Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, the founder of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, made his fortune in the bourbon whiskey industry. Through a combination of determination, knowledge, and hard work, Mr. Bernheim became immensely successful, allowing his dream to become a reality.
When eighteen-year-old Isaac came to America in 1867, his plan was to work as a bookkeeper in a New York City yarn factory owned by two of his uncles. Unfortunately, the factory fell on tough times and was shuttered by the time he arrived. He instead went to work selling notions as a peddler in Pennsylvania. After a year there, he headed to Paducah, Kentucky and other opportunities. Nineteen-year-old Isaac’s first experience in the bourbon world was serving as a salesman for a whiskey distributer. Within just a few years, he, along with his younger brother, Bernard, were able to seize an opportunity to start their own business. In January 1872, at the ages of 23 and 21 respectively, they founded Bernheim Brothers.
The brothers immediately introduced their own bourbon brand, I. W. Harper. Isaac used his initials but thought that the name Bernheim, which was both German and Jewish, would be a negative as a brand name. Instead, he borrowed the last name of a well-known thoroughbred breeder and trainer, John Harper. Mr. Harper of Midway, Kentucky’s stable included two horses that would later enter the U. S. Racing Hall of Fame: Long Fellow and Ten Broeck. The latter horse born the same year as the bourbon that now shared his owner’s name. Isaac chose ‘Harper’ as he believed it to be a solid American name.
I.W. Harper was an immediate success and its popularity grew rapidly. Initially marketed in an area extending only about 200 miles from Paducah, it was soon available throughout much of the South, West, and Northwest. It was well received by connoisseurs and received numerous awards including gold medals for excellence at the 1885 New Orleans Exposition, the 1893 Chicago World’’s Fair, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and 1907 Greater Louisville Exposition.
With this great success came a need to expand and to find more suitable locations for production and distribution. In 1888, the company headquarters moved to Main Street in Louisville. Soon the I. W. Harper brand was available throughout the country and overseas. In the following years, additional warehouses were acquired and distilling took place in several locations including Louisville, the Mayfield Distillery in Nelson and Larue counties, Silver Creek in Madison County, the Baltimore Rye Distillery in Maryland, the Warwick Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and Limestone Springs Distillery in Bullitt County — very near the current entrance to Bernheim Forest.
The success continued through the years and with it, the brothers’ fortunes. While the business was badly hit by onset of prohibition with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, it did not come to a complete stop. They were still able to sell ‘medicinal whiskey’ during the thirteen-year prohibition period. I. W. Bernheim eventually left active management of the business and it was sold in 1933 to Leo Gerngross and Emil Schwarzhaupt. After several additional sales, the brand is now owned by Diageo. After over twenty years of only being available overseas, I. W. Harper returned to the U.S. market in 2015, and included a celebration and tasting at the Bernheim Forest Visitor Center on March 19, 2015.
I. W. Harper gained a bit of accidental fame in 1959. Following the famed Kitchen Debate in Moscow with the Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President, Richard Nixon, boarded his plane to return to the U.S. Khrushchev made an unscheduled visit to the plane while it was being readied for departure. While investigating the liquor stocks aboard the plane, he discovered a bottle of I. W. Harper and the Vice President poured him a drink. Khrushchev’s review: “This is very good whiskey, but you Americans spoil it. You put more ice in there than whiskey.”
Despite his great fame and success with bourbon, Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was not an indiscriminate promoter of the industry. He believed that alcohol consumption should be in moderation and that those who abused it should be treated appropriately. He considered himself to be a creature of his circumstances and expressed the wish that he could have found himself in some other line of work. All of us who benefit from the great gifts of Bernheim Forest are grateful for his success and his generosity. Raise a glass of whatever beverage you choose (with or without ice) and toast this wonderful treasure.
By Ken Johnson
In 2019, Bernheim celebrates 90 years of connecting people with nature. At over 25 square miles, Bernheim is the largest privately held forest dedicated to conservation and education in the region. Our arboretum is home to plant collections of over 8,000 varieties, public art, and educational programming for thousands of students. Our pristine forest hosts hikers and outdoor adventures alongside research and conservation projects which will serve to protect the environment for future generations.
As a 100% member and donor supported organization, we could not fulfill this important mission without you. We hope you’ll continue to support our efforts throughout the next 90 years. Join or donate by clicking here.