I love old magazines because of the liquor advertisements found in them. In a June 3, 1946 issue of Life magazine, there is an advertisement for Imperial Blended Whiskey that features a painting by artist Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was from Missouri and part of the regionalist art movement that included Grant wood. It was painted at the Hiram Walker Distillery at Peoria, Illinois. It features two workers rolling barrels with the distillery in the background.
This image is just one of several that Benton painted at the distillery. At one time, Maker’s Mark owned the whole series of paintings and had them on display at the distillery. I am not sure what happened to the paintings, but they may have been sold at auction when Maker’s Mark was purchased by Jim Beam. It would not be the first time a new owner liquidated art from a distillery they purchased. The series of paintings reflect the times when they were painted. They glorified the role of the unionized workers. It was a time when the unions were strong and active. The country had just finished fighting a world war and the economy was strong. The unions had sacrificed quite a bit during the war and were now reaping the benefits of the strong, post war economy. Higher wages and strong health benefits were earned by the workers.
This image is interesting in that it really is un-branded image. There is not to be found anywhere in the image the name Hiram Walker or Imperial Blended whiskey. The painting could be at any distillery in America. It is a very industrial image with the workers looking like something out of a Soviet propaganda poster or an El Greco painting.
Hiram Walker had other advertisements featuring art from other artists of the time. They, too, feature the workers, often rolling barrels. I believe that Hiram walker was appealing to the workers of America, who were the consumers purchasing whiskey. It is interesting that the advertisement is for a blended whiskey. Post war shortages of aged whiskey, due to war time prohibition on making beverage alcohol, made blended whiskey very popular in 1946. During the war, the distilleries had to distill high proof alcohol for the war effort, which included alcohol for munitions and synthetic rubber. After the war, the distillers had plenty of grain neutral spirits available in 1946 to produce blended whiskey. They could stretch out their stocks of aged whiskeys and still have products available to the market. This led to a change in the demand for bonded whiskey as the American consumer got used to drinking the lighter flavors found in blended whiskey. The Imperial Blended Whiskey was made with 70% grain neutral spirits and 30% aged whiskey at that time. Much more flavorful than the blends of the 1980s which were at the legal minimum of 20% aged whiskey. This trend to lighter flavor led to many traditional bonded brands issuing 86 proof versions of the brand to compete with the blended whiskeys.
Old magazines are treasure troves of old whiskey advertisements. I look for old magazines and often find treasures such as this Imperial Blended Whiskey advertisement. There is much to be learned from these old advertisements, you just have to find them.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller