The distinguished Bourbon brand name of I.W. Harper is returning to the United States, complete with its familiar logo depicting a bowing gentleman, doffing a top hat. This ends a two-decade absence when the whiskey was only available overseas (especially in Japan, its most popular market).
The reintroduction of Harper to the U.S. comes in a tandem: I.W. Harper and I.W. Harper Aged 15 Years. The former Bourbon is an 81-proof, with no age statement. (Bourbon regulations ensure that that whiskey is at least four years old). The older variant is 86 proof. The first is described as a marriage of whiskeys, which includes some from the New Bernheim Distillery, where I.W. Harper had been made since the end of Prohibition. The latter was exclusively distilled at New Bernheim.
Harper represents one of the oldest brands in Bourbon history as it traces its roots back almost 150 years. Isaac William Bernheim had come as an 18-year-old to America from Prussia in 1867 and made his way from New York City through Pennsylvania to Paducah, Kentucky. It was there that he would go to work as a drummer (traveling salesman) for a whiskey wholesaler and send for his younger brother Bernard to join him. In 1872, the two started their own business, with a silent partner who would be quickly bought out.
By the end of the decade they had established the company's brand I.W. Harper, using the elder Bernheim's initials and choosing an Anglo-Saxon sounding last name to complete it. According to Gerald Carson's The Social History of Bourbon (Dodd Mead, 1963), "Harper" was the last name of a top salesman. However, the name may have been borrowed from a friend who bred racehorses. Between 1885 and 1915, when Isaac Bernheim retired, the whiskey won six gold medals at a variety of exhibitions and used the words Gold Medal on many of its labels.
As success brought expansion, the company expanded to acquire a part interest in a Louisville distillery in 1896 that would subsequently be destroyed by fire. The company then built a distillery just outside of Louisville, where it remained until the 1930s. Liquor production continued there even during Prohibition, using one of the few licenses that allowed it to make medicinal whiskey. The brand was sold in 1933 and moved to a Louisville distillery, which was renamed Bernheim. Schenley Distilling soon bought it out and produced the brand well into the 1980s. Isaac Bernheim lived until 1945 and is remembered as a philanthropist who created the Bernheim Arboretum and donated a wing to the Jewish Hospital in Louisville.
In 1991, the Bernheim Distillery, then owned by United Distillers and Vintners, would be razed and rebuilt as the New Bernheim Distillery. After Heaven Hill's own distillery was destroyed by fire, that distiller, based in Bardstown, Kentucky, bought the New Bernheim facility in 1999 from Diageo. By that point, the whiskey giant had acquired the plant and the brand name, which it still owns. The new I.W. Harper is bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where George Dickel whiskey, another Diageo product, is made and bottled.
The brand ceased to be sold in the 1990s, with only brief returns. The last being when it was part of a blended assemblage put out by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States in 2013. Reports indicate that the new 15-year-old has a mashbill that tends towards sweetness at 86 percent corn/10 percent barley/6 percent rye, even while this reporter remembers the whiskey from years ago as being somewhat dry and spicy.
We give a hat-tip to a revered old brand.
I.W. Harper (82 proof, or 41 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $34.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Goldenrod/copper color. Thick, quick legs.
NOSE: The bouquet is a nuanced mix of caramel, spice and rich woods.
PALATE: Caramel from the nose follows to the mouth and is joined by vanilla. However, those notes are soon overtaken by spicier fare and the wood of a Louisville Slugger, as well as a bit of olive oil.
FINISH: The ending takes another turn with the addition of fruit and toffee, but isn't particularly long.
I.W. Harper Aged 15 Years (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; 15 years old; $74.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Rich amber color and slow, luscious legs.
NOSE: A parade of deep notes on the nose with caramel, vanilla, maple, nougat and barrel scents. Once you get past that, out comes a fruity core with berries and cherries and some honey.
PALATE: This is a candied concoction with tons of fruit. Only a hint of spice, just enough to keep it from being saccharine. Then follows caramel, toffee, vanilla, maple and nougat with a bite of milk chocolate to top it off.
CIGAR PAIRING: Cohiba Siglo II (5 1/8 inches by 42 ring gauge, £17.70, 89 points, Cigar Insider July 1, 2014). This corona has a gritty looking wrapper. It's a predominantly earthy smoke that eventually develops delicious notes of almond paste and a sweet finish.
With I.W. Harper: Looking for some contrast we chose this cigar in hopes that its earthy notes would give the pairing some counterpoint—and were not disappointed. That aspect brings out the oil in the whisky and gives it more depth. The Harper's spice is somewhat muted however. In turn, Cohiba straight away shows off the nuts of its almond paste straight. Its fruitiness becomes more pronounced.
With I.W. Harper Aged 15 Years: The cigar instantly develops a big portion of that Cuban leather magic we love. With it comes an enlargement of the Cohiba's fruit charms, giving it the taste of a filled bonbon. The older Harper, for its part, becomes fuller and more chocolaty with a big cherry burst. Excellent pairing.