I. W. Harper History website tells us that Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born in Germany in 1848, and by 1867 had arrived in New York at the age of 19 and with only 4 American dollars in his pocket . Somehow he made his way to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he became a peddler of what was known as “Yankee Notions,” an assortment of merchandise. The frugal Dutch occupants of the area provided him a steady business. Soon he was able to purchase a wagon and a horse, but when the horse died unexpectedly, he took a job in a general store in Paducah, Kentucky, owned by two uncles. Three months later, he became a bookkeeper at a wholesale liquor business.
He saved enough money to bring his brother Bernard to the United States and gladly relinquished the bookkeeping job to him. Isaac went out on the road again to represent the company as a traveling salesman. Denied a promised partnership after years of work at the firm, I.W. Bernheim and his brother Bernard set off on their own, and a legend began. With the purchase of one barrel of whiskey they created a business in the back room of a wholesale grocery store. I.W. HARPER bourbon takes root as Isaac Wolfe and Bernard Bernheim along with silent partner Eldrige Palmer start Bernheim Bros. distillery in Paducah, Kentucky, with $3200.
One of their salesmen was named Harper. This Harper fellow was so well liked by his customers that they referred to the whiskey as “Mr. Harper’s whiskey.” In 1872, when the Bernheims decided to name their choicest whiskey, they took Isaac’s initials (I. W.) and Harper’s last name. The I. W. Harper brand had its name and the I.W. HARPER trademark.
I.W. HARPER was duly recognized with numerous gold medals throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s—most famously taking the Gold Medal at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
The Bernheim Brothers thrived during Prohibition as one of only ten distilleries allowed to legally produce for medicinal purposes. Though I.W. HARPER bourbon was not one of these medicinal whiskies, the brand still endured. The I.W. HARPER 1928 Ford Model A, located at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, gives a nod to the brand’s premium quality withstanding the test of time.
I.W. HARPER bourbon advertising becomes a testament to its refined reputation, while I.W. Bernheim continues even in his final years to pursue innovation—fine-tuning I.W. HARPER’s boiler to reduce the density of the smoke from its power plant by 65%, which improves the rich flavor of the whiskey.
I.W. Bernheim passes away in 1945 and is buried in his other passion project, the Bernheim Forest, located in Clermont, Kentucky.
The Bourbon Review from 10 March 2015 tells us, “After being unavailable in the U.S. for 20 years, Diageo has decided to bring back the historical I.W. Harper label stateside this spring. They are planning to roll out a permanent brand line under I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, along with a limited edition release that carries the same name but with different packaging and a 15-year-old age statement.
“According to Diageo, both Bourbons were recently aging at their Stitzel-Weller Distillery warehouses, but the whiskies used were distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery. Their facility in Tullahoma, Tennessee bottled these Bourbons; the same place their Orphan Barrel releases have been bottled.
“In the mid 1990’s, I.W. Harper was pulled out of the U.S. market and offered only in Asia; primarily Japan. The regular I.W. Harper will be bottled at 82 proof and have a suggested retail of $34.99, while the 15-year limited release comes in at 86 proof and a $75 price tag.”