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Trade wars: when booze gets banned

With the recent spat between Alberta and British Columbia and now the EU and US seeing booze thrown into the crosshairs of trade wars, when else has alcohol been the victim of diplomatic falling outs?

Earlier this month, the spectre of a trade war between the US and European Union over higher tariffs on steel imports, led the EU to warn it could raise tariffs in turn on various US imports including “certain whiskies”.

With President Donald Trump apparently of the opinion that trade wars are a “good thing”, there is now concern in other countries that their products may be caught up in the tit-for-tat tariff hikes.

The Irish Taosieach, Leo Varadkar, recently said he was concerned that Irish whiskey could be the next to be targeted.

“When I hear bourbon whiskey I think the next response might be tariffs against Irish whiskey,” he told the Irish press ahead of his trip to the US this week.

And now, with the UK demanding explanations from Russia after one Russian defector was poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury and another exile was found murdered in his London home, perhaps Scotch whisky could be in for a rough time as well.

These threatened bans are not the first time in history that wine or spirits have been the target of trade disputes, however, so what other notable examples are there?

A crude question

The most recent wine ban occurred, albeit briefly, only last month when the two western Canadian provinces of Alberta and BC clashed over the extension of an oil pipeline to the Pacific coast.

Briefly: oil-producing Alberta wants the Kinder Morgan pipeline extension to go ahead as it will create jobs and the current BC government which relies on the Green party to give it a slender majority has taken against it on environmental grounds.

On 7 February therefore, Alberta’s premiere, Rachel Notley, announced a complete ban on all wine imports from BC.

BC protested and then, towards the end of the month, when premier John Horgan agreed to further talks, the ban was lifted.

So not very dramatic in the grander scheme of things but perhaps an indication of the growing importance of the BC wine industry that it’s deemed worthy of political sanction – even at an intra-provincial level.

‘Where’s young Talbot? Where is valiant John?’

A typical trade: a medieval merchant in rather rakish red hose looks to barrels of wine which may be part of a deal he’s cut for the sacks of grain on the left.

Returning to one of db’s favourite moments in wine history – the fall of English Bordeaux in 1453 – we see a rather more serious example of a trade war in action.

The fact that it came after a long, bloody and destructive war lasting 116 years goes some way to understanding it however,

Readers will be aware that for 300 years between 1152 and 1453, Bordeaux and much of the surrounding countryside were English possessions and, as such, the region’s wines became hugely popular in England and formed the basis of a lucrative trade with salt fish, wool, cloth and other commodities coming out of England which were then traded for wine, tableware and other southern French/northern Spanish goods.

With the fall of Bordeaux in 1453 however and French victory in the long-running conflict, Charles VII took a dim view of the city’s longstanding links to the old enemy.

So dim a view in fact that he built two enormous fortresses to cow the burghers of Bordeaux and remind them who was in charge; the Château Trompette and Château du Hâ, the former castle having its defences and cannon not facing the estuary and the prospect of a fresh English assault but facing instead the newly ‘liberated’ city.

Even when the celebrated military engineer Marshal Vauban upgraded the defences of both fortresses in the 1680s (along with Fort Médoc)*, the ravelins, enceintes and salients he added to Trompette remained jutting, pointedly, at Bordeaux; the city having sided with the ‘Fronde’ against the French crown in the civil wars of 1648-53 – the opposition to direct rule by an absolutist French monarchy having been one of the principal reasons for the city staying so loyal to the (distant) King of England during the Middle Ages.

And if the Gascons were treated this way by their new kings, imagine what French rule now meant for those English merchants still keen to trade in the immediate aftermath of the Hundred Years War.

Although many no doubt thought it likely, trade between England and Bordeaux was not actually banned, save for a brief period in October 1455, but the French certainly made it as difficult as possible for English merchants trying to work in the city.

First and foremost, where previously they had had a free run of the place, after 1453 English merchants were required to purchase very expensive safe conducts and were routinely hassled, obstrcuted and asked for further payments by French officials at every stage.

Sailing down the Gironde, English had to put in at Soulac and wait to be given permission to proceed (which might take several days) and then put in again at Blaye where they had to surrender their weapons.

Once in Bordeaux they were permitted to stay for just a month, use only certain lodgings and observe a curfew.

They had to wear a red cross on their clothing to identify themselves and all travel beyond the city walls was completely banned save with the express permission (and payment) of the French authorities and under guard.

Things improved with the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475 but for the most part English merchants gradually gave up direct trade as too bothersome, leaving the importing to Bretons, Italians and Flemish and focusing their efforts on other wine producing areas such as Spain and Portugal.

Efforts by Henry VII’s government in the late 1480s to insist that Gascon wine imported into England must be on English ships with English crews did little to boost trade.

It should be noted, however, that while France’s old enemy, England, suffered from severe trade restrictions, the ‘auld’ ally, Scotland, did not.

With English merchants increasingly squeezed out, Scottish merchants had a free run in Bordeaux and it marks the rise in popularity of claret in Scotland which endures to this day.

But the Middle Ages wasn’t the only time Britain’s taste for French wine but its antagonism towards the inhabitants hindered the wine trade…


*Fort Médoc is one of 12 fortresses and fortified towns dotted around the French frontier that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Fortifications of Vauban. The Château du Hâ spent several centuries as a prison and Bordeaux’s principal Palais de Justice just two towers exist today. Château Trompette was completely demolished in the mid-19th century and today lies under the city’s Place de Quinconces.

The long drought: 1688-1815

Too long to cover properly here, suffice to say that during the 127 year period encompassing the Glorious Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars, the wine spigot connecting England to France was off rather more often than it was on.

