Rating Wines and Spirits in America in 1940


The Consumers Union of the United States was founded in 1936 and soon began to issue its famed Consumer Reports magazine to test and rate consumer goods and services for buyers looking for guidance.

The Consumers Union was the outcome of a new form of business thinking that focused on the interests of consumers and sought to discourage industrial and commercial deception. In a word, it promoted consumerism.

The idea had developed steadily from the later 1800s when the first laws came into force to regulate consumer products, especially foods, and rein in egregious examples consumer fraud or gouging.

The group continues its good work but was reorganized in 2012. A separate company now publishes Consumer Reports and maintains an active web presence; the original Consumer Union whence it issued now focuses on public advocacy and research.

In 1941 the Consumer’s Union issued its fourth Wines and Spirits report. The content itself, however, dates from November, 1940. The publication despite the inevitable period ring of some of the language, has a modern look and feel. The product notes are not as detailed as today’s reviews (in any forum, book, magazine, online rating service, etc.) but are their clear progenitors.

I think too one can see their influence on the well-known Zagat restaurant reviews. The signature is presenting a serial list of reviews, each short and impactful, and then of course a rating. James Robertson’s 1970s influential The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer has a format which also seems influenced by the Consumer Reports style.

Consumer Reports has always been notable for not pulling punches, and its earliest reviews contain no-buy recommendations where it was felt appropriate.

The Wine and Spirits report very interesting. First, there was still the shadow albeit lessening of Prohibition, which had ended only eight years before. Second, the dampening effect of the Depression was still operating although that is something more to be intuited than leaps from the pages. Then as now, New York City, where the Union was based, had the money to indulge the best but even a prosperous middle class continued there through the Depression.

Perhaps most important external factor was the “war in Europe”, a literal description as the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor was still in the future. America was at peace, but the war had many effects including the cessation of wine and brandy shipments from France, Italy, and Germany. Prewar stocks were going fast. The report perceived that this provided an opportunity for California, which indeed finally blossomed as a world wine-centre although I think rather later than the writers hoped.

For the time, they were surprisingly bullish on the quality of California wine, calling the best of it “really good” although always placing Europe in the front rank for the topmost end. Some faith was placed in Argentina as an influential wine country, which indeed did also happen finally. Chile was not mentioned at all. The report bemoaned the shortage of French brandy and dismissed the California version as much inferior, in part because it was too young.

12386031735_8567f5c3d2Each section is prefaced by a detailed and accurate summation of the product category. Whiskey is given a full treatment, especially Scotch whose lustre may have been at its apogee in America then, continuing the success it enjoyed illicitly during the Volstead era.

Canadian whisky is given short shrift, basically. It is termed “extremely light” and its value is questioned in relation (always) to price: American blends were better value. If there was a quality difference resulting from the fact that the neutral grain spirit part was aged in wood for the Canadian product but unaged in the American blends, the report didn’t pick up on it.

In this regard, the report seemed unprophetic, as Canadian whisky continued to grow by leaps and bounds in the U.S. from the 1930s until today.

The report contains what may be, with other reports on the same topic, the only extant reviews of the Canadian straight whiskeys then still sold on the market, at least the U.S. market. One was Pedigree Rye from Seagram at eight years old, the other was a five year old rye also from Seagram, probably the same whisky but three years younger.

The reviews state these two were straight whiskeys, thus comparable to U.S. straight rye; the light moniker was really applicable to the blended type, Seagram VO, say. However, the report dissed the price (“excellent – but overpriced”), which reflected largely the customs duty Canadian whisky had to pay to enter the U.S. Clearly, the report liked the Canuck straights but felt they weren’t the value they had been when there was a shortage of bonded U.S. whisky for a few years after Repeal. With seven years elapsed since 1933, American rye and bourbon had regained their traditional character but sold for less money than Pedigree.

l-rrmx6472u1pywkThe people who wrote the report clearly were straight whiskey old-timers who appreciated body and character, words which recur in their discussion.

Sometimes there is a taste note that could have been written yesterday. The panel grumble that Old Overholt Straight Rye seemed changed in character: “This brand has changed considerably during the past year. Although it is still well made, it lacks the characteristic brand flavor it once possessed, and is much lighter-bodied”.

The report liked Finch’s Monticello Straight Rye, calling it “heavy” and well-made.

It tartly observed that Mt. Vernon Straight Rye sometimes contained distillate from distilleries other than Mt. Vernon and that its rating should be taken to apply only to the genuine Mt. Vernon stuff. And so on. Quite modern, eh?

Now we’ve got to find the beer report, but how? There was at least one, I know, c. 1949, and probably the Union had rated beer much earlier. I can just imagine how it went: “Ballantine IPA has the character of the best pre-Prohibition stock, or India pale, beers. Expensive but worth it.”. Or, “Trommer White Label retains the quality of German beer due to its all-malt construction, a high rating is in order”. “Eichler’s from the Bronx seems reduced in body from the straw boater days, we rate it at par”. And so on.

Note re images: The early cover of a Consumer Reports magazine was sourced at this Consumer Reports website. The second image was sourced at this flickr site, here.  The third, hereAll trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized licencees. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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