My friend Anne from Hopkinsville frequently asks me, “Doesn’t EVERYTHING have a Paducah connection?” Maybe.
Isaac Bernheim was born in Germany and immigrated to America in 1867 with $4 in his pocket. He became a “peddler” traveling through Pennsylvania on horseback. However, he was forced to abandon this profession when his horse died. It was at this point that Bernheim made his way to Paducah, Kentucky, where he worked as a bookkeeper for a wholesale liquor company, Loeb, Bloom, & Co.
He saved enough money to bring his brother Bernard to the states. The two engaged their friend Elbridge Palmer as a partner and opened Bernheim Brothers distillery in 1872. Thanks to Paducah’s location on the Ohio, the business grew rapidly. In 1888 Bernheim Brothers moved to Louisville’s Main Street.
The brothers bought the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery and began operating as the Bernheim Distillery. In 1896, the distillery’s warehouse was destroyed by fire. The company’s new distillery began operating in the spring of 1897. The brothers began the production of an elite whiskey brand it called I.W. Harper. (The I.W. may have been an abbreviation for Isaac Wolfe.) During Prohibition, Bernheim Brothers was one of only ten distilleries allowed to continue to make bourbon, as they had received a license to produce it for medicinal purposes. In 1937 Bernheim sold the business to the Schenley Distilling Corporation.
Isaac Bernheim became a notable philanthropist in Louisville, and in 1929 he established the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest on 14,000 acres in Bullitt County, 25 miles south of Louisville.
The Frederick Law Olmsted landscape architecture firm started work on the park’s design in 1931 and it opened in 1950. Bernheim Forest was given to the people of Kentucky in trust and it is the largest privately owned natural area in the state.
Bernheim’s love of sculpture was manifest in several gifts to the public, including the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Louisville Public Library and the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse. He also donated the statues of Henry Clay and Ephraim McDowell which stand in Statuary Hall in the capitol rotunda in Washington.
Isaac Bernheim wanted to provide a place for the renewal and restoration of the bond between people and nature. His vision included the combination of an arboretum and natural forested areas infused with the arts, to create a unique site to experience nature.
As a testament to Isaac Bernheim’s vision and perseverance, Bernheim Forest today is home to a nationally renowned 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 varieties of documented trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials, including the celebrated Hubbuch Holly Collection with over 300 specimens. A host of trails offer diverse hiking and biking opportunities for the casual as well as the more serious athlete. Field trips, group tours, festivals, and ecological exploration programs are all a part of the outdoor experiences offered at Bernheim Forest. Of late, a “must see” is the forest of giants in the giant forest. Danish artist Thomas Dambo constructed three giant sculptures throughout the arboretum using recycled wood from the region.
For information on how to plan a visit to the Bernheim Forest, visit bernheim.org.
The I.W. Harper Legacy
From its roots on the banks of the Ohio in Paducah, the legacy of what would become an internationally-distinguished bourbon was born. I.W. Harper bourbon has transcended its distillation at the hands of several generations as its history has unfolded.
By 1955, I.W. Harper was a household name and an international sensation. The iconic bourbon graced the pages of popular men’s magazines, inspired a clothing line, debuted in blockbuster films, and cruised around the world as an ocean liner favorite. By 1966, I.W. Harper was enjoyed in 110 countries. After its fame overseas, I.W. Harper returned home in 2015.
Today bourbon connoisseurs can enjoy I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 15-Year Old.