During the reign of the Scottish Stuarts, the increasingly united Great Britain enjoyed rather better relations with France than it had in the Middle Ages, indeed, Charles II and his brother James were first cousins of Louis XIV and it’s in this period that Samuel Pepys so famously writes of drinking ‘Ho Bryan’.

Claret was back in fashion! But, it wasn’t to last. Rather daringly outing himself as a Catholic, James II was soon deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, the also very Protestant, William, Prince of Orange – a mortal enemy of the Sun King (Louis XIV).

Claret continued to be imported to Britain throughout this period and of course Scottish and Irish families – not least of them the Bartons and Lynches – founded important businesses in Bordeaux at this time but the irregular supply led, once again, to the rise in consumption of wines from friendlier countries including ‘Germany’ (such as it was) and Portugal – especially Port of course – and ‘genever’/gin from William’s native Holland (because French ‘brandy’ had been banned).

And naturally there was a political spin-off to this as well, with Stuart supporters (especially Catholics in Scotland and Ireland) opting to drink French wine, especially claret, as symbol of their support for the ousted Stuart monarchs and contempt for ‘Dutch William’.

Periods of peace between the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions and Seven Years war allowed trade to resume once more; Britain still keen on claret and the Bordelais still viewing Britain as one of their top markets.

But the periods of respite could be brief. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cast a long shadow and, like Charles VII, Napoleon was apparently rather distrustful of Bordeaux and its citizens, who he considered too royalist, traded-oriented and pro-English (he also preferred Champagne and Burgundy and while in exile on St Helena swapped his claret for Gevrey-Chambertin whenever possible).

The Bordelais didn’t think too much of Napoleon either as it happened and, with his empire crumbling in 1814, the city declared itself pro-Bourbon. On 12 March the citizens opened the city gates to Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army with barely a shot fired – the winemakers and merchants also knowing that trade was about to get a serious boost.

Indeed, in the 200 years since the flow of claret to the UK has flowed fairly unimpeded just as it did in the Middle Ages (though minus a few Norman and Castilian pirates it has to be said).

Break-ups are hard on the knees

The breakup of the Soviet Union was a protracted and painful affair and one might say given Russia’s recent actions in the region, one that has not yet run its course.

In 2006, two particular bones of contention were Moldova and Georgia, which were both leaning away from Russia and showing pro-NATO and EU inclinations.

Russia decided to flex its economic muscle cracking down on wines from both countries claiming they contained dangerous levels of heavy metals and pesticides and were dangerous to the health of anyone drinking them.

As Russia was the destination for 80-90% of the wines exported from both countries there’s no doubt political motives were at play, although the Georgian government did subsequently shut down seven ‘wineries’ that were found to be producing alcoholic products falsely labelled as ‘wine’.

The ban’s effect was to drive Georgia in particular closer to the West and contributed to rising tensions between the two countries, which led to war in 2008.

A happier outcome is perhaps the greater focus on quality and subsequent attention Georgian wine has received in Europe.

Although Russia lifted its ban on Georgian wines in 2013, they are not nearly as dominant there as they used to be.

The ban on Moldovan wines was lifted in 2007 and then slapped on again in 2013 during a fresh wave of economic posturing and began to be eased once again in 2017.

Meanwhile, Russia also placed a ban on Montenegrin wines in 2017 after the little Balkan country prepared to join NATO. “Sanitary failings” were once again used as the apparent excuse for the ban.

Russia has also previously banned spirits including Sazerac, Jack Daniels and various Ukrainian drinks.

Cuba libre!

The overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista may have inspired one of the most pop-art friendly revolutions of the 20th century but it also pitted the newly socialist Caribbean island on a political and ideological collision course with its larger neighbour – the US.

Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, before Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista’s regime, Cuba had been the playground of the Caribbean, a place of gambling, cheap booze, sun, sea and easy sex.

“Havana was then what Las Vegas has become,” as one Cuban-American historian has noted.

American businesses and organised crime had also invested heavily in the country so they were not best pleased when Castro promptly confiscated all private property and nationalised businesses upon seizing power.

The real stinger though was in 1962 when Castro allowed the Soviets to begin building missile stations on the island – silos capable of launching nuclear armed missiles anywhere in the United States.

What followed was the famously tense Cuban Missile Crisis that took the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Fortunately, while the fallout wasn’t radioactive, it did lead to one of the most famous and long-standing trade embargos history – against Cuban rum and cigars.

For 49 years from 1962 until the ban began to be eased in 2015, real Cuban rum or cigars could not be imported into the US, even if bought in a third country and for personal consumption.

In 2016 – as part of a long-running easing of the various bans and embargoes on Cuban products – the Obama administration announced that there were no longer to be any restrictions on the amount of Cuban-made goods “including alcohol and cigars” that Americans could bring home with them – but still only for personal use.

Secret Drinkers

Another antagonistic little country currently labouring under numerous trade bans is North Korea.

Among the products under embargo to the state are luxury goods such as wine, beer and spirits, with the EU expanding its sanctions last year to include beer and saké.

You might be forgiven for not knowing this, however, given the Kim family’s well-documented taste for expensive drinks – King Jong-il being a devoted quaffer of Cognac and his despotic son, Kim Jong-un, is equally keen on Champagne and Bordeaux.

The demand for these alcoholic drinks among the ruling clique is such that a lively and no doubt lucrative black market to the country has sprung up – as one might expect.

Just this week a leaked UN reported pointed the finger at two Singaporean companies that have flouted the embargo and sold wine and spirits to North Korea.

One can only hope that Jong-un eventually comes to the realisation that giving up his nuclear ambitions will lead to hassle-free access to his favourite tipples.

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