Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hibiki 17 and 21 Japanese Blended Whisky's US Launch And The Nature of Beauty

Hibiki 17 and 21, Suntory's blended whisky in the sweet spot age statements, will hit the US market this fall.  The announcement came in May, at a launch event in New York which was interesting in a number of ways.  For me, the whiskies (and the event) provoked an internal debate about the nature of beauty.  While it's subjective - and "in the eye of the beholder", there are some real philosophical issues.  Beauty is about ideas such as "harmony", "regularity", and "balance".  These are exactly the aims that whisky blenders strive for when making blends.  There is a tension between the individual and the harmonic whole in the notion of beauty - and it shows in a wide variety of domains.  It comes back to whiskey because Suntory chose to do something interesting in introducing the mature Hibiki 17 and 21 year old blends to the American market: they did a tasting with the major components tasted separately and then, at the end, together as the blended expressions.  G-LO over at It's Just The Booze Dancing... put it thus: "a Deconstructed tasting of Hibiki":
The structured tasting treats each of the components as an individual instrument in an orchestra.  Then you finish with the ensemble.  Suntory spoke a narrative of obsessive perfectionism in the crafting the many components and, indeed, the individual whiskies, from the grain, to the ex-bourbon, sherry cask, and Japanese oak all were stellar.  Indeed, they overshadowed the ultimate blends in some ways.  And this got me to thinking - as I have many times before, about the divide between the individual and the collective and the issue of averaging when it comes to beauty.

For example, in Bach's Violin "Double" Concerto BWV 1043:  I Vivace and III Allegro particularly - the 1960s version with  Itzach Perlman and Isaac Stern and Zubin Mehta and the NY Philharmonic - all these elements are laid bare.  
(you can hear the first movement, Vivace here: )
(and the third movement, Allegro, here: )
Bach's piece, among the most brilliant and beautiful pieces of music ever written in my opinion, features a tension, fire, and relentless drive in an aching minor key.  The melody shifts back and forth among the orchestra, and two dueling violins.  In this case we have the youthful brilliance of Itzach Perlman ascendant taking on the old master, Isaac Stern.  Some times they play together and other times taking turns with the same melodic phrases, each one challenging the other to match the virtuosity, timbre, and verve just laid out.  Beauty happens in the massed strings.  The solos are not timbrally as rich, but they are more exciting, delineated, and clear.  Each is a tightrope act.  It's the solos I remember and why I put this track on over and over again.  The sonics of the recording are pretty flat, but the energy these two geniuses bring to celebrating (and out-doing) each other produces the finest performance of this amazing piece.  Is it more powerful and beautiful when they play together or when they are alone?  It's subjective, but I find the moments when they are alone to be more affecting.  But it's the contrast of the back and forth that really makes it that way.

This put me in mind of the topic of averaging and the study of how humans perceive beauty in human faces. I wrote about how this relates to whisky several years ago in a guest writer post on Rachel MacNeill's that was about how carefully tasting whisky can transport you, intellectually and emotionally, called "Whisky is a Time Traveler":

"Blends can be delicious but the definite sense of terroir is lost. For example, when I drink Johnny Walker Black Label I enjoy the sweet heathery Highland opening, the firm malt foundation, and then the whiff of peat smoke and oak in the finish. But the lightness and glossed sameness of each encounter I sense the blender’s art in barrel averaging and expression blending as a way of making beauty exactly like the way a number of faces computer averaged looks very pretty – but not like any one human’s actual face."

"These averaged faces are attractive, but they are not real. Real faces have imperfections that reflect their actuality, their history, their individuality. These faces are more attractive than most people, but somehow cannot match the great beauties who have real character. The same thing goes with whisky. Barrel averaging and blending produce a smoothed impression, more perfect and beautiful than the average barrel, but without the depth of character and individual fidelity that you can find in a great cask.

Lisa DeBruine and Ben Jones, who run the Face Research Lab at the University of Glasgow Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology run a web site as part of their research into face averaging and perceptions of beauty.  In the historical summary area they write:

"In the 1800s, Sir Francis Galton created composite images of faces by projecting face photographs of many different individuals onto a single piece of photographic film. This was done in an effort to visualise the facial characteristics that were common to a particular group of people (e.g. to represent the typical face of criminals or soldiers). When Galton showed these images to his colleagues, however, they unanimously agreed that these composite faces tended to be more attractive than the individual face photographs from which they were manufactured (i.e. the composites tended to be more attractive than their constituent faces)."

