Updated August 23, 2016
By Randall H. Borkus
Having devoted a lot of time exploring bourbon whiskey, I like to believe I have acquired a broad palate for this treasured Kentucky spirit. As a rule, I like the higher proof expressions, yet there are a couple of exquisite examples under 90 proof that just knock the ball out of the park for me. Diageo’s I.W. Harper 15 Year Old is an example, and is one of my all-time favorites.
This whiskey radiates class and character in its look and flavor. After all, the coolest spy ever, James Bond, enjoyed it over ice in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) which was the sixth spy film in the James Bond series. This really is a classy bourbon.
A little history: Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born in Germany in 1848, and arrived in New York with only $4 in his pocket by 1867. I.W. Harper bourbon takes root as Isaac Wolfe (I.W.) and Bernard Bernheim and third partner started Bernheim Bros. distillery in Paducah, Kentucky. The Bernheim brothers acquired the I.W. Harper trademark a few years later.
I.W. Harper name was recognized with numerous gold medals throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the most famous being the medal won at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Prohibition did not get in the way, as Bernheim Brothers thrived as one of only 10 distilleries allowed to produce Kentucky juice for medicinal purposes. Isaac Wolfe Bernheim passed away in 1945, and lies buried in the Bernheim Forest near Clermont, Kentucky, the forest being his other passion project.
The iconic I.W. Harper bourbon decanter debuted in 1955. The “Traveler” carrying case is also released; I.W. Harper becomes the favorite bourbon whiskey served on ocean liners which led to the world’s continued love affair with I.W. Harper. By 1966 it became an international sensation, traveling the world to become a favored bourbon whiskey in 110 countries.
In 1972, I.W. Harper bourbon celebrated a major milestone with its 100th Birthday, but then came the 1970s world whiskey crash. The brand disappeared from US shelves in the early 1990s, but continued to survive offshore and enjoy international success. Fortunately for us Yankees, Diageo announced the domestic resurrection of this most famous and storied juice in March of 2015.
It was distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery, now owned by Heaven Hill, and aged at the shuttered Stitzel-Weller Distillery, both located in Louisville. The spirit was made from a mash bill of 86% corn, 6% rye, and 8% malted barley. It is hand-bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee. at 86 proof (43% ABV) in a classic decanter, of which I have a couple on my shelf.
The color of the liquid is a dark honey or amber, and it’s slightly oily in the glass, translating into a nice set of legs.
Before starting on the other parts of the Harper 15 experience, I have opened a three of bottles this year, and the flavor profile of the nose and finish is greatly enhanced after the bottle has been opened and allowed to breath for a while. I find this makes a big difference for this bourbon whiskey making it worth the wait as it continues to get better over time.
The nose begins with a delightful sweetness and heavy dose of corn with a hint of honey, cinnamon, and some oak.
The mouthfeel coats the tong pleasantly and leads the palate with a touch of nutmeg, then corn sweetness, butterscotch and solid oak. My palate screams ambrosia at last!
The finish has a very complex profile, with a cornucopia of sweetcorn, butterscotch, caramel, cinnamon, and oak with a hint of tobacco that lingers for a long time; begging to be sipped and enjoyed over and over again promising to romance the taste buds throughout the evening maybe into the break of a new day.
Addendum By Richard Thomas
This silky liquid delivers a flavor profile that is restrained, and well within the traditional bourbon flavor profile. Candy corn sweet with teaspoons of vanilla, honey and cinnamon, rounded off by a little woody barrel char. The finish was sweet corn morphing into sweet tobacco, and ran mild. Overall, it’s a mild and imminently approachable sipper, and certainly pleasant enough. However, when a whiskey is understated, as this one is, I expect more from it in the way of sophistication. So, I.W. Harper 15 Year Old is good, but not great.
The bottom line is this is very good bourbon whiskey priced at $79 a bottle in Chicago.