Forget Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Basil Hayden, and Henry McKenna: It’s Isaac Wolfe Bernheim who really changed the bourbon game.
This week, The Atlantic dives deep into bourbon’s Jewish roots, exploring how Bernheim’s I.W. Harper brand (recently revived for the first time since the 1960s) helped to launch a stateside bourbon revolution in the 1880s while masking the popular drink’s Jewish heritage:
While Bernheim’s family story most certainly was full of gusty independence and pragmatism, he worried that consumers would discriminate against the liquor if he used his own name. The answer? He made up a name: I.W. Harper.
Source: Vintage Booze
Here are five of the most interesting facts from the Atlantic story, which could (and should) inspire an even more thorough look into this too often ignored piece of American drinking history.
1. “Jews comprised only 3 percent of Louisville’s local population [in the 1880s but] they accounted for a quarter of the whiskey trade.”
In 2014, Evan Williams held the first official event called “Bourbon and Jewish Louisville: A Shared Spirit” which focused on the long connection between Jewish families in the Kentucky city and the bourbon industry.
2. “Henry Ford argued that distilling had once been an art, but that American whiskey ‘ceased to be whiskey’ and had become ‘rot-gut’ after places like Cincinnati had become ‘a thoroughly Judaized city’ and Louisville a place of ‘Judaic complexion.'”
Henry Ford was the worst, eventually proving to be so nutty and racist he tried to ruin bourbon for everyone. He also tried to turn the town of Sudbury, Massachusetts into a themed historical village, eventually moving into the schoolhouse that apparently inspired the song “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
3. “Built into the architecture of the Bourbon Heritage Center…in Bardstown, Kentucky, the wooden rafters above the tasting room are held up by iron supports shaped like the Star of David.”
The Center, which sits on the grounds of the Heaven Hill distillery, unfortunately glosses over Jewish bourbon culture and primary celebrates bourbon founding father Evan Williams, who once told a man he had, “sissy, aristocratic tastes” because he didn’t like bourbon.
4. “[Bernheim placed] the Anglo-Saxon ‘Harper’ after his own first two initials to create I.W. Harper bourbon. In 1944, a year before Bernheim’s death at age 96, he would admit that he borrowed the name from John Harper, a popular horse trainer.”
Fellow Jewish bourbon mogul Lewis Rosenstiel also never participated in the then-industry standard practice of placing his name on a bottle, but that’s because he was on the run from the law for bootlegging charges and had ties to gangsters.
5. “Whiskey…wasn’t vertically integrated like the beer trade and didn’t have a direct distribution system, creating intermediary roles for aspiring [Jewish] entrepreneurs.”
Beer was often linked to a “tied house” saloon system, in which breweries completely controlled and operated saloons. This system (and the stiffly competitive beer market that followed) is damned as one of the reasons Prohibition passed.