the resistance managed to glean a bit of information about German military movements and positioning as well. They discovered that large orders from the Champagne region usually preceded major Nazi offensives, and were thus able to anticipate the beginning of Rommel’s North African campaign, information they passed along to British intelligence. Deprived of the means to fight the Nazis, France used its enviable endowment of alcohol against its invaders.

Across the channel, a somewhat different drama played out. Churchill’s Britain was experiencing a full-blown existential crisis, having just witnessed the joint British-French defense utterly fail to stop the German blitzkrieg. While the Royal Navy was never outmatched by Germany’s sea power, the rout in France and successive failures in North Africa led Churchill to wonder whether the empire had lost its backbone. The borders of the island nation had been shrinking under outmoded governance and military doctrine for some time. A shining example of British calcification was the rum ration issued to Royal Navy sailors. A tradition dating back centuries, it was comically stingy in World War I and didn’t improve much in the intervening peace. It may be a stretch to extrapolate so much from naval liquor rations, but note that rum, itself a product of Britain’s imperial possessions, had been waning in popularity for some time by 1940. British domestic production of alcohol came to the fore in this period, with breweries setting up a “beer for troops” committee that was committed to supplying ground forces abroad with beer.

Other parts of the United Kingdom had a more mixed experience. Scotland’s prestigious single malt whiskey distilleries were caught in a national argument about the value of distilled spirits in a time of grain rationing. One minister allegedly claimed, “The nation needs food — dollars mean food, and whiskey means dollars.” Ireland, neutral with some combination of anti-British and pro-Nazi sympathies, would suffer from British rationing of agricultural fertilizer, foodstuffs, and petrol, creating a devastating wheat shortage. In short order this impacted exports of Ireland’s most recognizable product, Guinness, which was met with unrest by British soldiers in Belfast. Keen to keep morale up, Britain agreed to exchange wheat for Guinness.

On the other side of war-torn Europe, Russia was dragged into the war when Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in June of 1941. During Operation Barbarossa, three million German soldiers launched one of the most stunning and successful surprise attacks of the war, destroying over 1200 planes (the majority of the Soviet air force) on the first day of the invasion. In a matter of weeks, they opened an eastern front with possession of current-day Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. Stalin’s response to the Nazi betrayal included a decision to reinstate the vodka ration in the Red Army, a practice discontinued by Czar Nicholas II in the First World War. As one historian wrote, “At Stalin’s personal order, 28 million men were given one glass of vodka a day for the next 4 years.” That amounted to over a billion liters of vodka annually, and the rationale behind such a massive expenditure of resources deserves its own study. At a time when other nations were limiting their alcohol production to support the war effort, vodka was a major factor of the Soviet war effort.

Last to join the melee was the United States, prompted by the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Wartime rationing began almost immediately, and would eventually include most consumer products except eggs and dairy. The world was well aware of the Unites States’ industrial capacity at this point, and the total war mentality led to its massive shift towards wartime production. On January 2, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, the manufacture of new cars was banned as auto factories began producing military vehicles. Included in the economic adjustments were whiskey distilleries, whose facilities were repurposed to produce industrial alcohol for torpedo fuel. Though the Department of Agriculture mandated that 15 percent of beer and 30 percent of cigarettes be allocated to servicemen, the decision to turn whiskey production over to the war effort demonstrates the scope of America’s commitment to the idea of industrial buildup as salvation.

The breadth of World War II exposed both soldiers and civilians around the world to the hostilities that transpired. Though alcohol is insignificant compared to those hardships, it serves as an interesting basis for comparison of the war’s participants. Many alcohol producers lived through the same basic reality as their customers — food shortages curtailed production or their facilities were outright destroyed in the conflict. However, despite the hardships these groups endured, any dispatches pertaining to alcohol from Germany, France, Russia, and the United States would have been fascinating, if they existed. A nation so paranoid of human fallibility as Nazi Germany must have had crazy ideas about the inherent vice of alcohol. Imagine the smug subterfuge the French resistance must have dreamed up to protect its nation’s precious grape juice from the German barbares. How about the sudden and nearly forced reintroduction of vodka into the Russian conscript’s diet, stemming from the say-so of one man? Consider the lobbying hours that American distilleries must have put in with politicians, insisting that war or no, they were all still capitalists together, and that making torpedo fuel was good, but making money was essential.

After seventy post-war years, and the onset of the “Long Peace,” we must be grateful for the world that was saved for us. We should be thankful that we are able to raise a glass of anything, because so many who have gone before us are no longer able to. In the end, that’s what they were really fighting for.


Jacob Hall is a bartender at the Gibson and the recent founder of a cocktail delivery startup. He lives in Washington, D.C., and endorses the Boulevardier as the best cocktail there is.


Photo credit: John Atherton