The great thing about this site is that you get to try it out for yourself - here:
Here's an example.  I selected the 3 faces on the left, below and then averaged them and got the face on the right.  It's rather stunning.  
These three faces combine to yield this...
...averaged face.

The individual faces are each distinct, unique and individual.  They include features that are deviations from the norm.  The averaged face pulls all these deviations towards the mean - a "regression to the mean" which produces more average proportions, angles, and sizes, to the features.  Our human interpretation of this is "beauty".  By picking flawed faces it highlights the improvements.  If you tossed Grace Kelley's face in there, or any other face you love (Meryl Streep), you might consider the end result a step down, however.  But take the point: beauty is harmony and averaged to the mean is harmony.

Her's the interface where can select many faces to average, exploring the process.
This is, in a visceral and immediately comprehensible visual way, what's going on with barrel averaging and good blending.  Individuals - "warts and all" become beautiful when they regress towards the mean in large batch averaging and blending of whisky.  This was the genius of 19th century Scotch blenders like John Walker, John Dewar Sr., and Archibald Ballantine, who took individual malts that were inconsistent and sometimes unpleasant and produced blends which created a happy medium that possessed, somehow, more beauty than the average component.

(right): Sarah B. of
Sarah B. and Allison Patel watch the presentation by Suntory chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu
The Hibiki 17 and 21 launch event in New York in May was designed to emphasize the beauty of the blend, not from the point of view of averaging out the flaws - but from an obsessive artisanship that is about making each of the components perfect.  Elegant simplicity in the layouts and graphic elements which included references to trees (with the connotations of the seasons - fall being the launch date) and visual reference to the simplicity and art of classical Japanese calligraphy.  Suntory's Chief Blender Seiichi Koshimizu spoke eloquently about the crafting that goes into the component whiskies that make up the Hibiki blends.  These components formed the body of the tasting.  On the tables were 6 selections:  Chita Grain Pure Whisky, Yamazaki American White Oak Malt Whisky, Sherry Cask Malt Whisky, Mizunara Cask Malt Whisky, followed by Hibiki 17 and Hibiki 21.  It wasn't clear if the Yamazaki White Oak, Sherry, and Mizunara were the OB bottlings of these expressions sold in Europe and the Far East, as reviewed by Alwynne Gwilt in October of 2012 on her blog
Alwynne provides fantastic tasting notes and some insights into those expressions - which jibe very well with what we drank.  It's also possible that they provided examples of what went into Hibiki - which would have been older.  Update: Thomas Øhrbom of just provided a photo of a menu at the Yamazaki Distillery bar which showed that Suntory does sell the Hibiki 17 ingredients (fully 17 years old and over-proof) as pours there.  I will use the age and proof statements from that menu in the post below.  One thing is for certain - these Yamazaki wood examples were superb - and they were clearly a higher proof than the Hibiki blends which followed them.  

The following tasting notes are a composite of notes taken at the event and follow-up tasting sessions at home using samples I took from the event.  I'm providing composite star and points ratings to underscore fine differences in how I rated these excellent whiskies. 
Sarah B.(left)  and Allison Patel of Brenne (right) get into the Chita grain.

Chita Grain - 17 years old 55% abv

The intensity of flavor definitely indicates a bit higher proof than 43%.  Tasted head to head with Nikka Coffey Grain (45%) and Greenore 15 (43%) (the subject of an upcoming post) the Chita was definitely more intense and richly flavored.  And while all 3 were delicious, the Chita took the grouping hands down.  A really special and very tasty set of flavors.
G-LO of Booze Dancing
Color: gold
Nose: sunflower, honey, dust, vanilla, creamy custard, and some distant notes of red bean and sawn oak..
Palate:  lush sweet vanilla cream opening with creme broulle custard.  Light and elegant mouth feel.  Butter and creme broulle with some herbal aspects of sunflower and gorse.  The sweetness becomes incense-intense on expansion, waxing in buttery Scotch-malt highland flavors with a hint of salt.  The expansion continues into rich malty flavors and white oak.  The finish is moderately long and lightly herbal.  Just beautiful grain whisky - stunning and intense and as fully flavored as any grain whiskies under 30 years I've tried.

