WITH nearly as much impatience as their fathers sweated out the final months before repeal, U.S. whiskey executives have long been counting the days till July 1, 1972. On that day last week, having aged the required four years, the first batch of light whiskeya new kind of spirit that goes down more smoothly and has less flavor than bourbon or ryecould legally be brought out of the barrel and bottled for sale. Distillers passed the years of waiting by copywriting names and dreaming up different recipes for some 50 new brands. Yet when the big day finally arrived, many of the whiskey men who had planned to celebrate with a binge of promotion and advertising acted instead like anxious partygivers wondering whether their invited guests really planned to show up.
No Cigars. The Government approved the production of aged light whiskey beginning in 1968 specifically to satisfy U.S. distillers, who had long complained that outdated federal regulations were forcing more and more of the nation's 95 million drinkers to buy imported liquor.* Whereas U.S. tastes increasingly favored lighter-bodied products, especially Scotch and Canadian whiskies, federal rules forced domestic distillers to keep right on making the same kind of drink that helped win the Old West. For one thing, it had to be distilled at 160 proof or less, while Scotch and Canadian whiskies could be distilled at higher, taste-reducing proofs. Also, to be considered legally "aged," U.S. whiskey had to be matured in new barrels, which produce a relatively hard taste; foreign whiskey can be stored in used cooperage.
The new rules let distillers make just about what they wanted. Light whiskey is slightly darker in color than Scotch, but noticeably paler than bourbon. Distilled like foreign whiskies, at high proof, it is later diluted and sold at 80 to 86 proof (v. bourbon's usual 86 to 100 proof). The result is by far the smoothest American whiskey, with a flavor close to that of Canadian. Says Joseph C. Haefelin, research director of American Distilling Co., which is producing Royal American light whiskey: "This is not a big-black-cigar whiskey. It's more a filter-cigarette whiskey."
Every major company in the highly competitive industry has entered the sweepstakes for light whiskey, which will reach some cities early this month and should be nearly everywhere by September. The price for light whiskey will be about the same as for premium blends, or $2 a fifth less than for name brands of Scotch. The most widely promoted brand at first will be Crow Light, made by National Distillers (Old Crow bourbon). It has been pitching Crow Light in trade journals with an ad showing a long-haired drinker announcing "a clean break with the past." Seagram, the world's largest distiller, will diversify its Four Roses blend and begin selling a "light blend" under the same name. The company will also have a new light brand called Galaxy. Schenley will introduce no fewer than six light variations of regular products, including J.W. Dant Premium Light, Schenley XL, and Red Satin. American Brands, taking a cue from makers of the fast-selling pop wines, is giving its products names that sound like rock groups: White Balloon and Honey Go Light.