In a pre-COVID world, I enjoyed touring distilleries, treasuring their histories and storied brands. One such tour was to the Bulleit Experience at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Here, several Diageo brands are highlighted, including flagship Bulleit, Blade and Bow, and I.W. Harper.

The Bernheim Brothers

During the late 1800s, German immigrants Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and his brother, Bernard, founded I.W. Harper Bourbon. It quickly received accolades, including the coveted Gold Medal at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The brand flourished through Prohibition and was sold to the Schenley conglomerate in 1937. The I.W. Harper brand was even spotlighted in the 1969 James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” staring George Lazenby.

By 1972, with domestic bourbon sales plummeting, the brand was relegated to the bottom shelf, eventually pulled from the US and sold exclusively abroad. The I.W. Harper brand was subsequently sold to Guiness in 1987, which merged with the Diageo spirits company. The brand was reintroduced to the U.S. market in 2016. While Diageo recently began distilling its own Bulleit brands at a new facility in Shelbyville, Kentucky, these I.W. Harper products were likely produced by Heaven Hill.

IW HarperIW Harper 15 Year
AgeNo age statement, but though to be in the 4-6 year range15-Year age statement
on the label
Mash72% corn
18% rye
10% malted barley
86% corn
6% rye
8% malted barley
EyeHoneyDeep copper
NoseSweet corn, honey, vanilla, and light floral notesTruly unique, with fruit at the forefront (think a warm compote) along with vanilla, caramel and spice. After letting it rest a bit, there are notes of dark chocolate.
PalateA light mouthfeel with vanilla, corn, honey and stone fruits.Fruit is present followed by bittersweet chocolate and caramel. Smooth and silky for something that has been aging for 15 years.
FinishMedium with some sharp, spicy notes. Dry and woodsyLong and fruit-forward, followed by vanilla, charred oak and saddle leather. Nicely balanced between the
sweet and dry flavors.


I enjoyed both of these products. The younger I.W. Harper was full of honey-sweetness with nice floral notes. It’s big brother – 15 year – was full of layers of flavor without being “overly oaky”. Some have said that at a certain age of bourbon, all you taste is the wood. After 15 years in oak, over half of the bourbon has evaporated into angels’ share. The 15-year expression is a great deal when compared to the age (I’ve paid well over this for lesser aged, more highly coveted brands).

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more affordable 15-year bourbon and one that is readily available on big-box liquor store shelves. The bottle is also to die for – straight out of a 1950’s noir private eye movie. This is a brand with a great story and a unique enough expression to live up to its classic decanter-like bottle. Welcome home, I.W. Harper. I hope you stay a while!

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