91 *****

Yamazaki American White Oak - presumably 17 yo 54% abv 

Color: gold
Nose: floral vanilla, coconut, creamy tropical fruits (papaya, and mandarin orange)
Palate: honey and floral vanilla on the opening - which was big, sweet and explosive.  Honey, brown sugar, stone fruits and rich malt on the mid palate.  The bourbon barrel's influence is clear, but the Yamazaki distillate is in command with fruitiness, and Highland malt flavor fully in the Scotch whisky wheelhouse. The turn was full of rich oak.  The finish long and satisfying with oak tannins, herbals, and a hint of char.  Stunning.

90 *****

Yamazaki Mizunara Oak - presumably 17 yo 52% abv.

Color: dark gold with an amber tint
Nose:  Complex and sweet with floral perfumed intensity, stone fruits and cherry and a nutty (almond or pecan) quality that rode over a buttery aspect.  Hatbox oak lurked underneath.
Palate:   Big, intense, and stunning on the opening with candied citrus and rancio.  The expansion brought tropical fruits and darker complexity of tobacco, some coastal iodine notes, and a bit of char.  Spiciness and herbal bitters blossomed on the turn and the finish - which was incredibly long and amazingly satisfying with herbs and  a touch of smoke.  This was the pour of the night for me.

A drop of water took the spiciness higher, and enriched the mouth feel and sweetness.  Stunning.  The spiciness had a clove/nutmeg spice aspect, rather than peppers.

93 *****

Yamazaki Sherry Oak presumably 17 yo 49% abv.

Color: dark amber.
Nose:  sweet sandalwood, cocoa powder, mashed dates, old polished oak furniture.  Deeper, some plum fruit and magnolia florals.  
Yamazaki Sherry Oak
Palate:  The opening is unexpectedly dense and dry, with focused oak, dark and tannic, up front with bittersweet chocolate, raisins, and prune essences.  The mouthfeel is light.  The expansion brings a ton of congnac-like rancio, old sherry, and oak furniture.  The turn is bitter with tannins.  The finish is long with dark oak, bitters, rancio, and some residual spiciness.

Adding a few drops of water introduces a kiss of sweetness up front, more body to the mouth feel, and a note of malty molasses to the mid-palate and finish that is beguiling.  The finish takes on a vibrant spiciness that I have come to associate with Spanish oak.  This is downright luscious with a drop of water - strongly evocative of great Glendronachs.

92 *****

Hibiki 17 - 43% abv.

Color pale gold
Nose: floral plum blossom, magnolia, and honeysuckle.  Richer aromas of honey, honeycomb, tropical fruits, linen, light oak and mineral.
Palate:  sweet and floral on the opening, with honey, vanilla, and the characteristic Japanese musky sweetness I used to call "orchid" (until Sarah B. challenged me that most orchids don't have an aroma).  Purple fruits (plum and fig) and light hints of lighter green fruits (quince, green apple, and mango) and malt richness on the expansion.  Rising spiciness and oak on the turn.  The finish is fairly long with spiciness, oak tannins as light bitter, lingering toffee and hints of floral fruitiness.  Just lovely.

A few drops of water increases the sweetness and, particularly, the spicy notes in the mid-palate and finish but reduces the floral intensity of the nose and opening.  It's worth trying with a drop, however, as it ends up making Hibiki 17 a tad more lush and involving overall.

89 *****

Hibiki 21 - 43% 

Color: dark gold with amber tints
Nose: richly floral:  magnolia and roses, dates, honeyed cakes, tropical fruits, linen, and sharper notes of dark oak.
Palate:  big dark fruity sweet opening with plum jam, some complicated filigreed incense sherry or port dark vinous sweet, and toffee.  There is also that particularly Japanese complex sweet fruitiness which I have trouble putting a name too, but is diagnostically Japanese.  The mid-palate expansion brings clove-cinnamon spiciness, a mixture of dark fruits like plum and fig and lighter acidic fruits like green plums, green apple, pineapple and mango and clear note of sherry with cocoa.  Oak tannin shows up too in the mid-palate and the turn adds sheery-like rancio, dark oak, and herbal bitters.  The finish is long, sherry rich - nutty and cocoa - and lightly herbal as well.

92 *****

Conclusions:  The big issue with Suntory in the US is the availability of the good stuff in the US.

