The Jewish Origins of Kentucky Bourbon
The history of the most iconic American whiskies isn’t always reflected in the names that appear on their labels.
There’s a fine art to creating a liquor brand. It involves convincing people to buy booze with stories crafted around popular notions of heritage and legacy. Today’s drinkers are familiar with the classic formulas: Rum is named for pirates or tropical islands (think Mount Gay or Captain Morgan); scotch brands enshrine beautiful but unpronounceable places in Scotland (Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Auchentoshan); and gin brands conjure pictures of the British empire sending adventurous young men to India clad in jodhpurs and pith helmets (Bombay Sapphire, Old Raj). American whiskey brands often celebrate individuals who represent idealized values—independence, pragmatism, guts—of the American frontier. It’s a patriotic formula that markets well, even though many of the stories behind the brands are false. For instance, Elijah Craig is sometimes credited with inventing bourbon and Evan Williams is often called Kentucky’s “first” distiller, even though historians have long dismissed the claims. These are little more than marketing shticks built around a romanticized stereotype: WASPs who cleared the land and made it great (with a handful of Catholic exceptions such as Basil Hayden or Henry McKenna).
In 1867, a Jewish immigrant by the name of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim arrived to America from Germany. He rode in steerage during his trip across the Atlantic and survived on potatoes—a humble beginning to the bootstrapping success story he would tell decades later, after building one of the biggest whiskey brands in the world. Despite his achievements within the whiskey industry, Bernheim was always ambivalent about the liquor business, a trade he had fallen into in 1868 after two distillers from Paducah, Kentucky, enlisted him for his bookkeeping abilities. After earning enough money to bring his brother Bernard over from Europe, the two began their own distillery in 1872. The new operation needed its own brand, which presented a dilemma: What should Bernheim call it? His decision would not only reveal how Americans filter notions of history and national myth, but also how the rich Jewish heritage of bourbon, the most iconic of American whiskies, would be lost from the drink’s traditional narrative.
In Bernheim’s time, many of his contemporaries—such as the Beam or Pepper families—were able to use their frontier ancestors for marketing purposes. But Bernheim didn’t have such an ancestor. His last name came from Bern, Switzerland, which his family fled for Germany in the fourteenth century to escape a pogrom. Then, 500 years later, Bernheim left for America. The saga matched any frontier tale, but Bernheim nevertheless felt that his ethnic surname would draw prejudice if he used it as a brand. He compromised by placing 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. At that point the brand was huge and still ascending—by 1966 it could be found in 110 countries worldwide. But, as with many great tales, there would be a downfall. The decades following I.W. Harper’s pinnacle saw U.S. consumer tastes shift toward lighter drinks—wine, vodka, gin—while bourbon sales plummeted. I.W. Harper stopped being sold in the U.S. around 1990, although it continued to be exported to a few foreign markets. Memory of the brand, alongside its true heritage, was nearly forgotten.
But the story would get another act. Bourbon has become popular in the states again, enjoying some of its strongest sales since the 1960s. With marketing that thrives on notions of history, heritage, and authenticity, numerous companies in recent years have resurrected long-forgotten labels. In March, Diageo, the world’s largest spirits producer, announced it is bringing I.W. Harper bourbon back to U.S. markets. The return broadcasts bourbon’s renewed popularity, as well as highlights an oft-forgotten aspect of the spirit’s iconic American legacy.
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The early success of the I.W. Harper brand in the 1880s prompted the Bernheim brothers to move their operation from Paducah to Louisville. The city belonged to a regional cluster of the nation’s leading whiskey producers—including Peoria, Chicago, and Cincinnati—with a rich tradition of Jewish distillers. Even though Jews comprised only 3 percent of Louisville’s local population, they accounted for a quarter of the whiskey trade, a demographic that was similar for the other cities. And, as with Bernheim and his I.W. Harper brand, Jewish names weren’t always prevalent on their labels.
The whiskey trade offered unique opportunities to Jewish whiskey entrepreneurs arriving to the region just a few generations later than their WASPy frontier forebears. Like Bernheim, many had arrived to America fleeing oppression that the liquor trade had long helped them resist. The need to ensure that the alcohol used in various religious observances was kosher had long required their involvement in all steps of the liquor trade, from production to distribution, and had historically given Jewish entrepreneurs a unique commercial niche. In medieval and early modern Europe, bans against the Jewish ownership of farmland had diverted many into intermediary market roles that included importing and exporting alcohol. After Russia grabbed hold of many Eastern European enclaves, the liquor business was often one of the few jobs where Jews weren’t restricted, meaning that Jews have “brewed, distilled, and sold all varieties of intoxicating beverages to both Jews and gentiles since the beginning of the Diaspora,” according to the book Jews and Booze by Georgia State University history professor Marni Davis. By the second half of the 19th century, increasing numbers of that diaspora, including Bernheim, began arriving to the United States.
For Jewish immigrants seeking to enter the booze trade, whiskey was a top choice. Many were experienced with the European wine trade, but that market was tiny in America. Beer was a sizable business due to a mid-century influx of German immigrants, but many breweries in America only hired Protestants immigrants from Germany—this was likely a remnant of bans on Jews that were held by many European brewing guilds in the 19th century. American breweries also tended to run “tied-house” saloon systems, with direct supply lines between producers and retailers. This closed, streamlined system often eliminated entry points for Jewish immigrants without cultural or family ties to brewing. Whiskey, on the other hand, wasn’t vertically integrated like the beer trade and didn’t have a direct distribution system, creating intermediary roles for aspiring entrepreneurs. Local clusters blossomed around immigrant groups who drew on family ties for manpower, just as many Germans did in the beer community. One advertisement in a Louisville Jewish publication was typical: “WANTED: Three Jewish young men to represent a leading whiskey house. Need have no experience but must be first-class, tip-top salesmen and come well recommended.”
