...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Tale of Taint, Jews and two I.W. Harper Bourbons


One of the pitfalls a new dusty hunter will discover the hard way is the purchase of a tainted bourbon. Picture it. Our precious noob hurries home, excited about this old (1980s!) thing he just bought for $17.99. In his kitchen he proclaims to his partner, or to no one in particular, that he's going to keep it real and drink what he just bought instead of flipping it on the secondary market. He opens the screw top, breaks the tax strip and pours himself a glass. And the color is beautiful, like caramel. In fact......it's looking kinda like caramel inside the glass, all thick and cloudy. That means it's unfiltered goodness, the way it's meant to be! Right? He toasts to long dead loved ones and takes a slug and FUCK IT'S GROSS.

Yeah, that clouding isn't like unfiltered olive oil. This isn't raw apple cider vinegar, there ain't no "The Mother" here. Now, as many of you geeks already know, unfiltered whiskey of all types may in fact cloud up in cooler temperatures or when water is added. But when a bottle has been stored in direct sunlight and/or next to a heating vent for the better part of three decades, chemical processes initiate within the liquid. And sometimes it results in a formerly-translucent fluid that now remains opaque at room temperature.

You may wonder, did the above scenario befall this particular blogger? The answer is no. But I did hear a story that happened to a friend. Let's call this friend, say, Driving for Girls. He was invited to an exclusive bourbon party hosted by some whiskey guy; let's call that guy, Uks. The party's other attendees brought bottles of Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 20+ year old Willetts and Prohibition-era rye. Driving for Girls brought a bottle of I.W. Harper's Taint.


Sorry, Uks, that I pulled out the taint at your fancy party. :(


Not me. I returned from Japan two years ago. And I'm doing what I can to get back there some time this decade. Instead, I'm referring to the I.W. Harper brand.

Yitzach Wolfe Bernheim was one of many members of the mispucha who did well for the bourbon industry in the 19th and 20th century. After making a good buck as bookkeeper for the Loeb, Bloom and Co. liquor wholesaler—and there's my pitch for the sequel to The Producers; trust me, it writes itself—Yitzach (er, Isaac) Wolfe Bernheim brought his brother to the US from Germany in 1870. Together the Bernheim brothers started making bourbon. They took one look at trying to sell the name Bernheim in 1870s Kentucky and realized they might as well just call their bourbon Rebbe Yidl's Gehakte Leber. Instead, they chose the name of a local well-respected horse trainer, Harper.

I.W. Harper bourbon was a hit. It won a gold medal at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair—though one wonders if every brand won a medal there as they do in most of today's spirits competitions. In any case, they did well enough to be one of the ten American distilleries to have paid off the right congressmen to be allowed to produce so-called medicinal spirits during Prohibition. In 1937 the Bernheims sold their company to Schenley (owned by one Lewis Rosenstiel). After World War II, Schenley created 'The Traveler' image for the I.W. Harper brand, a silhouette of a dapper WASP gentleman tipping his top hat. This polite fictional gentleman, perhaps referencing the fictional Harper himself, has remained the I.W. Harper icon ever since.

When the bourbon industry took a beating in the 1980s, Schenley sold to United Distillers (proto-Diageo). Within a few years of the sale, UD pulled I.W. Harper from the United States and sold it elsewhere in the world, focusing on a newly bourbon-loving Japanese demographic. Harper remained a big hit in Japan for the next two decades. Once bourbon sales began their ascent during the 2010s, Diageo brought Harper back to The States in two formats, a cheaper NAS bottling and a luxury 15 year old.

(Many thanks to Reid Mitenbuler and Mike Veach for all their great work! Buy their books. Seriously.)


Now I've screwed myself because I'm expected to deliver a fascinating comparison between old I.W. and new I.W.  Sorry. :(  I'm going to compare what I actually have. And that is a sample of the tainted 1981 bottling (that belonged to my friend, Driving for Girls) mentioned above. I also have a sample of the newer 15 year old Harper.