When Suntory took over Beam International earlier in the year I wondered aloud (i.e. on this blog) whether this would mean more availability of the top expressions here.  There was little reason for hope - given the limited quantities.  The timing of the Hibiki 17 and 21 introduction in the US indicates, to me, that it was probably in the works even before the purchase of Beam.  But it's clear the US market matters to Suntory and that's great.  Maybe part of it is that Anchor is now importing a big portion of the Nikka line (and we American's are all the richer for the competition).  Last fall brought Hakushu Heavily Peated to the US, now this Fall we get these Hibiki gems.  However this tasting left me pining for Chita Single Grain and the Yamazaki Four Woods series which are not available in the US.  They were the unintended stars of the show.  They were introduced as examples of the quality crafting that goes into Hibiki, but, tasted head to head, they rivaled, and in some areas exceeded the Hibikis.  Part of this almost certainly is because they were bottled at higher proof.  This left me pining for Hibiki at higher proof.

On The Nature of Beauty

The tasting underscores the issues between the beauty of the individual voice and power of the massed chorus introduced earlier.  Just like those moments in the Bach Double Concerto when Perlman and Stern took solos, the Yamazaki individual wood expressions were direct, powerful, and compelling.  The Hibiki blends filled in with greater complexity and balance, but less compelling interest overall.  Part of this I firmly believe is the fact that Hibiki's are lower proof.  But part of it has to do with the nature of blending itself.  It is intuitive that a combination made of fantastic components will be fantastic - and the Hibikis are.  But it says something to me that the brilliance of the individual components is not immediately additive to yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  In the blending to yield Hibiki something is gained and something is lost.  Gained is complexity, a cohesive beauty, and evolution across the palate.  The Hibikis are glorious.  But lost is the power and distinctive natures that made tasting the Yamazaki woods thrilling.

After the tasting the Hibiki launch event was glorious too.

The Hibiki 17/21 launch event was a party with lots of friends and Exposure's consummate production which included gourmet food bites, superb Japanese style mizuwari, highballs, and ice balls.  There was a superb demonstration of a new ice ball called the Ice Diamond (I refer you to Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast video and interview - links below).  Incredibly impressive to me, the correct glassware was used to serve what seemed like limitless quantities of the top expression: Hibiki 21.  This top notch event spawned a number of interesting blog posts and conversations.  Here follows links and some pictures to give the flavor:

Mark Gillespie prepares to interview Seiichi Koshimizu - on WhiskyCast episode 480
Malt Maniac, Mark Gillespie, produced several posts from this event on his top podcast and blog  
The Hibiki 17 & 21 launch notification:
An interview with Seiichi Koshimizu, chief blender for Suntory:  
A WhiskeyCast HD video of  Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo's Bar High-Five cutting ice diamonds:
and an interview with  Hidetsugu Ueno about his bar and the Tokyo whisky bar scene:

G-LO and Miracle Max
G-LO wrote up a consummate description of the entire event, including cooperatively blogged comments from most of the #WhiskyFabric in attendance including Allison Patel, Susanna Skiver Barton, Miracle Max, and Sarah B:
Sarah B. and G-LO
Sarah B - a correspondent of It's Just The Booze Dancing... blog as well as a gifted photographer took the best pictures of the event:

Mark Gillespie and G-LO enjoying Hibiki 12 ice balls.  Mark also has a Hibki 21
The author meets up with with Allison Patel (left) and Sarah B., right.
Bram Hoogendijk from Holland meets Edrington Group rep Nicola Riske
Bram and Allison meet Seiichi Koshimizu
Susanna Skiver Barton and Allison Patel enjoying Hibiki 21
Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo's Bar High-Five pours Hibiki 21 on a hand cut ice diamond

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Chuck Cowdery's "Bourbon Strange" Is Now Available For The Kindle

One of the most important books to me in discovering about Bourbon is Chuck Cowdery's "Bourbon Straight".

But as the years have passed since its first printing in 2004 a lot has happened (such as the ascension  of the Craft movement with the rise of the NDP issue, the demise of the age statement,  stocks of Stitzel-Weller drying up, etc...  I've consistently recommended "Bourbon Straight" to people looking to know more about Bourbon, but usually with a small apologetic about some of the information being a little dated.  It's been a well known fact that Chuck has been working on a new version.  Today Chuck announced that it was out on Kindle, with the print version to follow in a few weeks.  

It's called "Bourbon Strange".  As of now it's my current read.  I'll review it as soon as I've devoured it.

This is the link to purchase the Kindle edition:

*Chuck Cowdery is the author of the Bourbon Country Reader magazine and the indispensable Bourbon news blog

He is also the author of other important whiskey books including

The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste
Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey

Sunday, August 3, 2014

From Aesop to Incubus - The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Whiskey Era.

A couple of years ago my friend Mark Hughes from South Africa came across a dusty bottle of American whiskey called "Imperial" and posted a picture on Facebook.  (He writes a very good whisky blog, BTW:  I looked it up.  There were a ton of ads  which helped to date it because of bottle shape changes.  As a cheap blended American whiskey it was an inexpensive and high profit margin product for Hiram Walker, its producer, because its was mostly grain neutral spirits which are cheap to produce and are not aged.  Whisky companies tend to put a lot of image advertising into these types of products because the whisky doesn't sell itself and the profits justify the advertising costs.  The ads changed a lot over the years - in a way that reflected the values of the times in a way I found fascinating.  But as I dug deeper into the story it got even more interesting...  (The story that is, not the actual whiskey itself.  There will be tasting notes at the end of a dusty 1980s bottle of this stuff; This isn't a gourmet whiskey.  It's for mixing, not drinking neat.) Imperial, as it turns out, has a contested and somewhat mysterious past.

When I looked up the ads, the earliest ones I found were from 1943, they follow thickly until 1975 when they abruptly disappear (other than supermarket price listing ads).  Given the 1943 beginnings I wasn't too surprised to find the Bourbon Enthusiast forum timetable gives the following bit of information:

1941 - "Imperial" whiskey is introduced by Hiram Walker
(Brown, 200 Years of Tradition, p. 108).

But as it turns out, that's not true.  Hiram Walker sued Penn-Maryland corporation in 1935 for trademark infringement over use of the brand name "Imperial" claiming to have sold whiskey under that brand name since 1887:

79 F.2d 836 (1935)

Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.
December 2, 1935.

"This is an appeal from an order granting a temporary injunction restraining the appellant's use of the word "Imperial" as a trade-mark for whisky. The order was based upon the infringement of a registered trade-mark for the word "Imperial" for appellee's product. The court below granted the injunction after issue was joined and upon affidavits. The appellant in selling its whisky has a brand name, "Penn-Maryland Imperial.
It is alleged that appellee and its predecessors have sold distilled whisky under the name "Imperial" since 1887, principally in Canada up to 1891, and since the latter year it has sold quantities in the United States. It is also alleged there were sales in large quantities and extensive advertising in the United States and that the purchasing public in the United States have come to identify the whisky to which this name is applied as that of the appellee.
Appellee complained to the appellant about the use of the word "Imperial," and the appellant asserted that under the circumstances it was proper for it to use the word. Indeed, Henry H. Schufeldt & Co., like appellant, a subsidiary of the National Distillers Products Corporation, used "Imperial" as a trade-mark for gin continuously from 1868 to the date of Prohibition, antedating the appellee's first use even in Canada. Appellant's affiliate also used "Imperial Crown" for cherries and olives used in making cocktails. The record only shows sales by appellee of its brand in the United States, prior to Prohibition, to be 964 cases and 37 barrels for the year ending August 31, 1891; 1 case in March, 1896; 2 cases in August, 1902; 1 case in December, 1909; and 1 case in September, 1917. No sales could be made during the Prohibition period, but 5,210 cases of appellee's brand were sold here between the date of Repeal and October, 1934, when appellant put its brand on the market, and of these 4,964 cases were sold in the state of Michigan. The appellee sets forth the total, which was very large, of the sales of its brand in Canada and elsewhere, prior to Prohibition, but submits no figures, other than those above, as to sales in the United States.

The word "Imperial" is descriptive and indicative of quality. Webster's New International Dictionary defines it as "of superior or unusual size or excellence;,%20INC.%20v.%20PENN-MARYLAND%20CORPORATION

The Pre-Pro web site corroborates this in a list of brand names used before Prohibtion:

Hiram Walker Established 1858
The company used the brand names:
"Biltmore", "Canadian Club", "Canadian Club", "Gold Capsule", "Hiram Walker", "Imperial", "The Epicure", "W", and "Walker's Father Time."
Sanitarium Hotel October 4, 1893 Banff Maine Wine List
From NYPL -

And the New York Public Library's restaurant menu project shows the  Banff, Maine, Sanitarium Hotel's October 4, 1893 Wine List proudly selling Walker's Imperial just two years after the lawsuit claims Hiram Walker began importing Imperial into the USA in 1891.  (Note - the prices are for whole bottles only.  Wine and beer were sold by the pint and quart, but whiskey and brandy was apparently only sold by the whole bottle.  If anyone knows what G. & D. is, or can illuminate what the "White Wheat" was I'd love to hear it.  I suspect a local agricultural whiskey).

