Sometimes, a bottle just calls your name. One look at the packaging, the age-statement, and an attractive price, and I knew I needed it. I.W. Harper 15-Year Bourbon Whiskey hit solidly on all three characteristics.
The Bernheim Brothers
I first discovered I.W. Harper when it was highlighted on the Bulleit Experience at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery just south of Downtown Louisville. The brand traces its roots to German immigrants Isaac Wolfe Bernheim and his brother, Bernard. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, it received a Gold Medal. In 1937, it was folded into the Schenley conglomerate.
The brand continued to be produced during bourbon's decline and even received an honorable mention in the 1969 James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. With bourbon's further decline, its once stellar taste was relegated to the bottom shelf, and then disappeared from the United States altogether (though it was sold overseas). Diageo resurrected the brand in 2016 and it is now produced by Bulleit.
While Bulleit is now producing some of the younger I.W. Harper, it's a good guess that this bourbon was sourced, and the likely producer with spirits this old, in quantity, is Heaven Hill. I.W. Harper is made from a mash bill of 86% corn, 6% rye, 8% malted barley. It carries a 15-year age statement - nearly unheard of in this day and age - and is bottled at a low 86 proof. Typically, this product fetches in the $80 - $100 range - a bargain for one carrying an age statement of that length.
For a while, I was regularly seeing this at a regional liquor store (ironically on the bottom shelf), though it's been spotty, of late. This expression is packaged in a short, square, heavy bottle that is diamond-etched. Stream a black-and-white noir movie and this bottle could well have played a backup part, sitting on a shelf behind the two-bit clumsy detective.
From the website, we’re told to expect "sweeter up front then moves into notes of oak, dried fruit, caramel, spice, and vanilla."
Color: Deep amber with numerous short, thin legs on the inside of my Glencairn glass.
Nose: Warm and gentle vanilla and honey, with soft and muted oak. There are some minty and orange notes (think sugared orange slice candy) along with stone fruit (apricot, maybe).
Palate: Creamy and well-blended with vanilla, fruit, and mint. Silky-smooth milk chocolate-covered candied fruit is, which is replaced later by dry oak and leather.
Finish: Sweeter vanilla notes lead, followed by drying oak and muted spice in a medium-long ending.
Overall: In today's abundance of long-aged cask-strength products, it's easy to look past I.W. Harper. Many would tip their noses at its low 86 proof. And, some long-aged products can also be over-oaked. Master Distiller Jimmy Russell has remarked on more than one occasion that beyond 13 years or so, all you taste is the oak and tannin. In many cases, after 15 years, there's a good likelihood that the 55 gallon barrel is half empty, compliments of the angels' share.
For the price point, the packaging, and quite honestly, the product, this is lovely bourbon. It is smooth and easy sipping for its age, with a good layering of flavors that won't leave you running for ice or to pour this into a cocktail. Be on the lookout for this well-presented bourbon.