As much as it tries to root itself in the past, Michter’s is actually a brand to pay attention to going forward. It’s investing it all — from millions of dollars to highly skilled palates — into becoming as authentically “Kentucky” as possible. Not to mention, Michter’s is not afraid of investing in serious aging, or experimenting with new processes and flavor profiles.
Here are 13 things you need to know about the brand that’s kind of dying to impress you (let them).
Michter’s isn’t bourbon or rye.
Well, it’s not just bourbon, nor rye. At its baseline, Michter’s is straight bourbon and straight rye. This means that the booze is aged at least two years, or in this case, over four (more on that below). There are other aspects to bourbon and rye, of course, but the main thing to know for Michter’s is the rye is spicier, and the bourbon is just a bit smoother.
It’s a Kentucky brand that started with locally grown Pennsylvania rye.
We all know bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, right? Well, the distillery that became the Kentucky-identifying Michter’s actually began in Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century. Around 1753, Swiss Mennonite brothers Johann and Michael Shenk started the distillery that would become Michter’s, producing one of the earliest local American whiskeys with rye from its own grain fields in Schaefferstown in eastern Pennsylvania.
Washington used it to booze up his troops.
George Washington is rumored to have purchased whiskey from Shenk in the winter of 1778 to warm his troops stationed at Valley Forge. In truth, the connection between modern day Michter’s and that O.G. Pennsylvania Mennonite distillery is tenuous at best. Basically, the people who founded Michter’s bought the rights to the lapsed trademark from Shenk’s distilling efforts. So, no, drinking modern-day Michter’s doesn’t qualify as a decent substitute for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
It wasn’t called Michter’s until the 1950s.
Over the course of the Pennsylvania distillery’s existence, it was called many things — Bomberger’s, mostly, and later Pennco — and finally, Michter’s for a very sentimental but also very savvy marketing reason.
The name is made up — and also adorable.
Michter’s always sounded like an Irish cola brand to us, or maybe one of the trillion failed diagnoses in an episode of “House” (right up there with sarcoidosis). It’s actually a made-up word, and the creation of mid-20th century distillery owner Louis Forman, who co-owned the Pennsylvania distillery with Charles Everett Beam — yes, of that family. After Forman took over, he named the first pot-still sour mash whiskey “Michter’s” after his sons Michael and Peter, making Michter’s like the Kimye of American whiskeys.
Michter’s is a bit of a Frankenstein brand.
Sure, it tries to be all historic and old timey-looking — see the 1753 on the label? — but Michter’s is kind of a bourbon Frankenstein, or really Dr. Frankenstein’s bourbon monster: It’s patched together from a bunch of different elements and given life by people who believe (at times maniacally) in the brand. It can claim a tie-in to the historic Shenk distillery because that location briefly became Michter’s in the 1950s. But it also asserts itself as part of Whiskey Row in Downtown Louisville — literally on Main Street — trying to graft Kentucky authenticity onto its jumbled infrastructural past. But questions as to where the bourbon’s been made abound. Whiskey reviewers, and even whiskey guru and author Chuck Cowdery, can’t trace the source of Michter’s actual bourbon with total transparency from the brand itself. Short answer: Like many bourbons, Michter’s distilling has been outsourced, but with the development of its own farm and even a micro-distillery in Louisville, it’s trying to bring things in-house.
Michter’s is basically born-again Kentucky whiskey.
Michter’s began in Pennsylvania, and died there, too, with the brand declaring bankruptcy in 1989. It was forced to close its doors on Valentine’s Day of the following year, and we can only assume the employees drank a bunch of Michter’s and cried in the tub. But the name was revived thanks to the joint efforts of bourbon lovers Joe Magliocco and Dick Newman of Chatham Imports, who bought the brand name in 1997. It would take some years and cash to establish a presence in Kentucky, which today includes a 145-acre grain farm in Springfield purchased in 2018.
