By Scott Hill
I.W. Harper is one of the growing number of once loved, then forgotten, then resurrected products of the past. However, unlike many other bourbon brands, there is a linear connection between that past and present.
Started in the 1872 by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (the “I.W.” in I.W. Harper, with the Harper surname developed for marketing purposes only) and his brother, the bourbon was developed as the brother’s flagship product. In the early 1890’s, the Bernheim brothers purchased an operating distillery in Louisville and renamed it “Bernheim.” This facility is often referred to as the “Old Bernheim Distillery,” but it is actually better called the “First Bernheim Distillery” (more on that below). The production of I.W. Harper was thus moved to this newly acquired facility. Bernheim continued production of I.W. Harper even through Prohibition, where it was one of the few products that was allowed to be produced as a medicinal whiskey.
Following Prohibition, the first Bernheim Distillery, I.W. Harper, and other brands were sold. The buyers also purchased two other distilleries in Louisville. At that time, the buyer shifted the production of I.W. Harper to these two newly acquired distilleries (known separately as Belmont and Astor), and those facilities were renamed the (Second) Bernheim Distillery. That second distillery and the I.W. Harper brand were sold again to the Schenley company in 1937. Schenley continued production. Ownership of Schenley would change hands in the late 1960’s, and would soon be again sold to United Distillers. United Distillers would become Diageo in the late 1980’s.
I.W. Harper would survive this transition as part of Diageo, but its presence in the United States would be phased out. The cause is significant: I.W. Harper was, for a time, the most popular brand in Japan, and price premiums elsewhere caused United Distillers/Diageo to shut down distribution in the U.S. to protect pricing.
In around 1992, the second Bernheim Distillery (the Belmont and Astor facilities) was rebuilt as the . . . you guessed it . . . new (third) Bernheim Distillery, and production of I.W. Harper transitioned to that new distillery. Later, when Diageo sold the Bernheim Distillery to Heaven Hill following Heaven Hill’s warehouse/distillery fire, Diageo retained the I.W. Harper brand name. The I.W. Harper products would nonetheless be distilled by Heaven Hill at the new Bernheim Distillery. Aging purportedly would take place at the old Stitzel-Weller warehouses, also owned by Diageo.
While I.W. Harper was never officially discontinued, for Diageo it practically did so in the United States with an absence of more than 20 years. In 2015, I.W. Harper was reintroduced as an 82-proof NAS product and an 86-proof, 15-year product.
With that history in mind, it would appear that this I.W. Harper Gold Medal (5 year, 86 proof) bottle was a product produced under the ownership of the Schenley company at the old Belmont/Astor Distillery in the early 1960’s.
Nose: Caramel and soft oak; rye spice; herbal, with a slight hint of medicinal mint; dark fruit; butter; a bit more ethanol than expected at 86 proof; a bit of mustiness, almost like damp earthiness.
Palate: Not nearly as complex as the nose might suggest, with much simpler flavors of caramel and rye spice; the mouthfeel is acceptable but not wonderful.
Finish: Lingering dark fruit, some caramel and a return of the herbal notes and medicinal mint; an ending (and slightly lasting) metallic note.
Overall: This has held up well in the bottle for more than 50 years. The nose is complex and inviting. The palate, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the nose. The palate (and finish) are not at all bad, but are a letdown from the nose. I’m not sure why on many of these old, dusty bottles, but the metallic note comes through a bit harsh for me (it may be a product of the metal caps on these old travel bottles).