Updated May 12, 2016
By Kurt Maitland
The Harper brand was launched in 1879 by the famous Bernheim Brothers, Isaac and Bernard, the pair who are the same Bernheims as the Heaven Hill distillery and release. It was named after Isaac who was the president of the company. “I. W.” were his first two initials, but perhaps thinking that his surname of “Bernheim” might affect sales, his whiskey was instead released as I.W. Harper.
I. W. Harper was a very important brand in its time, but when the bourbon was withdrawn from the U.S. market in the early ’90s it had declined into a low cost, low end release. That said, it continued to sell in Japan, where it is still popular today and one of the best-selling bourbons.
Diageo decided to re-introduce the I.W. Harper brand to the US earlier this year, with No Age Statement (NAS) and 15 Yr Old expressions. Here we take on the NAS version.
This bourbon is made from a mashbill of 73% corn, 18% rye, and 9% barley. According to Diageo it was “most recently aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Ky., and contains whiskeys distilled at the current Bernheim Distillery. It is hand bottled in Tullahoma, Tenn.” Down in Tullahoma, home of Diageo’s George Dickel, the whiskey was bottled at 41% abv, or 82 proof.
Color: Toasted Carmel
Nose: Rich, sweet corn, honey and vanilla, with citrus and floral notes
Taste: Considering how low the proof is, this is a very flavorful release. I get stone fruits, including cherry, a little citrus, with a little nuttiness that turns to a bit oakiness as you get to the finish. The texture is a little gummy, not too oily and not too dry. It starts a with little oaky spiciness and blooms into a white peppery finish. A little water peels away the astringent notes and frees some apple and cinnamon notes.
Finish: Sweetly astringent with hints of pine, Juicy Fruit gum and white pepper
This is a pretty good whiskey. I can see it being a joy in a cocktail or a good sipper. It’s not flashy but it gets a lot done with a relatively low proof (for a bourbon). That said, I would have like to have tasted a higher proof version of this release just to make a comparison.
Addendum by Richard Thomas
I more or less agree with my colleague, although I would describe I.W. Harper as a pretty fair whiskey. It’s a light and smooth bourbon, with a flavor based on corn and caramel, with the underlying notes running to spicy. The main thing for me is that it is light rather than subtle, and I think notching the proof up half a dozen points would improve it markedly.
This whiskey is priced around $36 US. This might be the only thing (other than the proof) that I ding it on a little. $36 dollars isn’t expensive, but that price point makes it a bit more expensive than some quality cheaper bourbons with a higher proof.