This Day in Jewish History

1945: A Man Who Created Great Bourbon for America Dies

Isaac Wolfe, a great American patriot, first sold notions, then moved to a city with nary a theater but 'a good many saloons'.

Illustrative picture of whiskey. Three glasses with ice sitting on a wooden table. Distiller Isaac Wolfe Bernheim created a class of bourbon, which is a kind of whiskey made with 51 percent corn, the e rest from other grains.
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On April 1, 1945, the whiskey distiller Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, who gave the initials of his first two names - but not his German-Jewish surname - to the premium bourbon he created, died, at the age of 96.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born on November 4, 1848, in the town of Schmieheim, in what is today Baden-Wuerttemberg state in southwest Germany. He was the oldest child of Leon Bernheim, a wine wholesaler, and the former Fanny Dreyfuss.

When Isaac was 13, the family moved to Freiburg, where he worked as an apprentice, learning how to run a business, for three years. By 1866, while working for a textile firm in Frankfurt, he met an uncle visiting from the United States, a Mr. Livingston, who persuaded him that America was the land of the future.

Then the horse died

By the time Isaac arrived in the U.S., Mr. Livingston’s business had gone bust, but a friend arranged a job for him in Pennsylvania as a traveling peddler, selling “Yankee notions,” meaning sewing accessories, socks, handkerchiefs and other small items.

After his horse died, Bernheim moved southwest, to Paducah, Kentucky, a town “with neither club nor theater,” he recalled in a memoir, “but a good many saloons.”

There, he found a job as a bookkeeper with a wholesale liquor firm, Loeb, Bloom and Co. Saving up his earnings, he was able to bring over his brother Bernard from Germany in 1870, with whom, two years later, he established a liquor company. They named it for themselves, Bernheim Bros.

Nevertheless, when in 1879, they began production of their own bourbon, a corn-based whiskey distinctive to Kentucky, Isaac was uncomfortable calling it “Bernheim,” and instead put the Anglo-Saxon “Harper” after the initials “I.W.”

Colorful autumn landscape in the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest near Louisville, Kentucky, founded by none other than the whiskey distiller Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a patriot and philanthropist.
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According to Reid Mitenbuler, author of “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey,” Bernheim revealed before his death that he had adopted the name from John Harper, a well-known horse trainer.

Jews in booze

In 1888, as business continued to expand, the Bernheims moved their plant to Louisville, a major center for the liquor business, situated on the Ohio River, which simplified distribution. Marni Davis, author of the 2012 book “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition,” has noted that at the turn of the 20th century, Jews, who made up only 3 percent of Louisville’s population, “made up 25 percent of [its] whiskey distillers, rectifiers [blenders], and wholesalers.”

In 1896, the Bernheim distillery burned down. The Bernheims rebuilt, but also had to contend with a $1 million tax bill on the bonded whiskey that had been destroyed when their warehouses went up in flames.

After 18 months of litigation, the government cancelled the assessment.  

By the start of the 20th century, Bernheim was one of America’s largest distilleries. When Prohibition began, in 1919, it was one of 10 that were permitted to continue producing alcohol, for medicinal purposes.

In 1937, I.W. Bernheim sold the entire business to Schenley, owned by another Jewish whiskey man, Lewis Rosenstiel. By then, Bernheim had become deeply involved in philanthropic work, much of it in the American Jewish world. He established a library at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati; he left Louisville with 14,000 acres for a forest and nature research center, and, during a return visit to Schmieheim he granted his birthplace with a municipal water system.

But Bernheim’s sense that his Jewishness conflicted with being American also led him to disavow the Zionist movement, out of concern for being considered disloyal. Not only that, he proposed replacing Judaism itself with the “Reform Church of American Israelites,” which would be made up of “100 percent Americans.” Synagogues and temples would become “churches,” and the Sabbath would be observed on Sunday.

The latter idea was shared by a number of Reform rabbis, but mostly his fellow Jews scoffed at Bernheim’s proposals.

By 1990, Diageo, the company that now owned the Bernheim distillery, stopped distributing I.W. Harper domestically, although it continued marketing it overseas. In 2000, however, Heaven Hill Distilleries brought the name back into local circulation when it began selling a premium spirit it called “Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey.”