But I've never seen a bottle or an image of a bottle from before the 1940s.  Was it a blended whiskey?  A Bourbon?  A rye?  What was the mash bill?  If anyone has any further information about the Pre-Prohibition incarnation of Hiram Walker's Imperial I'd love to hear about it.

Update:  John Lipman - of fame - just came up with a link which has the answer:  a pre-pro shot glass on which shows that pre-Prohibition incarnation of Imperial was a rye - at least for a portion, if not all, of the period.  Although he points out that it might have been a "rye" in the Canadian sense (where actual rye whiskey might have just been a flavoring).  In the era before the Food and Drug Act of 1906 you never knew what was in there.

But from 1941 to the present, Hiram Walker's Imperial is a blended American whiskey, sold at a low price and from 1943 to 1975 I find a ton of ads that charts a progression of priorities that says something about America.  It starts with WWII and wartime rationing.  The first ads for Imperial are a set of allegorical stories justifying the "one bottle per customer" rationing rules for whiskey.  The illustrations are animal themes which are explicitly allegorical and reference classical sources such as Aesop's fables.

This ad (1943 Life Magazine) reads:  "This is no time for gobblers"  
"No one can have a lot in these times of little - or someone else will most certainly get less than he needs.
   And that's why rationing of essential and vital things is a national "must" -for if all are to have what they need, a few can't have all they want.
   But no such solid rules apply to less essential things - and they're the things we have to be careful not to "gobble up."  A few gobbles and these, too, might be gone.  No one knows this better than your liquor dealer.  That is why "only one bottle to a customer" may be most conspicuous thing in his store.  No one knows better than he that this is no time for gobblers.
   With every distillery in America making war alcohol instead of whiskey, present stocks of whiskey must last for a longer time than anyone had foreseen.  And a little for all now is the best insurance against none for anyone later."  Imperial ... it's "velveted"
Blended whiskey, 86 proof, 70% grain neutral spirits.  Hiram Walker & Sons Inc., Peoria, Ill.
The Aesops fables theme was a whole series of ads
Tortoise & Hare from
Aesop's Fables 
The story is about rationing and it explicitly references the fact that distilleries aren't putting up whiskey because all production has been shifted to industrial alcohol for war production.  But there's marketing too.  An explicit reference to the blended nature of the whiskey is the phrase "'s velveted" which seems to argue that the soft (weak) flavors of the blend are actually a good thing.  I also get the impression that the weakness of the flavor of the blend is also being somehow justified as part of the "noble sacrifice" of wartime good citizenship.  The use of animal visual anecdotes puts the issue in a classical, almost elemental frame of reference.

After the war ended, Imperial rolled out a new advertising theme: American laborers rolling barrels of whiskey in industrial environments.  The tagline is:  "88 years at fine whiskey-making makes this whiskey good".  The small block of text at right reads:  "86 proof.  The straight whiskies in this product are 4 years or more old.  30% straight whiskey.  70% grain neutral spirits.  Hiram Walker & Sons, Peoria, Ill."
Illustration by Fred Ludekens 1946
The title of the painting in the ad above is "Whiskey Going to the Rackhouse to Age".  The irony is that product is less than 1/3rd whiskey.  The content is the claim that Hiram Walker knows how to make good whiskey because they've been doing it for a long time, but the fact is that they hadn't been doing it in Peoria for the entire duration of WWII.  This is an exercise in branding referencing a form of wishful thinking about whiskey.  But it's also something more.  The image of the heroic laborer evokes a mythic representation of labor itself, within a specific context of the labor movement, the rise of communism and socialism, and the previous decades New Deal and WPA.  For example, here is an image of laborers pushing barrels from a 1936-37 WPA project public works mural:

Gordon Grant WPA mural, Ventura CA post office
By using themes of labor in their whisky advertising they seek to associate Imperial with an ascendant American working class - and by association with the aesthetics of an American industry which had just literally conquered the world in WWII.