Whiskey was smart from a business sense, but the spirit also held symbolic value useful to some immigrants as they settled into their new home. In 19th century America, wine and beer sometimes carried a whiff of the Old World that made nativists uneasy. These drinks were occasionally characterized as the quaffs of the immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe to take up jobs in factories and urbanizing the nation away from its rural ideals. Whiskey, on the other hand, had long carried a reputation as a patriotic everyman’s drink. Farmers made it from homegrown grains, and Americans had begun drinking the spirit in greater amounts during the Revolution, turning away from the popular rum that had come to represent colonialism because it relied on sugar imports from British-controlled parts of the Caribbean. Bernheim, for his part, was ambivalent about the whiskey trade but nonetheless recognized how it contributed to his American success story, and was always acutely sensitive to outside perceptions calling his national loyalty into question. He used his whiskey fortune to donate statues of Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay to Louisville, and became an outspoken anti-Zionist, suggesting that an independent Jewish state might be disloyal. As treasurer of the American Jewish Committee, he wrote that the United States was “our Zion,” and warned against “campaigns for an alien flag and a political loyalty outside our own land” that could “result in the impeaching of our standing as citizens.” Naming his brand I.W. Harper wasn’t just good business, it was an act of assimilation.
Despite Bernheim’s loyalty to the U.S., his Jewish heritage remained a liability used by some to tarnish the reputation of both bourbon and those making it. Prohibition advocates used the whiskey industry’s relatively high involvement of all immigrants, including Jews, as a tool to stoke xenophobic outrage that would help them pass anti-liquor legislation. The fact that the industry was highly corrupt—no matter who was involved—didn’t help, and Prohibitionists selectively cherry picked Jews that helped make their case. The notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford, a fervent supporter of Prohibition—which he saw as a way to increase his workers’ productivity—claimed that distilling was “one of the long list of businesses which has been ruined by Jewish monopoly.” Ford was likely referring to Joseph Greenhut, another Jewish immigrant, who, as the most powerful distiller in America before Prohibition, was influential enough to have entertained President William McKinley in his thirty-five-room Peoria mansion and lent his New Jersey shore home to Woodrow Wilson as a summer White House (unfortunately, Greenhut at one point did attempt to form a whiskey cartel, although the effort ultimately failed). Against the backdrop of success achieved by Greenhut and many other Jewish distillers, 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.” Eventually, liquor was banned in the U.S.
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many old labels found themselves bought up in consolidation rounds. In 1937, I.W. Harper was sold to Schenley Distillers Corporation, one of the “The Big Four” companies that controlled roughly three-quarters of America’s liquor trade during the middle part of the century. The other three were National Distillers, Hiram Walker, and Seagram, operated by the Bronfman family whose name, coincidentally, means “distiller” in Yiddish (continuous rounds of buyouts and mergers have folded these companies into the machinery of today’s biggest liquor companies).
Leading Schenley was a man named Lewis Rosenstiel, another Jewish liquor entrepreneur who would greatly affect bourbon during his ascent to become “the most powerful figure in the distilled spirits industry,” in the words of his 1976 obituary in The New York Times. Rosenstiel was also the liquor industry’s most controversial figure. Like Bernheim, he never put his name on a bottle, although his concerns about image were probably a little different: Rosenstiel had been indicted, although never convicted, on bootlegging charges during Prohibition (it wasn’t until the 1970s that his past links to gangsters like Meyer Lansky were revealed). But despite the many controversies surrounding Rosenstiel, he was also responsible for landmark initiatives affecting the production standards of bourbon and protecting its status as a uniquely American product. The spirit generally improves as it ages in wooden barrels and Rosenstiel, through a lobbying group named The Bourbon Institute, drove industry efforts during the 1950s to change federal legislation dictating how long distillers could age bourbon before paying taxes on it—if not for him, distillers today wouldn’t have the flexibility to age the spirit as long as some choose. He also led lobbying efforts in 1964 to convince Congress to issue a resolution declaring bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States,” ensuring it could only be made within the U.S. and giving the spirit international trade protection in overseas markets (similar to those enjoyed by French champagne or Mexican tequila, which prevent foreign competitors from selling products using those protected names).
Rosenstiel’s resolution helped turn I.W. Harper into an international superstar, advertised in 110 countries by 1966. But soon thereafter came the slow downfall that would see it removed from U.S. markets. Eventually, however, American whiskey sales would begin making a comeback, and it was then that the name Bernheim would finally get its place on a bottle. In 2000, Heaven Hill Distilleries introduced Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey. It was a fitting tribute from a distillery started in 1934 by the Shapira family, itself the progeny of Russian Jewish immigrants. Today Heaven Hill is the largest family owned distillery and second biggest holder of bourbon stocks in the nation (behind Jim Beam). As with the name Bernheim before it, the Shapira name has never been honored with its own label. Instead, the company’s success has been built with labels named after Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, the men with key roles in bourbon’s biggest fairy tales. It’s a lesson in how myths works; but even so, the Shapiras today quietly honor bourbon’s lesser-known Jewish legacy another way. Built into the architecture of the Bourbon Heritage Center that sits on the company’s grounds in Bardstown, Kentucky, the wooden rafters above the tasting room are held up by iron supports shaped like the Star of David. You have to look carefully for them, though. The gesture is subtle, even though it carries the weight of some of bourbon’s most famous names.
This article has been excerpted from Reid Mitenbuler's forthcoming book, Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey.