Pure Kentucky Bourbon 2006 Review [In Depth]

IW Harper 101 Bourbon (1980's)

Alex author
Founder, writer
IW Harper 101 review header

IW Harper 101 (1980's) Details

Distillery: Bernheim

Type & Region: Bourbon, Kentucky, USA

Alcohol: 50.5%

Composition: Unknown

Aged: At least 3 years

Color: 1.6/2.0 on the color scale (mahogany, henna notes)

Price: $80-100

IW Harper 101 bourbon overview

Alright, time for another bourbon review that’s useless for 99.5% of people, and only really exists to document part of bourbon’s history and for me to indulge myself in old bourbon. I’m certainly lucky to be in this position so I’ll do my best to document and inform as best I can for my own knowledge and posterity’s sake. Now more on this bottle.
As you already know, this review covers IW Harper 101 Bourbon, an old ass bourbon with a familiar-ish name, but with an unfamiliar label and ABV. My best guess is that it’s from the mid 1980’s. I’ll get into that a little bit later.
IW Harper 101 front
You may know the name because you’ve seen the base IW Harper bourbon (I’ve actually rarely seen it) and the 15 year Kentucky bourbon in the fancy-looking decanter. In my personal opinion, I don’t think that the brand is particularly popular or disliked, it’s just rarely exciting enough to get people’s attention. Honestly, it needs a major refresh to be relevant.
hat’s unfortunate too because IW Harper is an old brand, founded by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (that’s not a typo). From what I can tell from Whisky Auctioneer, it goes back to at least the 1950’s, and possibly earlier. Again from Whisky Auctioneer, the bourbon, “was distilled and bottled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville by the Schenley company”. Bernheim might ring a bell because Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim in the late 1990’s and now produces a wheat whiskey called Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. IW Harper’s legacy is owned by 2 different companies.
More from Whisky Auctioneer about IW Harper, “Schenley [was] eventually bought over by United Distillers [eventually became Diageo] who discontinued the I.W. Harper brand in the 1980s”. To add to that, Diageo brought back the IW Harper name in 2015.
Back to this specific bottle. My whiskey sensei (now turned Brandy aficionado) traveled to Japan in 2023 and went hunting and stumbled into this. While he got his Wild Turkeys, he almost passed over this bottle because it didn’t have that same legacy and flash as Wild Turkey, Blanton’s, old Heaven Hill, etc.
To the unknowing eye, it’s easy to overlook. Thankfully, I knew a few things and noticed the 101 proof yellow label in a photo he sent. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I knew it meant it was old. And knowing that IW Harper has been discontinued since the late 80s, it’s fair to guess that it’s from at least the 80s.
On top of that, I knew that there was a slightly less old version of IW Harper 101 with a gray label that I think was briefly exported to Japan. I saw that one time and kept a mental note that it existed. So in the moment, I told him to roll the dice and buy both bottles for about $150 each. That’s the thing with all old bourbon, it’s a gamble. Even if you know the brand and the year it was made, you still have no idea if the booze inside is still good. I’ve been burned before with “corked” bourbon, and it’s a real bummer, and expensive too. But if it’s still good, the payoff is usually spectacular.
To this day I still have no idea how old the bourbon was aged in oak. If anyone knows what it means, this bottle has the lasercode DM341827 etched into it.
Let’s explore a piece of bourbon history in this 1980s IW Harper 101 bourbon review.
IW Harper 101 lasercode
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As an FYI, I bought and use these Glencairn glasses for everything (they’re the best): Glencairn Crystal Whiskey Glass Set of 6, Set of 4Set of 2, or just one. Full transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.

IW Harper 101 bourbon smell

Oh, IW Harper 101 Bourbon smells incredible. There’s caramel, cola, dark cherry, dark apricot, vanilla cream, old oak that’s really dark but not that roasty or burnt, cinnamon, chocolate fudge, cedar, and a little licorice, pineapple, and ginseng. It’s like a decadent roasted dark fruit cream tart, and it feels dense on my nose.
Even at 101 proof, there’s this incredible density and richness that’s so sweet, fruity, dark, and woody. But again, it’s not the heavily burnt and roasted oak you get today. It’s so…refined, smooth, and mature. It never ceases to amaze me how these old bourbons smell. I can drink some of the most sought after bourbons sold today, and they rarely come close to smelling anything like this.
My first sniff after swirling and letting it rest for 10 minutes is awash in magic. There’s dense caramel, maple syrup, apricot, and cherry, then old oak, toasted vanilla cream, cola, cinnamon, fennel, fudge, and brown sugar. IW Harper 101 is dark, sweet, fruity, and decadent. It’s not super oaky, roasty, and grainy.
IW Harper 101 feels so full, refined, and mature. It’s captivating. I’ve been drinking a bunch of Russell’s Reserve 13 Year lately, and this is so much better. That’s a super unfair comparison, but dammit I’m making it. Then again, Wild Turkey 8 Year from the 90s is better than just about everything they sell today.
IW Harper 101 neck

