I’ve got a standing start today, and it feels so good.
Taste enough whiskey, and all but the most Vulcan of us start to develop biases. It’s human nature; our brains were trained for a million years to make snap decisions based on prior experience. Though I frequently pretend to approach a whiskey with an open mind, I’m afraid this is self-delusion at best.
There’s a reason that brands exist, and it’s to create associations that incline us favorably toward a product. This also works in reverse; I have made up my mind (again, based on experience) that I don’t like the output of several distilleries, and I have resolved to avoid their whiskeys at all costs.
This applies equally to categories of whiskey. I have a very skeptical approach to craft whiskey, based on numerous bottles with premium prices that definitely did not deliver premium flavors. Limited editions are immediately suspect; I also look askance at sourced whiskey. Using just those three generalizations, I have cast aspersions on a long list of potential subjects for review.
It’s a rare brand name or distillery about which I have no preconceived notions. Today’s whiskey is precisely one of those. I am informed that this bottle is circa 1975; it comes bottled at 86 proof (43% ABV). The label reads: “IMPERIAL Hiram Walker’s Blended Whiskey” and “BLENDED AND BOTTLED BY HIRAM WALKER & SONS INC PEORIA – ILLINOIS.”
Who? What? Where? Who cares! In an attempt to preserve my objectivity, I will now taste this sample (courtesy of Corey) without further investigation. Cheers!
Hiram Walker Imperial Blended Whiskey (1975) – Review
Color: Medium golden-brown.
On the nose: This combines subtly intriguing notes of mature grain whiskey with a youthful freshness. There are some floral scents and sugary notes of vanilla macarons, but also a touch of butterscotch, a whiff of old leather books, and a cedar-and-tobacco note of cigar box. I get a slightly medicinal aroma of eucalyptus that pulls the nose into the glass, before turning into a bitter chemical note with the character of almond extract.
In the mouth: The first sip is a wince-inducing, synthetic-tasting bite of grain neutral spirits. The volumes starts to fade on this immediately as another synthetic almond flavor is the only character in the middle of the palate. A momentary chemical note – this time, of vanilla – is vaguely discernible. There’s no body, texture, or flavor to speak of on the finish. If I’m trying really hard, I get a bite of anise for a split second before this degenerates into an acrid burn of cheap alcohol.
Clearly not designed for serious consideration, this is the type of blend that gives blends a bad name. Whatever proper whiskey was included in the mix imparts only the weakest of flavors, while the grain neutral spirit component is at its best when it is completely flavorless. Unfortunately, enough foul notes emerge periodically that finishing off even a small pour of this feels masochistic.
To backtrack, I’ll now fill in the gaps (as is my wont) by doing my usual preliminary research ex-post facto.
In the bad old days of light whiskey, blends relying on the heavy use of grain neutral spirit (GNS) were pitched as alternatives to the forceful flavors of straight bourbon and the like. Imperial was one of these blends; a superb history of the Imperial brand and the evolution of its advertising can be found on The Coppered Tot. It’s a fascinating read and I won’t reproduce it here, bar some sketchy details.
This bottle dates from Imperial’s “The Imp” period, when the whiskey was marketed with the sexist suggestion that serving it to a lady friend might help “break the ice.” Ads from this era depict women with come-hither stares holding glasses with enough fruit to populate a produce section. While there’s some egregious whiskey promotion going on to this day, these ads are close enough to all-time lows to warrant retroactive repudiation.
I was most intrigued when I saw the location on the bottle. “Will it play in Peoria?” is an old American axiom, questioning whether or not something has appeal to the types of plain folks that inhabit the Midwestern states. It’s appropriate to apply in this instance, given this is a bottom-shelf whiskey that had previously been positioned to appeal to the type of blue-collar working people featured (in stylized form) in the brand’s mid-century advertisements As it turns out, Hiram Walker’s Peoria plant shuttered in the year of my birth, 1982.
Though my lack of preconceptions did not result in any delightful surprises, in this instance, I am still grateful for the experience. I’ve got several takeaways, in no particular order:
Firstly, the idea that everything was better in the old days can be summarily dismissed. Though this might be intellectually obvious to some, the appeal of nostalgia (and the enthusiasm for “dusties” currently gripping the whiskey-verse) means that this is often forgotten. Anyone considering paying up for an antique bottle of Imperial (or, indeed, any of the other bottom-shelf blended whiskeys from years gone by) may be risking some serious disappointment.
Second, and following from the first observation: I am saddened that this was the type of stuff being fed to hardworking Americans. By comparison, a working man or woman can now choose from a plethora of budget-friendly whiskey that delivers a drinking experience orders of magnitude better than what I just tasted. It’s yet another reason for gratitude that we’re living in the present day, despite all the exigencies it imposes on whiskey lovers.
Finally, while my initial musings on the suppression of prejudice were nobly intended, they’re ultimately as impractical for me as they are for you. I’m not a whiskey expert, but I do benefit from my cumulative experience in having tasted many, many whiskeys over the years. I know what I like, and I know what specifications to look for. Readers of this site, over time, will be able to make the same determinations for themselves.
Understanding not just that bad whiskey exists, but all the factors that go into some whiskeys tasting better and others tasting worse, is a sine qua non of connoisseurship. There are some fine blends out there, but there are others (like this one) that exist only to stretch a small amount of whiskey to its thinnest possible extent. Avoiding these blends like the plague should be a maxim embraced by even the most open-minded of whiskey explorers. Trust me: your taste buds will thank you.