The Return of a Classic American Whiskey

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In the late 1950s and 60s, you would be hard-pressed to find a whiskey drinker who hadn’t heard of I.W. Harper bourbon. The brand was one of the products of the Bernheim Brothers distillery; a Kentucky-based operation founded in the mid-1800s, and enjoyed a surge in popularity after World War II. Advertisements boasted that it was "the only bourbon enjoyed in 110 countries," and a favorite of travelers on ocean liners. In the 1969 Bond movie One Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 007 eschews his usual martini for I.W. Harper on ice.

But in the '70s and '80s, whiskey fell out of favor as the fashionable American's spirit of choice, as bar-goers opted for vodka and gin. In the mid-1990s, I.W. Harper, went from being a staple of the American bourbon market to an overseas-only brand that, much like Tom Waits, was big in Japan. This year, almost 20 years after I.W. Harper disappeared off American shelves, the bourbon has returned stateside. Like other brown liquor you might see in dusty pictures from the middle of the 20th century, Canadian Club and J&B Scotch, I.W. Harper is having a resurgence in popularity, thanks to a new generation eager to drink the same liquor their grandparents drank.

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Are we really drinking the way our grandparents did? Even though the same brands of spirits are available now, the way Americans think about whiskey has changed fundamentally. "One of the biggest differences in the way we drink today as opposed to in the '40s and '50s is that bourbon and rye were considered blue collar spirits, explained Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. "Brands like I.W. Harper and Canadian club were workhorse brands, and advertising emphasized their value, rather than their flavor or craftsmanship."

When you looked for a whiskey in the years after World War II, rather than hunting for small-batch craft distillers, you sought out big brands. "In the early days of whiskey in America, consistency was a huge problem, and it was something these huge companies could guarantee: A bottle of liquor would be more of less the same, every time," Mitenbuler noted. "So advertisers really emphasized whiskey as an industrial product, not just an agricultural one."

Another distinction is the way that whiskey was consumed. "Thanks to Prohibition, when people didn’t legally drink for 14 years, you had a whole generation of people who, generally speaking, didn't know cocktail recipes," said Elizabeth Pearce, a New Orleans-based drinks historian. "That knowledge wasn’t eradicated, but it was certainly diluted, and it meant that people generally went with simple concoctions: whiskey and water or whiskey and soda, rather than the cocktails you have today, which might include three kinds of bitters and an orange peel that’s on fire.

"For most of the history of drinking in the 20th century, cocktails were very simple: they were doing highballs, or Crown Royal and coke, or maybe Tanqueray, a splash of tonic, a squeeze of lime, and god bless," Pearce continued. "Thanks to the diversity of spirits available, the way that we approach cocktails has radically shifted. And now there’s this tension between the simplicity of classic spirits and increasingly complicated mixology." 

Back then, as today, what's in your glass, like the clothes on your back, projected a certain image. "Canadian Club is a great example," Mitenbuler noted. "It's an everyday classic, kind of like Pabst. It says that you're not fussy, and you’re not snooty. You're just out at a bar after work and looking for something that does the job."

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One thing that hasn't changed is that consumers have always been looking for the whiskey that was in their grandfather's glass. That's because, unlike lighter spirits, aging and story are integral parts of whiskey's image. "In the early days of whiskey marketing, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was common to create a fake back story," Mitenbuler said. "It takes a really long time to make whiskey well, so cultivating a sense that this brand was old was a way to assure people that this product was the real deal. Even now, you would never market whiskey using the word 'new.' People are looking for something established."

I.W. Harper was very much the real deal, an industry legend in his time. So maybe part of the reason a new generation of whiskey drinkers is welcoming the brand back is the comfort of something familiar. "In a way, it's cool to see these brands named after huge industry figures coming back, because they did great things for whiskey in their day," Mitenbuler said. "It's sort of like comfort food; it's an umbilical cord back to this time that we like to think of as simpler and easier-going. Every era is confusing, economically, politically, and technologically. Holding a glass of bourbon in your hand is a way to fight back."


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