I'm not normally one to comment on a whiskey's actual bottle, but...
Even as one of the more cynical whisk(e)y consumers, I have found my willpower defeated by this excellent decanter, having almost purchased it twice. Why? Some of us must purchase beauty because we do not possess it within.

I.W. Harper "Gold Medal" 4 year old Straight Bourbon, bottled in 1981

Brand: I.W. Harper
Distillery: Old Bernheim
Owner: Schenley
Type: straight bourbon whiskey
Age: at least 4 years
Mashbill: ???
Bottling Year: 1981
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

The nose starts off with a lot of turpentine and lemon bathroom cleaner. The smells of a wood shop: sawdust, metal and varnish. A bit on the gluey side. Maybe some seaweed. There are some very nice notes of peaches and Smarties candies running through the middle. The palate is flat, but not as bad as I'd remembered it. At first. Vague vanilla and caramel. Wood, salt. A massive note of envelope glue. But after 20 minutes, an unnerving level of bitterness slips in, making things feel a bit too poisonous. Its finish is gluey and bitter, with a metallic aftertaste.

I was surprised by how uncrappy it was at the start. It came across like a bottom-shelf plastic bottle bourbon. Though it had the The Turps something terrible and there was much too much glue. And then it turned poisonous.

It's still better than Cutty Sark.

Availability - Happy Hunting?
Pricing - ???
Rating - 57

The 1981 bottling on the left, the new 15yo on the right.
The dusty wasn't totally opaque, but one can sort of see its lack of translucence
I.W. Harper 15 year old Straight Bourbon, bottled in 2015

Brand: I.W. Harper
Distillery: New Bernheim
Matured at: Stitzel-Weller warehousing
Bottled in: Tullahoma, Tennessee
Owner: Diageo
Type: straight bourbon whiskey
Age: at least 15 years
Mashbill: 86% corn, 6% rye, 8% malted barley
Bottling Year: 2015
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(Note 1: Thank you to the great Ms. Sing for this sample from her bottle!)
(Note 2: this curious Bernheim to S-W warehouse to Tullahoma method was the same used for several of Diageo's Orphan Barrel releases.)

Wow, just a wall of barrel char on the nose at first. Needs some time. Then comes walnuts, peanuts and hazelnuts. Honey and an orange sugar glaze. White nectarines and orange peels. Also has a nice bakery note to it. Big baking spice and pepper notes in the palate. Pretty simple overall but not as blankly woody as I'd expected. Its bitterness stays mild, while it grows sweeter with time. Has some sharp heat. Maybe tart limes? The finish has lots of chili oil-like heat. Sweet and tart lemons. Caramel candy. Plenty of oak in the aftertaste.

This is a much different bourbon than the 1981 Harper, for many reasons. It's older, from a different distillery, different mashbill, different warehouse. And its bottle wasn't stored poorly for decades. Aside from the very first sniff and the end of the aftertaste, the 15yo's oak was much milder than that of all the Orphan Barrel releases I've tried. The nose is actually very good. The palate neither offends nor impresses.

I find my brain continually comparing this to the Orphan Barrel releases since this is another long-aged low abv bourbon from Diageo. I'd take this Harper over any of them, with the possible except of Rhetoric 22. It doesn't hurt that one can still find this bourbon selling for a fraction of many of those Orphans. Its price range is crazy, but if you can find it for less than $60, I'd mildly recommend it, partially thanks to the decanter.

Availability - US only, I think
Pricing - $50-$100
Rating - 82


  1. We've got Harper 12-Year (in a similar, but not quite as pretty bottle) here in Japan, but I've not seen any 15-Year. As for the NAS stuff you can buy everywhere for about 15 bucks, it's one of the best values for money, IMO. If I'm drinking cheap beer and bourbon, it's my go-to.

    1. That NAS IW Harper is $30+ out here, with some retailers slinging it for $50. I'd buy a bottle blindly for $15, but not at those prices. The Harper brand ♥ Japan.