I.W. Harper Special Reserve 16yr BIB Bourbon Whiskey 1917-1933


SPIRIT: Bourbon

VOLUME: 1 Pint

ABV/PROOF: 50/100

AGE: 16 years

 The Bernheim family, German Jewish immigrants who settled in Kentucky in the late 19th century, rank among the whiskey industry’s most important names. Isaac Wolfe Bernheim came to America first, in 1867, working as a peddler around the Ohio River Valley before finding work as a bookkeeper in Paducah, in western Kentucky. He saved enough money to bring his brother, Bernard, to the country, and in 1872 they opened a trading company, Bernheim Brothers. They moved to Louisville in 1888, where they bought a distillery, Pleasure Ridge Park, and renamed it Bernheim.

Chief among the distillery’s products was a top-shelf brand called I.W. Harper. Isaac Bernheim loaned his first two initials to the whiskey, but he felt a Jewish name wouldn’t work on the label, and so opted for something more gentile – Harper. The whiskey ranked among the most renowned of its era, winning awards at expositions and fairs and selling briskly around the country. 

Anticipating Prohibition, the Bernheim brothers sold the distillery and its brands to a company called United American. It, in turn, was bought in 1920 by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, one of the few corporations with a license to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition. This bottle is a stunning example of just how large the “medicinal whiskey” loophole was. The back label claims it was distilled before September 8, 1917, when the wartime ban on beverage alcohol production went into effect, but the tax strip says it was distilled in fall 1917, which began two weeks later – a minor discrepancy, perhaps, but evidence that neither the distillery nor federal regulators cared much about the letter of the law. 

More to the point, its 16-year age statement and its bottled in bond status bespeak a refined whiskey designed for enjoyment, not simply to ward off a cold – regardless of what the back label claims.

The Bernheim distillery and its brands were sold to Schenley in 1937. The whiskey prospered through the 1980s, when the company shifted it to export-only status. Diageo, its current owner, restarted it domestically in 2015, and the Bernheim distillery is now operated by Heaven Hill. 

Release: I.W. Harper Special Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

Spirit: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Producer: Schenley

Misc.: After selling his distillery, Isaac Bernheim became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy that included a vast tract of woodland south of Louisville known today as the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. He died in 1945. In his honor, Heaven Hill later created a wheat whiskey called Bernheim, a name that previous generations had been wary of putting on a label.

Collectors’ tips: This release, from 1933, is technically post-Prohibition, by a few months. It is one of the more common bottles from the era, and collectors should seek out examples still packaged in their original cardboard boxes.

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