Trying Out a Pair of "New" Bourbons With a Distinctive History

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Start-up distillers face a seemingly endless amount of challenges: everything from covering overhead costs and acquiring expertise, to navigating local law and standing out in a crowded marketplace. But the one hurdle no brand has an easy answer for is time. If you’re new and want to make something beyond a vodka or eau de vie (say, something like whiskey), the alcohol simply has to age.

This is exactly where a pair of “new” bourbons from Diageo—I.W. Harper’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($35) and a limited 15-Year-Old Kentucky ($75) coming “this Spring”—has a distinct advantage.

I.W. Harper’s is new with an asterisk. While younger whiskey enthusiasts may not recognize the name, this spirit dates back to the late 1800s. It was a high-end early offering from the historic Bernheim Distillery. (That distillery is long gone, and the Bernheim whiskey most think of today is actually a wheat-based offering from distillers at Heaven Hill. Harper’s will pull some of its liquid from there.)

Harper’s not only survived prohibition, it was available at the time. Bernheim was a rare, medically licensed distiller. That head start may have helped its prized Harper’s grow into a premier American brand. At its peak in the 1960s, it was distributed to 110 countries globally. Today, bottles from that time period fetch hundreds on whiskey hunting sites.

But when the whiskey industry hit a modern dry spell in the early ‘90s, Harper’s pivoted. The brand pulled out of the U.S. entirely and instead focused on emerging markets abroad such as Japan. So distillation never ceased, the liquid simply went elsewhere. It’s why a new offering in 2015 can come into our market as a 15-year-old whiskey (bottle ages refer to the youngest spirit in the mix; the Straight Bourbon is a four-year in this sense).

Put simply, Diageo’s decision to re-enter the U.S. with Harper’s wasn’t sparked by some surprise discovery of barrels. Rather, this was a business decision. The U.S. appetite for good bourbon had long since returned, and Harpers felt confident in its liquid.

“It’s starts with the climate, and for American Whiskey right now it’s perfect,” said Doug Kragel, a Diageo Master of Whiskey and American Whiskey Ambassador. “Whiskey drinkers today are interested in how whiskey correlates to American History, and this has everything. This is great liquid—you can’t just let that sit—and we have this storied past.”

Kragel likens the current U.S. whiskey environment to only one other beverage—craft beer. “You don’t just order the same thing every time if you like either of those. You go to the bar, peruse the back bar or ask questions,” he says. So with beer, enthusiasts might seek IPAs or session beers the most. And with whiskey, bourbon—which the new Harper’s certainly qualifies—is where the newest and most exciting creations land.

The Harper’s being reintroduced this Spring attempts to match the original recipes as closely as possible, but it’ll be new to anyone who’s sampled a bottle previously sporting the name. Kragel says whatever’s been updated from the historic recipe is solely to reflect current tastes. The new Harper’s offerings will also be different when compared to what’s been available abroad in the last 20 years for the same reason—a modern U.S. whiskey drinker simply prefers a different flavor profile.

“We kind of like to call it an Urban Bourbon, something that’s accessible to everyone,” Kragel says. “With the mashbills we use and the specific combination of the liquid, it gives us something palatable—it’s why you taste a lot of corn. Harper’s is a little sweeter, it’s an approachable nose and start. It’s also why we have slightly lower proof. That 15-year is 86 proof, that’s really approachable.”

When Kragel spoke to us in early April, he said only a few hundred people tasted the new Harper’s at that point. While our small sampling of the four-year had a little heat like what many seek in a straight bourbon, Kragel said bartenders so far liked its combination of high corn content (more than 70% according to Kragel) and a little rye (18 percent) in classic cocktails or riffs on classics—things that require a spirit to both give and take flavor. (See the familiar Old Fashioned or something like a Gold Rush—a sour with bourbon, lemon juice and honey syrup).

The 15-year, in contrast, tasted noticeably like a higher-end spirit. The nose was sweet (corn, yes, but with almost butterscotch aromas), and the bourbon then delivered a deep caramel in the taste. There was a little spice on the tongue, but certainly no tingle afterwards; it was as smooth as you’d anticipate for a 15-year.

Harper’s late 19th century peers run the gamut these days. Jim Beam and Wild Turkey can be found on lower shelves with plastic caps, Blanton’s and the famed Pappy Van Winkle clearly reside elsewhere. The rejuvenated Harper’s appears to be aiming for the in-between with its Straight Kentucky Bourbon, though it’s certainly packing more history than most of those soon-to-be competitors. The 15-year instead sits alongside those highly sought after brands, but maybe Harper’s will be easier to snag… until, that is, people start re-recognizing the name.

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