With its art deco decanter-bottle packaging, I.W. Harper 15 sounds and looks like one of those whiskeys that’s been around forever but you’re not quite familiar with. As it turns out, there’s a good reason for that impression.
The brand itself dates back to 1872, and was named after Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a German immigrant who opened Kentucky’s Bernheim distillery in 1870. I.W. Harper enjoyed more than a century of popularity, but by the 1990s a focus on the Asian market saw it vanish from stateside shelves.
I.W. Harper returned to its birth country with a 2015 brand re-launch, which included the 15-year-old expression. According to press materials, the Kentucky straight bourbon is “inspired by the original I.W. Harper variants,” aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and bottled in Tennessee. Its mash bill is composed of 86% corn, 6% rye and 8% barley.
It pours a medium, ruddy gold in the glass and has a nose that’s big on ethanol but on a closer sniff reveals cherries in syrup, both vanilla-glazed cake donuts and vanilla icing, and touches of oak, cornmeal, and nuts.
I.W. Harper 15 starts sweet on the palate with those nutty, grainy notes up top and a rich, semi-chalky presence on the tongue. That initially earthy sweetness gets sticky in the center with caramel, raspberry, and cherries in syrup, but is dried out by a finish that kicks off with yeasty powdered donuts. As the palate dries out further, tannic oak and raisins emerge, and the mouthfeel reaches a chalky climax just before a mild finish with a decent measure of spice that continues to linger far after you think you’ve felt the last crackle. Once that spice finally does burn off, the tongue is left with that pleasant, cornmeal-like earthiness that inaugurated the festivities, but with the sweetness now absent.
Considering that sky-high corn content, I expected I.W. Harper 15 to taste closer to a 100% corn whiskey with an ultra-chalky texture and plenty of sweetness. And sure, you’ll find that tell-tale corn texture and sweetness. But it’s a sweetness that’s far from one-note thanks to its dark, fruity flavors, the drying influence of oak, and that wonderful, yeasty donut note. I.W. Harper is a damned interesting bourbon, and that’s reason enough for me to keep it in my wet bar—though I’ll admit that old-timey decanter bottle helps make the case, too.
— 43% ABV