I recently had the chance to attend a Portland, Oregon based tasting tied to IW Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon’s return to the United States market. Due to the decline in popularity of brown spirits in the 1970s and 80s, parent company Diageo decided profitability for the IW Harper brand lay exclusively overseas – in Japan, to be specific.
Enter the new millennium. American whiskey is making a comeback in a big way. Primed to make good on this surge of domestic spirit, IW Harper has come back, too. Diageo’s angle seems to be to give this former bottom shelf whiskey an exclusive feel, and their offerings are priced accordingly, with a 4 year old and a 15 year retailing for $45 and $75 respectively.
Strong on marketing, Diageo has not spared IW Harper from a heavy-handed branding push. Advertisements from the history of the whiskey lined the tasting room, with a live artist painting another as the tasting commenced. No official tasting notes were initially conveyed during the evening, much to the annoyance of bartenders like Joe Frade, of Portland’s The Fields restaurant. He was there, he said, “for the knowledge, not so much the marketing. We [bartenders] are here to learn how to use the whiskey.” Thanks to a hard sell on the origins of this Louisville spirit, it was the whiskey that had to do the teaching.
Despite its past, though, IW Harper is no longer a bottom shelf spirit. Although official tasting notes found in booklets later in the evening were of the copy/paste variety – think vanilla swirling with caramel that could describe (albeit obtusely) almost any bourbon, the four year old, as I tasted it, showed up with surprising nuances.
The color was light straw, bordering on primrose. On the nose, green apple and jasmine played with a hint of citrus peel and ginger. Sweet little legs predicted the palate would be sweet, and true to form, vanilla dominated with nutmeg, apricots, brown sugar and soft wood rounding out a surprisingly complex little number. The finish was on the shy side of medium, with lingering hints of toasted coconut.
Bottled at only 82 proof, the heat of the IW Harper Kentucky straight bourbon is a gift of the relatively high 19% rye in a mostly corn mash bill.
The 15 year was much more in keeping with standard aged bourbon. Old gold in the glass, with longer legs, and tobacco and crème brulee on the nose, with a hint of honey and hay. On the palate, cinnamon, heavy oak, dulce de leche and chardonnay all played even hands, and the finish delighted as the oak softened to damask rose.
Whatever their reasons for leaving the American market, and despite the rather maudlin angle chosen for its reintroduction, IW Harper Kentucky Straight bourbon is welcome back to a rather large and magnanimous pack of old and new, craft and corporate, very good American whiskey.
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Tish Lester is a former restauranteur whose love of good flavors led her to the world of whiskey, where she is an avid participant, having attended nosings, tastings and master classes throughout Europe and the United States. She has recently discovered the truth that for every moment in our lives,...