By S.D. Peters
Google “Imperial American Whiskey” and you’ll find some results that include this blurb: “An exceptional American whiskey blended in Bardstown, Kentucky. Only the highest quality whiskies are used, giving it character, body, and a light taste. The tradition and heritage of this fine whiskey can be tasted in each glass.”
You’ll also find how the Urban Dictionary defines “this fine whiskey”: “A cheap, rotgut, bottom shelf booze that drunks love.”
Is this the same whiskey? Did the ad man responsible for the blurb perhaps confuse “this fine whiskey” for Imperial Single Malt Scotch Whisky?
Probably not. And my guess is, he works for the whiskey’s producer, Barton Brands, which happens to distill some of its products in Bardstown; among them, Imperial American Whiskey.
Barton Brands, a division of the Sazerac Company since 2009, produces many liquors and spirits, including Ten High Bourbon, the “99” series Schnapps, El Toro Tequila, the Mr. Boston line (which includes a Canadian Whiskey, Gin, Rum, and Vodka), and, yes, even a handful of blended Scotches, including Highland Mist. It’s what you might call a “red flag” for whiskey drinkers, though even if you haven’t heard of Imperial American Whiskey or any of the rest, you might already suspect the variety of Barton Brands’ products hints at the prioritization of quantity over quality.
Urban Dictionary includes this sentence as an example: “My grandfather used to drink Imperial Whiskey… it was pretty much all he could afford.” As it happens, my grandfather also drank – and favored – the stuff. Economics were certainly a consideration, but escaping the mendacity of sobriety was probably a larger one. He was recently laid to rest, and since he had a comedian’s sense of endearing deprecatory humor – he recommended his ashes be flushed in order to save his loved ones the cost of internment – my sister and me decided we’d toast his memory with a glass of Imperial.
Let’s be honest about this: Imperial is a whiskey one drinks to get drunk, provided one can drink enough of it. My grandfather could, with some funny, but many sad, results – which pretty much sums up the experience of drinking Imperial American Whiskey.
As the bottle makes clear, Imperial is not a Bourbon, Rye, or any other type of singular whiskey. It’s a Blended American Whiskey, which means it’s a mix of at least 20% straight whiskey (that is, whiskey distilled at not more than 160 Proof, having no less than 51% of a particular grain, and aged for over two years in charred barrels) with mostly neutral or near-neutral spirits, coloring, and flavorings. Blended whiskey itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as some respectable entry-level Irish and Scotch whiskeys attest; just don’t drop the word “American” in the middle of it.
Imperial American Whiskey is bottled at 40% abv (80 Proof). I fear the principal grain in its straight whiskey is rye, but since Blended American Whiskey favors the use of less-expensive neutral spirits in the blending process, the recognizable qualities of Rye are absent. In the glass, Imperial is a bit brackish in color, though there’s noting salty about it. 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.
(That my grandfather was a pack-a-day Pall Mall man might account for how he was able to put this stuff away!)
I ought to give Imperial American Whiskey at least a D or D+ for its ability to elicit such bizarre tasting notes, but that would be unfair to a whiskey that’s really earned its F. As for “[t]he tradition and heritage”? If that’s what “can be tasted in each glass” of Imperial, then I’ve never had a more stark reminder that neither is necessarily a good thing.
$7.99 for a fifth. Enough said – except, oddly, my sister found a bottle of Imperial on the second shelf from the bottom, though I’m pretty sure she bought it on April 1st.