Wednesday, June 26, 2024

I. W. Harper Deserves Better


I. W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 41% alc/vol

In 2015, Diageo relaunched I. W. Harper bourbon, a 19th century brand created by the Bernheim Brothers. 

The relaunch did not set the world on fire. 

Some old brands have been successfully reintroduced or rebooted. Brown-Forman revived its flagship, Old Forester, even gave it its own distillery. Sazerac acquired Old Taylor from Suntory and has gone great guns with it. Beam even had mild success with its pre-Pro Old Tub bourbon. The Limestone Branch Beams have revived Yellowstone.

But I. W. Harper not so much. It made some noise in 2015, when they put money behind it. It is still, ostensibly, available. The website has a 2024 copyright. But Binny's in Chicago doesn't carry it, and as they're fond of saying, "If you can't find it at Binny's it's probably not worth drinking."

Historically, I. W. Harper is an important brand. It was launched in 1879 by the Bernheim Brothers, Issac and Bernard. Issac was company president and "I. W." were his first two initials (Issac Wolfe), but he hesitated about using his own last name and went with the safely Anglo-Saxon "Harper" instead.

During WWI, many families with German-sounding names changed them, the most famous example being the British royals. One of Bernheim's sons changed the spelling to "Burnham." His son, Issac Wolfe Burham, founded in 1931 the investment firm that became Drexel Burnham Lambert (using some money from grandpa).

The brothers had two distilleries in Louisville, the first one in Shively, the second in west Louisville where Heaven Hill's Bernheim Production Facility is today. The brothers sold the company when they retired. After Prohibition it became part of Schenley, which became part of the Guinness roll-up that created what we know as Diageo today. They tore down the old distillery and built a new one in 1992, then sold it to Heaven Hill in 1999.

In retirement, Issac Bernheim became a major philanthropist. Probably his greatest gift was the vast nature preserve in Bullitt County known as Bernheim Forest. He and his wife, and one of his sons, are buried there. Although open to the public it is privately owned by the Bernheim Foundation. It just happens to be right across the street from the Jim Beam Distillery, just off I-65 at exit 112 (KY-245 toward Bardstown / Clermont).

In about 1990, I. W. Harper Bourbon was withdrawn from the U.S. market. By then it was a forgotten, cheap, bottom shelf brand in the U.S., but had, remarkably, become the best-selling bourbon in Japan, where bourbon sales were booming, and where it sold for a premium price. So great was the price differential that clever entrepreneurs began gray market exporting it, buying it at U.S. prices and shipping it to Japan outside of sanctioned distribution channels. The only way to stop them was to kill the brand in the U.S., which they did.

It returned briefly a few years later in the Bourbon Heritage Collection, as a super-premium called I. W. Harper Gold Medal, a 15-year-old. When Diageo bailed out of bourbon in 1999, that product was one of the first casualties. 

In 2012, I. W. Bernheim was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. Several of his descendants were at the induction ceremony. He was the only 2012 inductee.

One clue to the brand's future may be in the address shown on the website, which says it is a product of the I.W. Harper Distilling Company, Tullahoma, TN. 

1 comment:

BriColella said...

Another great anecdote, Chuck - thank you for posting!