Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s story is very similar to many other German Jews who came to America to enjoy a freedom to prosper that was not available to Jews in Europe. Many ended up in the spirits industry and a few, like Bernheim achieved great success. Grabfelder, Block and Uri are just a few besides Bernheim, in Louisville, that earned their fortune and respect in the community selling whiskey and other spirits. There were many others in cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati who also earned their fortunes in the industry.
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was born in 1848 in Schmieheim, Germany. His early education was as a bookkeeper and he worked as one for a while before meeting some cousins who had returned to Germany from America. These cousins had come home for a visit and Bernheim was impressed with the opportunities they had in America – opportunities that he would never have if he stayed in Germany. In 1867 he decided to emigrate to America and earn his fortune. He was 19 years old and with very little cash in pocket and stayed with relatives when he first arrived.
Bernheim was fond of telling the story of his first employment as a peddler of “Yankee notions”, small items that he carried on horseback to the small towns of Pennsylvania. He met with moderate success but when he wintered his horse after that first year, it died. He could not afford a new horse, so he bought a ticket on a steamboat to Paducah, Kentucky, where he had relatives in order to start over as a bookkeeper for a whiskey company. When his brother Bernard arrived in Paducah in 1872, they decided that with the help of a silent partner, Elbridge Palmer, they would create Bernheim Bros. and enter the spirits industry. They sourced barrels of whiskey and created their own brands. The business quickly grew in size.
In 1879 Bernheim Bros. introduced the I.W. Harper brand. They wanted a brand that sounded American. They knew that the name “Bernheim” was too German and Jewish to be popular with many Americans, and Berheim saw an article in the newspaper about the famous racehorse, Ten Broek, which was owned by John Harper. He combined the horse owner’s name with his own initials to create “I.W. Harper”. It soon became their flagship brand. They had both a Bourbon and a Rye using whiskey sourced from Nelson County, Kentucky.
The business continued to grow and by 1888, they decided to move to Louisville because it was a center of transportation and easier to get their whiskey to markets in other cities across the nation. However, they did not forget Paducah. When the Ohio River flooded its banks in 1882, they gave coal and bread to the city to help the people in need of such relief. This type of support continued after they moved to Louisville.
The brand I.W. Harper quickly began to win awards in spirit competitions. In 1885 the brand won a gold medal in New Orleans. In 1893 it won gold at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1900 I.W. Harper won gold at the Exposition Universal in Paris France. In 1904 it won gold at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and in 1907 it won gold at the Greater Louisville Exposition in their hometown. The brand became known as the “Gold Medal Whiskey”.
To support the growing business, Bernheim Bros. invested in the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery in Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1890. However, in 1896 a fire destroyed the warehouse storing Bernheim’s whiskey. The government wanted to charge the company with the taxes on the destroyed whiskey and Bernheim Bros. ended up in court. They won the case and the insurance money on the barrels was freed for use to build their own distillery in 1897, on what is now Bernheim Lane, just south of what was the then borders of the city of Louisville. That same year Isaac testified before Congress against the Bottled-in-Bond Act. He felt it would hurt the independent whiskey merchant and give distillers an unfair advantage in the market.
Bernheim Bros. continued to grow as a business. They had offices on Louisville’s Whiskey Row. They moved a couple of times in the 1890s as they found themselves in need of more space. In 1899 they sold their old office between 1st and 2nd Streets on Main Street to W.L. Weller and Sons and moved to a location at the corner of Main and 7th Streets. They would remain at this location until Prohibition.
Bernheim Bros. gave freely to the community. They paid for the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the city Court House in 1901. They later paid for the statues of Kentuckians located in the rotunda of the Nation’s Capital in 1929. They donated to many of the events held in the city such as the G.A.R. Encampment of 1895 and the Reunion of Confederate Veterans of 1900. Bernheim was a Republican who admired Lincoln but realized the benefits the businesses of Louisville would receive with these large events, attracting thousands of veterans. In 1895, the city literally doubled in size as the Union veterans came to the city.
Bernheim retired in 1915 and the company was sold. It was a huge business by that time. In 1909, Mida’s Financial Index listed Bernheim Bros as AAAA, valued at over $1,000,000. He used this money for many projects that aided others. He built a fountain in Schmieheim, giving the residents a source of fresh, running water that they needed. He purchased land and set up a trust for Bernheim Forest near Bardstown, Ky. Bernheim was generous in his donations. Too generous, according to some of his children as they tried to block the creation of the trust which substantially reduced their inheritance. They failed and Bernheim Forest is still enjoyed today by visitors from across the nation.
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim died in 1945 while summering in California. He died a true Bourbon Baron. He made a fortune in the whiskey business and used much of that money in ways that bettered the communities in which he lived.
Images via the archives of Michael Veach and Bernheim Forest’s Instagram page