I.W. Harper, owned by Diageo, is a storied brand of bourbon that has all but vanished from the U.S. market. Nevertheless, this brand remains very popular in Japan with both the "Gold Medal" and "12 Year" varieties being widely available.
The brand I.W. Harper was originally owned by Abraham Hoffheimer, a Cincinnati resident. Bernheim Bros. (later Bernheim Distillery), located in Louisville, KY, purchased the trademark in 1879 and began producing I.W. Harper around 1880. It won a gold medal at New Orleans Exposition in 1885 and at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, thus establishing itself as a world-class whiskey. Aside from I.W. Harper, Bernheim also produced Old Charter and Belmont.
Despite Prohibition, Bernheim Distillery continued its production of whiskey uninterrupted by obtaining a license to produce medicinal whiskey. In 1933, following the end of Prohibition, Leo Gerngross and Emil Schwarzhaupt purchased Bernheim Distillery. This was quickly followed, in 1937, by a sale to Schenley Industries. Schenley Industries had amassed a large portfolio of bourbon brands, including Ancient Age, Old Quaker and Old Stagg, among which I.W. Harper was only one. In 1987, Schenley Industries, along with the brand I.W. Harper, was acquired by Guinness, and, in 1991, merged into Glenmore to create United Distillers.
At this time, America's bourbon market was declining, but, lucky for United Distillers, Japan had become a hot market for bourbon. Previously, I.W. Harper had been positioned as a "budget" bourbon in Japan, but, due to boom era pricing, was still selling at a premium to its U.S. retail price. Many entrepreneurs, aided by Japan's less restrictive liquor laws, were purchasing I.W. Harper in the United States and reselling it in Japan at a mark-up (known as "grey market" importation). United Distillers, riding the surging popularity of bourbon, decided to convert I.W. Harper into a premium product in Japan. At the same time, United Distillers slowly ceased distribution in the U.S. in order to avoid grey market imports, thus removing I.W. Harper from the U.S. market. In 2015, I.W. Harper returned to the US.
In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo, the current owner of the I.W. Harper brand.
Today, I.W. Harper remains a premium product in Japan with the 12 Year, along with Blanton's, being one of the most widely available premium bourbons.