Oiling the war machine

Mark explores the interlinked past of whisky and war
By Mark Jennings
War, what is it good for? Selling whisky it seems. Not so en vogue now, but there was a time when the military and good old martial imagery was sent guns blazing, to sell brown liquid. I spent a good while in the archive with a dram of old Scotch, humming ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, to bring you a look back at how things used to be.

You still see the occasional Highlander, in full military regalia, gracing a bottle of whisky, connecting it unintentionally to a forgotten era where war and whisky went hand-in-hand. This totem is a signifier of a different age, but a crucial one I think. A time when whisky stood for something beyond the spirit alone, a zeitgeist when all those around you were marching towards the inevitable fight, whether you knew it or not.

“A Commanding Spirit finds its way to the front.” Whisky marketing has been happy to ride on the back of world events since marketing began, so it should be no surprise that we find Pattisons’ advertising its whisky in 1897 using military symbolism.

“In General Use” depicts a couple of high-ranking soldiers, standing and seated, enjoying a glass of “Gordon brand” whisky. They are in full uniform, from feathered cap to gold braid, to the sheathed sword and spurred black boots, the bottle perched on an overturned marching drum. Behind them a gigantic Union Jack gently furls in the breeze, revealing a cannon. Pattisons’ was not alone in its use of such imagery at the time, but its ferocious use of metaphor was noteworthy. Another of its ads shows a charging line of Gordon Highlanders next to a just-fired canon; the copy proclaims, “Steady, unfaltering attention to the object aimed at hits the mark and wins the battle. Pattisons’ has aimed at hitting the public taste.” The whisky may be “cream-like in taste”, its adverts are less subtle.

One thing you notice – the closer to conflict, the more nostalgic the images of war become, up until conflict begins and then most advertising uses contemporary scenes, such as the fascinating series Johnnie Walker did from 1914 to 1918. Featuring its famous Walking Man as a real-life character, he is seen at command posts, in trenches and even eyeing a canon with his famous monocle, while an elderly soldier looks on.

The caption reads:
“INSPECTOR: ‘We should like to christen this after you.’
“JOHHNIE WALKER: ‘How’s that?’
“INSPECTOR: ‘Why, because it cannot be improved.’”

After the war things return to the parochial, the nostalgic. Dewar’s released a whole slew of old-timey, military-inspired adverts. A notable one from 1937 is headlined “For Distinguished Service”, and features what I can only describe as a soldier who went native. A long red coat, luxuriant gold braid, medals a’plenty, set off by an Indian headdress and scarf. You might think this a nod to racial diversity were it not for the clashing mention of “Honours of the third Indian cavalry, Mooltan, Afghanistan 1878-80.” This is one advert that doesn’t age well.

At the same time, Old Schenley is more than happy to pull out the soldier trope. “Schenley Salutes You with its 20-Million-Dollar-Blend,” with an older jowly, saluting soldier – his lumpen face set in a 1,000-mile stare. Annoyingly nowhere in the article does it expand on this grandiose concept of the “20-Million-Dollar-Blend”, but it does deliver the delightfully tangential “The Patented ‘Protect-All’ bottle - the first satisfactory, un-refillable free-pouring bottle… protects the bartender against any unfair suspicion.” Good lord, what a time to be a drinker.

The Canadians, surely, are peace-loving and have no truck with military symbolism. Well, kinda yes and no.

The 1939 advert from Seagrams VO, “Canada’s Finest”, depicts a General James Wolfe front and centre. He’s wounded, around him men of obvious repute sway and morn. Death is close. The advert, and I need to be reminded this is an advert not a History Channel interlude, proclaims, “Mortally wounded on the Plains of Abraham, General Wolfe’s last words … ‘Now, I can go in peace!’. His famous victory in 1759, won for Great Britain all of French Canada.”

Jesus, I need a drink after all that.

It’s clear that these adverts are reflecting the spirit of the time. With the First World War in recent memory and the pendulum swinging again towards War in Europe, canny brands were latching on to a nostalgia that was free from the savagery of recent memory but still clearly imbued with military narrative. As war breaks out in 1939 the nostalgic has gone, replaced by a factual, up to the minute approach that substitutes the then for the now.

The matter-of-factness of much of the Second World War whisky advertising is quite shocking, its stark message distinct from that of the previous war. Gone the humour, replaced by a frankness that is shocking even today.

A notable Seagrams advert shows two pictures side by side under the headline, “Which do you want?”. The first is a Pacific Island beach scene – empty but from a hastily made wooden cross, topped with a soldier’s helmet. On the right, small-town America. The audience is asked to, “Decide with war bonds.”

Johnnie Walker wastes no time in wartime promotion, but now more subdued, more reflective, with a series of adverts under the “Good work - Good whisky” banner. They are beautifully illustrated and notable for restraint.

Some brands still looked back, even at times of turmoil. Famous Scotch Dewar’s offers a print of a smiling, pit-helmeted soldier, resplendent with brass buttons, blue tunic and steely black britches, from another advert in the series. This print is likewise available for a few coins, full of dog-whistle military copy: “Communiques from the social front stress the importance of the veteran campaigner. Whether it’s assembly at your favourite bar, or mess call at the home grounds, strategy dictates Dewar’s White label and soda.”

While some went for the twee, others used their ad budget in a wholly more shocking way. Take Hiram Walker & Sons, whose 1944 advert showed no bottle of whisky, just a soldier tossing a hand grenade, to the words “Pineapples coming over… 50 to the Gallon.”

What does this have to do with a spirits manufacturer? The advert carefully informs the reader thusly.

“A gallon of alcohol helps makes 50 hand grenades. All our plant are producing it in vast quantities.”

As war wanes, so the adverts begin to focus on life after the war. A Calvet ad from 1945 states, “Christmas is back. He is home”, it continues, “No need now to pretend with just a snapshot for company. No need for the smile you didn’t feel, that somehow failed to help much last time.”

Gosh, is that something in my eye.

You could argue that it’s inevitable with something as dramatic as a world war that whisky ads couldn’t help but feature some mention of the fight, and maybe you’re right – but by the same measure, where are the Covid whisky ads? No, folks, I don’t think this old hack is too cynical to suggest that war was a boon for marketers. They didn’t need to think of clever campaigns or slogans, they simply needed to append themselves to the ‘meme’ of the day. I’m not saying it’s lazy, I’m just suggesting that it’s a commercial decision.

No longer fearing the bullets, now the world is dealing with a monetary enemy – inflation. A complicated advert from brand Calverts, curiously sloganed, “The whiskey with ‘happy blending’”, shows a spendthrift turkey blowing up a balloon, while a learned owl (the Calvet brand-animal) stands precariously close, fingering a needle.

“Keep prices down! For victory and your own post-war security do these seven things: 1. Buy only what you need and make things last… 3. Pay increased taxes willingly… 7. Buy and hold more war bonds.”

If they weren’t selling bonds, they were using the recent past as nostalgia to sell whisky.

Johnnie Walker’s Walking Man reappears in a 1949 advert entitled “Time matches on!” where he literally straddles the past. Uniting on the left-hand side the red-coated soldier of old, he at ease, strolling with a lady friend, with a modern soldier, dressed in sharp pressed khaki, his blue-suited femme arm in arm.

“Being me I’ve a long-matured tradition,
“Unchanging in a world that’s changing fast;
“Though marching with the times, I’ve still a mission,
“To keep alive the spirit of the past.”

And with that, bar a few Highlanders appearing on bottles, and the occasional nostalgic advert, war and whisky go their separate ways.