American whiskey and bourbon in the 1940s is actually a pretty interesting way to look at how the United States directed private companies to dedicate resources to the war effort. It’s also an interesting way to look at the intersection between government, economics, and culture.
The production of bourbon and whiskey was halted in order to produce fuel and penicillin for the military. It’s similar to how silk stockings went out so that the silk could be used to make parachutes. Pocket nail files were banned from production, scrap metal was collected, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese held sway because of the limitations on dairy.
However, despite this restriction on bourbon and liquor production, there was no shortage as distillers had a three-and-a-half year supply available to quench the thirst of Americans, and, for probably the first time, European drinkers, too.
Gance drinks bourbon and American whiskeys. A man named James Crow (weird) was a Scottish chemist who invented the “sour mash” process for the production of bourbon in Kentucky. I think it’s kind of amusing that Crow employed this technique and decided to age his bourbon before selling it, when that bourbon was Old Crow. That may not mean much, but I think it’s funny because Crow would later go on to spend the next twenty years working for a distillery that today is known as Woodford Reserve. He, in addition to inventing the stuff, is responsible for what would eventually become one of the cheapest bourbons as well as work on one that would be known as one the finest.
There’s a certain kind of beautiful illusory Americanism in that. The innovation of bourbon has an unstable economic position. Bourbon is a drink Of The People. We have the spectrum of Old Crow and Old Granddad to Woodford Reserve and Four Roses.
I like bourbon. The first night I sat down to do some writing on The Clear Case, I sipped on a glass of Bulleit, which wasn’t around in Gance’s day, but is one of my favorite affordable bourbons. Other mid-shelf bourbons that I think are great include Maker’s Mark (which is kind of a cultural icon in hip hop) and Buffalo Trace (which I kinda think of as hipster bourbon— ironically since the distillery only opened in 1999).
Whiskey in American History has a complicated past, though, and interesting from the perspective of 1947. The Whiskey Rebellion was one of the first large tax protests in the independent United States. Alexander Hamilton levied a tax on whiskey and spirits to work on the debt accumulated during the revolutionary war.
Farmers in the era western frontier were affronted! They literally attacked the tax collector in Pennsylvania. American farmers were unwilling to sacrifice their profits on liquor in order to recover from making a new god damn country. Eventually the tax was repealed and blah blah blah, complicated tax arguments representation, grumble grumble, profits.
Early feminists also used controlling liquor as a suffrage effort. You can see some interesting rhetoric about this on the show Boardwalk Empire (I sure like referencing HBO, it seems). Whiskey was often depicted as the destruction of good men, driving them to violence against women and children. The resulting prohibition is a fascinating and complicated time in American history that illustrates the blurred lines between government, economics, crime, and gender rights. You just can’t escape it!
But now let’s jump forward to where we started, 1947. Somehow, people were more inclined to tolerate liquor taxes when faced with World War and the opportunity to produce something after so many years of depression. The time of and surrounding WWII is also a great way to see how Americans are willing to compromise their conservative, small-government sensibilities for practical solutions like tax initiatives, social security, and the WPA.
Let’s get back to bourbon, though, rather than going down that rabbit hole. Jack Daniel’s stopped producing whiskey during the war, as many distillers had to. But it was 1947 that marked the relaunch, once better corn was available. 1947 is an interesting time in American history, particularly in the “frontiers.” In San Francisco, by 1947, there was an eerie absence of the immediate memory of war rationing in the day-to-day lives of “middle-class” Americans. The influx of people and the economic stimulation propelled people forward, leaving the wider culture less time and less desire to grieve, as it did following the first World War.
Gance never had any trouble getting bourbon and whiskey, given what was on reserve. So the flow, for him, was seemingly uninterrupted. He certainly would’ve had more trouble getting cigarettes. But there he is, in his apartment in 1947, reading a book at his kitchen table while a glass of bourbon sits near his hand.
Bourbon and American whiskey are literary icons in urban fiction, mysteries, noir. Philip Marlowe seems to carry whiskey around with him. And while Gance can’t quite hold his liquor well enough to tool around with a hip flask, bourbon is a regular fixture in his life. For many people of this time, bourbon and whiskey were a kind of meme. Three fingers in a glass read like words: leisure, solace, and courage.