IW Harper 101 bourbon taste and aftertaste

On my first sip I get caramel, dried apricot and cherry, old oak that’s just dark and omnipresent but not burnt, a little musty funk (it’s hard to explain), cola, vanilla cream, cinnamon, roasted coffee, chocolate fudge, and licorice. IW Harper 101 is dark, fruity, cola-y, and chocolatey with a moderate spicy kick.
As dark and oaky as it is, it’s nothing like the oakiness in today’s bourbons. The oak isn’t super punchy, spicy, and in your face. It just lathers me in maturity and refinement, like being surrounded by fragrant old oak that’s been cured by time. Today’s bourbons are like standing in a room of oak that’s on fire…brash like an Ed Hardy shirt.
This is one hell of a first sip. Yeah there’s a little bite, but nothing major.
With “chewing” I get a blast of dense caramel, maple syrup, and vanilla cream, then old oak, cinnamon, dried cherry and apricot, fudge, cherry cola, licorice, candied pineapple, sweet mocha coffee, and candied pecans. IW Harper 101 definitely has a little roasty and spicy kick, but it’s so well controlled and balanced in the mix. The sweetness and fruit are far front and center.
Yeah, this is a “wow” moment for me. This has Kentucky Prince 101 vibes, but I think IW Harper may be a tad denser. Who knows, maybe both were distilled at the Bernheim Distillery. Willet sourced bourbon back then too, so it’s possible. IW Harper 101 is very dark, dense, sweet, and fruity: dessert in a glass.
As dark and oaky as it is, that oak is a decadent and luxurious part of the background that fills everything out, not a front and center part of the experience. And that is the problem with bourbon today: it’s often so oak and/or grain-forward that it can get in the way and make it hard to appreciate everything else.
IW Harper 101 back

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I’ve unfortunately lost some Glencairn’s while in transit, and that made me very sad. So, I wised up and bought this Glencairn Travel Case that comes also comes with 2 glasses so I don’t need to worry so much about them breaking. I think it’s great, and I think you’ll love it too.

Seriously, if you already have glasses, protect them.

1980's IW Harper 101 Bourbon Rating

Top Shelf +
The back of the IW Harper bottles writes, “…It’s always a pleasure”, and it absolutely is. It is my pleasure to experience this incredible bourbon from a different era that most likely can’t be recreated. You know what’s not a pleasure? Knowing how rare this profile is and that I’m sipping on a relic that will be hard to replenish. Oh well, I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
Unlike some other “dusties” I’ve had, this IW Harper 101 leans more into apricot, cherry, cola, and vanilla cream, while others can go more towards dates and prunes. It’s a bit different from old Wild Turkey or Blanton’s. But just like those “dusties”, it has substantive and round fruitiness and sweetness with beautifully layered oak and spice (not smothering and rowdy) that round out and accentuate the experience. It’s glorious.
No bourbon made today, 4, 8, 12, or 15+ years old comes close to having such a mature and expressive personality that’s also not so oak heavy. Oak isn’t necessarily bad, but the emphasis too often leans towards it. Compared to this old IW Harper, most bourbons today take out huge chunks of the fruit and then blast what’s left with a flamethrower.
With modern bourbon, you’re usually left with heavier oak, spice, earthiness, and grain, and less of everything else. Most people are unaware of this, which is to be expected because few people have all the outrageous opportunities to drink this old stuff, but I can say that with my fairly extensive experience. These days, a lot of oak and spice are a given for nearly every bourbon, while well-developed fruit is really difficult unless you add a barrel finish (e.g., Joseph Magnus Bourbon).
I’m glad I told my whiskey sensei to buy 2 bottles, one for him and one for me. Honestly, I wouldn’t be mad if I had gotten both, because this is something I’d undoubtedly want to have stashed away for the future (to drink of course). This is just one of many types of bourbon that have captivated my senses.
Drinking this makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs how lacking most of today’s bourbon are. If you took a modern day bottle back to the 80’s to early 90’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if people thought it was bottom shelf trash.
I mean come on, even the budget Evan Williams Black Label 7 Year from that era is delightful, better than most $100+ bourbons sold today. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great bourbon sold today, but this piece of bourbon history steamrolls more or less everything I’ve had lately, including stuff that goes for hundreds of dollars.
I know comparing old to new bourbon is an apples to carrots comparison (I’m not even going to stick with fruit in this metaphor), but it goes to show how much bourbon has changed over the years and what our perception of what “good” bourbon is. IW Harper 101 was probably a dime a dozen back when it was stocked on retail shelves, but now it’s treasured liquid.
Alex author
Meet the Author: Alex

I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese.

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Shattered glass really sucks, so if you’re on the move, this Glencairn-like stainless steel snifter glass should survive your travels. Full transparency, this is an Amazon affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.

BrüMate NOS’R, Double-Wall Stainless Steel Whiskey Nosing Glass – 7oz (Matte Black)