I have the occasional flashback to random moments in my whiskey journey.
One of these occurred when John recently reviewed the I.W. Harper 12 year old bourbon. I remembered a time years ago when I was shopping for a gift to commemorate a friend’s engagement. I knew my way around the Scotch and Japanese whisky sections well enough (yes, you could still buy Japanese whisky back then), but I was a complete bourbon novice.
I couldn’t have told you the difference between Booker and Baker, and I was in a hurry. So, I acted in the way that I imagine many folks do when they’re facing down a shelf full of unfamiliar brands and bottles: I decided about how much I wanted to spend, and I grabbed the best-looking bottle at around that price.
It happened to be I.W. Harper, though I cannot recall which specific expression I snagged. I do have a memory of the tactile aspects of the bottle. The four right-angle edges and the diamond-shaped ornamentation evoked elegant decanters from the Art Deco era. I recollect vaguely that there was an age statement attesting to what seemed like adequate maturity (remember, I was using Scotch as a point of reference).
He accepted the gift graciously; I don’t think I heard whether or not he liked it. I wasn’t offered a taste. Regardless, the brand (or should I say branding?) made an impression on me. However, as my sophistication about whiskey generally (and bourbon specifically) increased, I began to view ornamental bottles with less awe and more suspicion. Learning that the bourbon was sourced whiskey from an undisclosed distillery, and having more of a frame of reference for prices, I wrote off I.W. Harper for good.
That is, until John’s article. I inquired if anyone had tried the bourbon, and a friend volunteered a sample (thanks, Ryan). Thus, I find myself in possession of some I.W. Harper whiskey at last, though with knowledge of the brand’s backstory not very much advanced from that initial impulse purchase. To rectify this, I used Google and my own bourbon reference library (special thanks to Michael Veach and Chuck Cowdery), with the results summarized below:
There’s some information in the press release and on I.W. Harper brand’s own site. However, as neither of these official sources can agree on details even between themselves, I have relied more on the aforementioned independent researchers.
I.W. Harper is named for Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (b. 1848), a German immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1867. Isaac’s surname was changed for use in the brand, for reasons about which we can only speculate. Nevertheless, I.W. Bernheim and his brother Bernard co-founded Bernheim Brothers in Paducah, KY in 1872. The I.W. Harper brand was introduced in 1879 and was quickly successful, winning a gold medal at the New Orleans Exposition in 1885.
A move to Louisville saw the brothers purchase a distillery which burned down; eventually they built one of their own in 1897. As business declined through the years leading into Prohibition, Isaac retired at the age of 67, in 1915. Isaac passed away in 1945; he is buried in Bernheim forest, a 13,000 acre preserve maintained by the Isaac W. Bernheim foundation.
Bernheim Brothers survived Prohibition with a license to distill spirits for medicinal purposes. The business changed hands in 1933 (acquired by Leo Gerngoss and Emil Schwarzhaupt). Bernheim Distilling Company (along with the I.W. Harper brand) was then acquired by Schenley in 1937.
I.W. Harper became Schenley’s international flagship brand, eventually being distributed in 110 countries. At some point in the 1980’s or 1990’s the brand became export only, with no U.S. presence. Veach attributes this to a desire to kill off the “grey market” mentioned by John, in which bourbon purchased in bulk in the U.S. was resold for a profit in Japan.
Schenley was acquired by United Distillers (then owned by Guinness) in 1989; in 1991, the old distillery was razed and the new Bernheim distillery erected in its place. This distillery was later sold by Diageo (successor entity of the Guinness and Grand Metropolitan merger) to Heaven Hill, which runs the facility to this day.
I.W. Harper was re-launched Stateside by Diageo in 2015. This I.W. Harper 15 year old bourbon was distilled at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim distillery. As regular readers will know, I am a fiend for Heaven Hill’s whiskeys, and am very excited to taste this well-aged example thereof.
This comes bottled at a strength of 86 proof (43% ABV). Suggested retail price on release was $75, though Total Wine offers it for $93. Splitting the difference (roughly), I will use $85 as a price for evaluation, which is actually the price at which this is offered by Virginia’s state stores. As mentioned above, this was a sample generously shared by Ryan, who once again has my thanks.
I.W. Harper Aged 15 Years – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: This has the most amazing note of cherries that I can recall encountering recently. Sitting somewhere between the candied and brandied varieties, it has a thick sweetness that harkens back to bourbons of yore. The aroma comes close to being medicinal in the manner of cherry cough syrup; additional sniffing reveals aromas of eucalyptus and pine sap. Molasses, freshly cut mandarin orange wedges, nutmeg, and dried firewood round out a nose that is equal parts interesting and enticing. I can’t wait to take a sip of this.
In the mouth: An initial woody kiss is married to a sweet but slightly dilute flavor of oranges. Tightening up slightly toward the middle of the mouth, this whiskey evolves to encapsulate a firm note of limestone as well as some gentle accents of mocha. This peaks with a pure flavor of milk chocolate before the nose’s herbal aspects reemerge as the whiskey moves toward the back of the mouth. There, a blooming note of butterscotch and more tart citrus are revealed, with this latter note covering the inside of the mouth and lingering in a sedate yet persistent fashion.
I’m confident that this is Bernheim whisky; all the classic Heaven Hill notes are there. Beyond that, the nose is a pure joy. Not all bourbons hold up to a decade and a half of maturation, though this one has benefitted from the extra time in the barrel. Remarkably, the comparatively sedate bottling strength has not resulted in a mouthfeel that is weak or diminished in any way. Rather, this has poise throughout, with all the aromas and flavors balanced well and contributing proportionally to the overall presentation.
As far as value for money: up to a price of, say, $100, I’d buy every bottle of this that I came across. It’s a very, very good whiskey, and I am awarding it a very, very good score as a consequence.