The "Labor" theme was a whole series of ads too.
(and this collage is not remotely complete)
The worker rolling the barrel became the brand's logo, used in advertisements for a number of years in the late 40s.  Look at the lower left hand corner of this 1948 Life magazine ad:

By the early 1950s the message of the age of the brand had become the focus, with a series of ads showing partying late 1890s or early 1900s partying people singing the radio jingle:

By the mid-1950s Imperial changed the message again to one of macho heroism with a famous series of ads that showed specific men associated with really macho activities such as boat racing, big game hunting, deep sea diving, sport fishing, and bronco busting:

1955 print ad.  This guy killed jaguars with a spear.

The motto here is "FOR MEN AMONG MEN THERE IS A WHISKEY AMONG WHISKIES - IMPERIAL"  and the tag line "Man, this is whiskey!"  I can't help but think they are over compensating for the fact that Imperial is a weak flavored blend.  But this is image advertising after all.  The point here is that the heroism of labor isn't sexy any more.  Big macho maleness is what was sexy in mid-century America.

Update:  in contrast to the example I made large above, it occurs to me that most of the men depicted are rather un-macho.  They are all actually a bit goofy or boyish or even a a bit feminine (like the polar hunter in the lavender fur lined coat).  I wonder if there's a subliminal anti-macho message here that ties into the soft blended whiskey.

Man, this is whiskey! was a whole series of ads in from 1954-1956.
By the early 1960s the theme shifted to class.  From 1962 to 1967 Imperial ran a series of ads that showed a chauffeur carrying a case of Imperial to a 1930s classic Rolls Royce Phantom.  Other ads showed people bringing cases of Imperial to fancy yachts, airplanes, boats, vacation home garden parties etc...

Just as in the 1940s, the theme is a laborer moving the whiskey, but now, instead of noble empowered labor rolling the barrel as the logo, it's a servant of the rich (a chauffeur) carrying a case.  (look at the lower left hand corner of the ski plane ad in the lower right hand corner of the collage above - and you can see the carrying chauffeur used as a logo of the brand).  The theme of class had become totally inverted.  Does this represent the growing affluence of mid-century USA or is it simply a reflection of the shifting aesthetics of an ascendant American culture focusing less on how it had become affluent than simply on the fact that it was?

By 1973 the tag line shifted to the sexual revolution.  Imperial was now the "Good-Natured Whiskey" with the tag line "It mixes well." - with a clear context showing that the mixing was between the sexes.  In 1975 this took its final, darker, turn with the advent of "The Imp" ad campaign.

This series of ads re-brands Imperial as "The Imp" - a kind of "ruffie" date rape drug for use in seducing women.  The ad copy of "The Imp Next Door" ad reads:  "Meet the Imp: Imperial.  It mixes so smoothly you might never guess what it's up to.  But for breaking the ice, it's up to your highest expectations.  Try the Imp tonight with someone you know.  Or borrow a cupful from someone you'd like to know better."  The Imp campaign also introduced a new logo.  It's a representation of an imp - a goblin like creature from Germanic folk-lore associated with demons.  The specific image they chose - which is depicted as a medallion worn somewhere on the beauties in the ads is a satyr - a classical allegorical image of lust.  But the satyr is a fun allegory.

"The Imp" logo - a satyr.
The implication that you might use the stealthy softness of Imperial to trick a woman into getting more inebriated than she planned with the aim of seducing her is more akin to the classical demon, the incubus which is described in the Wiki as follows:
"An incubus (nominal form constructed from the Latin verb, incubo, incubare, or "to lie upon") is a demon in male form who, according to a number of mythological and legendary traditions, lies upon sleepers, especially women, in order to have sexual intercourse with them."

I discussed this campaign within the larger context of how women were depicted in American whiskey advertising a couple of months ago:

In that post I wrote:  "Overt and inappropriate sexuality was the centerpiece of the Imperial blended whiskey "Imp" ad campaign too. The tag line was the text "it brings out the imp in all of us" at the bottom of each ad in the series' block of text. But the photo, with the woman wearing a choker with a devilish imp medallion, shows that the imp is the sexually available woman herself. The clear implication is that plying the modern sexually liberated woman with whiskey will produce some kind of love slave that "he can call his own". It's an inversion of feminism's appropriation of sexual liberation into a kind of sexual slavery or ownership on the part of the male reader who, presumably was feeling a little defensive about this feminism stuff. It's worth noting that this was the last national ad campaign for Imperial - a venerable Hiram Walker brand - before it disappeared into the world of ultra-bottom shelf well whiskey where it has languished ever since."

Hiram Walker's plant in Peoria, Illinois closed in 1982 and the brand was sold off to Oscar Getz's Barton, and production moved to Bardstown, KY the following year.  Then, as John Lipman writes in his excellent history of Barton Brands:

"In 1993, Barton Brands which had been acquiring other brands left and right, was purchased by the Canandaigua wine company, primarily for two reasons. One was their distribution rights for Corona beer; the other was because Canandaigua had recently purchased the Paul Masson and Taylor wine companies -- both of whom were producers of distilled brandy -- and intended for them to be aged and bottled (if not originally distilled) in Bardstown. As we visit today, we can see cases of Paul Masson brandy being bottled and cased. Also Walker's Imperial."

Barton finally ended up with Sazerac Company - the parent company of Buffalo Trace, A. Smith Bowman in Virginia, Glenmore, as well as Barton Brands.  Imperial now exists solely as a bottom shelf well whiskey.  The Whiskey-Reviewer in his epic pan writes: 

"One sniff, and you might feel like Tom Joad in the Great Dust Bowl, searching for a jar of Smuckers Strawberry Jam in a duststorm, only to find there’s just one jar of the stuff, that’s been left open for a few weeks and is now about 51% dust.
A sickly, artificial sweetness (that expired Smuckers again) dominates what little taste Imperial has, with a hint of metal lurking about the edge. The finish? Imagine scarfing an ashtray spilling-over with week-old cigarette butts soaked in splash of last nights beer and, well, that’s close. Yes, there’s some vanilla, and yes, it is a surprisingly – you might say frighteningly – smooth finish, but the taint of stale, beer-doused cigarettes is what lingers, and it lingers for quite some time."

and concludes:

"The Price $7.99 for a fifth. Enough said"

I found a dusty bottle on a store shelf in the ghetto of Roseville, Newark, NJ.  It has a faux tax strip (after 1985), no health warning (before 1989), is a metric 375ml (post 1980), and sports a UCP code (post 1980).  This constellation of attributes puts the bottle in the late 1980s - probably 1986-89.

Imperial Blended American Whiskey 40% abv. Bardstown late 1980s dusty.  70% grain neutral spirits.

Color:  light amber

Nose:  grassy light floral lavender and grape.  Underneath some earthy Bourbon citrus and leather.  A pale and washed out nose, but the aromas that are present are fine.

Palate:  Sweet and light on the opening with grape bug juice and magic marker.  The midpalate brings in some leather and tobacco and earthy Bourbon flavors, but light and a bit far away.  The finish is relatively short.  Sometimes I get a little whiff of vodka in the finish.  Put head to head with a contemporary bottling of Wilson (another venerable old blended American whiskey - a rye until Prohibition and a blended American whiskey from Repeal on.  Now currently made at Barton as well.) shows great similarity and fairly similar flavors.  The Wilson has more spirit heat and burn, but a tad more vividness of flavor.  This Imperial is weak and a bit flabby.  This might be almost 30 years of bottle maturation.  Or not.  Certainly not anything to write home about, or even drink neat.  This is for putting into soda or a cocktail where whiskey plays a minor role.

Conclusions:  Imperial begins with Hiram Walker's Canadian strategy to avoid Detroit's distillation restrictions and arrives in America as an import.  After Repeal it is a Peoria Illinois product that fit mid-century tastes for light whiskey used in highballs and cocktails and was sold with references to America's industrial might and ascendant working classes - possibly referring to its low price.  It represented, like a mirror, American notions of the macho maleness of whiskey drinking (ironic as the product is smooth and weak) and some ironic attempts at class (ironic because the product is dirt cheap) before ending up failing as a pre-sex social lubricant and disappearing to the bottom shelf.  American blended whiskey failed because it's not as flavorful as real whiskey (which is GNS free) and isn't as smooth and easy mixing as the white spirits which slayed whiskey from the 70s to the 90s.  Whiskey's revival is about the full flavors of real whiskey.  Blended American whiskey is cut with un-aged grain neutral spirits so it has no role to play in whiskey's revival.  Its sole play is a low price point.