Michter’s started doing its own distilling in Kentucky proper in 2015. Previously, in the early 2000s, Michter’s had whiskeys being made to its specifications by other Kentucky distilleries, and began experimenting at its own place in Shively in 2014. It finally produced Kentucky-made Michter’s in 2015.
Reborn Michter’s owes its depth to female palates.
When she stepped up to replace the legendary Willie Pratt as Michter’s master distiller in 2016, Pam Heilmann became the first female master distiller at a Kentucky Distillers’ Association distillery since Prohibition. And while she recently handed over the reins to Dan McKee — whom she basically brought over to Michter’s with her — and took on the more flexible role of Master Distiller Emeritus, female palates continue to pervade the Michter’s brand. In fact, Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson is still running the barrel side of things, and with an obsession with barrel science and a Kentucky moonshiner grandfather, Wilson’s resume surely adds to Michter’s credibility.
Michter’s is both ageless and aged.
In its roster of products, Michter’s has Straight Bourbon and Straight Rye; both are labeled “no age statement,” meaning they’re at least four years old, and some 10- and even quarter-century-old variants are out there. But it also makes something completely different: Michter’s US*1 Unblended American Whiskey, a product that, it says, is “aged in a way that utilizes whiskey-soaked barrels to achieve a rich and unique flavor profile.” Unique is a keyword there — though divisive might work, too, as some reviews describe it as ultra-smooth, over-vanilla-ed, lacking depth, Werther’s-proximate, and more.
Michter’s makes rye that’s as old as Halsey.
You know, the singer who made line dancing both scary and sexy? Michter’s seems to want to dig deep into bourbon street cred, which is mostly earned with time, i.e., history or actual aging. By definition, since they’re designated “straight,” Michter’s Straight Bourbon and Straight Rye are aged at least two years — and since they have no age statements, they’re definitely aged at least four years. Yes, American whiskey gets squirrely about admitting its real age, but Michter’s isn’t’ afraid of admitting how old some of its whiskies are: It distills some significantly aged whiskies, like a 25-year Kentucky Straight Rye that’s incredibly difficult to come by but, per one happy customer, was “incredibly rich and spicy” and “drank well with an upside down pineapple cake.”
Michter’s toasts its bourbon.
Less in a hearty cheers sense, and more in a marshmallow sense: In addition to aging some of its whiskey in special pre-whiskey-soaked barrels, Michter’s likes to play with the toast aspect of classic bourbon (all bourbon must be made in charred new American white oak barrels). In 2014, it began making “Toasted Barrel” expressions of both its Straight Rye and Straight Bourbon. To make its Toasted Barrel expressions, Michter’s ages both its rye and bourbon for an extra 18 months in a barrel that, rather than being charred per usual standards, is gently toasted. The idea is to impart those caramel, woody, toasty notes and create another layer of interaction between the bourbon and browned oak.
Its Louisville distillery took eight years and $8 million to build.
The historic 1890 Fort Nelson building that Michter’s originally chose for its Kentucky-authenticity-bestowing Downtown Louisville micro-distillery actually turned out to be, well, super dangerous. So much so that the brand couldn’t move in when it first bought the building back in 2011. Instead, Michter’s had to wait about eight years and spend close to $8 million to get the building back into shape, which it did. It helps that Maglicco is an architecture lover, and that the building, much like the Michter’s bourbon brand, had good bones.
You can get Michter’s for $40, or $4,000.
Michter’s Straight Kentucky Bourbon sells for around $40, and some reviewers say that’s a bit high for the relative simplicity of the product. But Michter’s can get more complex, and more expensive: In 2013, it created Michter’s Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey, a blend of its 30- and 20-year aged Straight Bourbon and Rye bottled at 112.3 proof and sold for about 4K. Per Michter’s president Joe Magliocco, the whiskey is packed with flavors like caramel, tobacco, and coffee — like smoking a Marlboro outside of Starbucks, but way more deliciously (and expensively). Michter’s did it again in 2016 and 2019, with a rye-heavy offering that clocks in at 115 proof and costs around $6,500 to $7,000.
Published: July 17, 2020