I.W. Harper 15 Year Old Bourbon



Earlier this year, Diageo announced the return of I.W. Harper, a bourbon brand that disappeared circa 1990 after spending the terminal years of its first life on the bottom shelf [in America].  While the inexpensive I.W. Harper was faltering at home, the Japanese were buying every ounce of the stuff they could import.  As Chuck Cowdery explained in March, opportunists in the States created a "gray market" for Harper by buying it at home and selling it to the Japanese outside of legal distribution channels.  The only business solution was to kill the brand here and focus on the foreign market.

After twenty-five years away, the brand is back on American shelves.  You can read a thorough background about the original brand and its namesake here, or watch a video here.

Diageo has released a NAS version (which has received generally negative reviews) and a 15 year expression, reviewed here.  Some of the juice in the 15-year-old was apparently distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery (owned by United, which became Diageo) in the 1990's and aged in Stitzel-Weller barrels, which is obviously a marketing plus.  Due to a fungus issue in those warehouses, many of the barrels are being released sooner rather than later (see, e.g. Orphan Barrels).  The rest of it was likely distilled by one of the major distillers (e.g. Four Roses, Jim Beam, Brown-Forman) and bought up by Diageo years ago.  

In keeping with Isaac Bernheim's preferences, the mash bill on both expressions is high in corn (86% in the 15-year-old) which is fairly evident on the nose and in the flavor profile.  While we appreciate the return of a historic label, the contents of the two releases are very different from one another, and the new expressions probably have few similarities to the original brand.

I.W. Harper 15 Year

Heaven Hill/Diageo
86 proof
$91 at The White Horse in Augusta, GA

Color: Golden. 

Nose: Generally pleasant and sweet.  While the barrel's influence is evident with a lumber-like wood scent, the nose is predominantly chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, and orange peel.  As time and air do their work, a dusty confectioner's sugar invites you to take a sip.

Tasting Notes:  Pedestrian.  Almost boring.  There is a bit of cocoa sweetness, but I mostly get spice and a black pepper.  Tannins reflect the age.  

Overall: C.  I urge anyone who disagrees with me to taste this blind against other 12-15 year old bourbons that cost half of what this costs and comment here.  I can't help but feel as though, once again, marketing men have pulled one over on the Bourbon Scout- we've parted with nearly $100 for a mediocre, albeit old, bourbon whiskey.  I prefer Forged Oak ($60) at its market value.  I prefer the 12-year-old Jim Beam Signature Select ($39.99).  I prefer Elijah Craig 12 ($25).