Whisky drinkers can get pretty sentimental about their drams. We bemoan the loss of distilleries closed when whisky wasn’t selling; we decry the trend of whiskies with no age statement (NAS); we question the industrialization of traditional processes and ingredients. Most of all, we tear our hair and gnash our teeth at the soaring prices for whiskies aimed at collectors or “investors”—a trend which has driven up prices across the board. Looking back at the whisky of years gone by, we have a tendency to view it not only as cheaper (which it was), but as more pure—untainted by computerized processes, slick marketing, and gimmicky packaging—and therefore superior to today’s product.
Many of these criticisms have merit. The closing of any distillery making good whisky is a great loss indeed, and the trend of NAS whiskies is damaging to the industry overall, present and future. Naturally, every serious drinker feels frustration with people who buy whisky not to enjoy but to look at on a shelf or to re-sell later at a profit. But we should also look critically at our instinct to prize something just because it’s old or traditional or historic. Although there are numerous examples of great whisky from the past, there was certainly plenty of terrible whisky made throughout history, too. (And I bet much of it hasn’t survived because of that fact.)
I’ve been considering this question lately with regards to a few different whiskies, especially after some fascinating conversations with Joshua Feldman, aka the Coopered Tot, who has made an academic pursuit of tracking down and tasting old dusty bottles. We recently tasted a whole bunch of Michter’s together, a brand made in Pennsylvania from the mid-2oth century and affiliated with a distillery in Schaefferstown, PA that traces back to Revolutionary era. When Michter’s went bankrupt in 1989, thousands of gallons of unsold spirit remained in its warehouse. The Michter’s “jug house” and visitor center was a popular Pennsylvania landmark up to that point and probably for that reason the brand has remained associated with positive memories for many. (Read about Michter’s complicated history, along with some fond reminiscences, here, here, and here.)
In 1996, Chatham Imports registered the Michter’s trademark, which was then in the public domain. They began selling whisky under the Michter’s name that had been sourced from an undisclosed distiller. They also used language in their marketing and labels that implied an extension of the Schaefferstown distilling legacy (although a recent press release acknowledges the bankruptcy and subsequent revival of the brand in a more straightforward way). Since the mid-2000s, Michter’s has been “like a cook in someone else’s kitchen,” making their own spirit on another distillery’s equipment and aging it in their own barrels in rented rickhouse space. The earliest runs have been bottled as Michter’s US*1 range, while older Michter’s expressions continue to come from an unnamed source or sources.
Even though it’s difficult to find old Michter’s to compare with the new, it appears highly likely that what is labeled Michter’s today far surpasses the Michter’s of the 1970s and 80s in quality. The two can’t be compared at all, really, since the new stuff shares nothing with historic Michter’s but its name. Today’s Michter’s offers a range that includes bourbon, rye, and sour mash whisky at various ages while the Michter’s of yesteryear focused on sour mash whisky more or less exclusively, aging it for around six years. I can appreciate the emotional attachment some folks have to the old Michter’s site—and by extension to the brand name—but it seems the spirit itself wasn’t very good (corroborating opinion here). (In fairness, Ethan Smith’s post on the Whisky Advocate blog quotes the old Michter’s Master Distiller, Dick Stoll, as saying that the whiskey was “good stuff”—make of that what you will.)
I enjoyed tasting the current Michter’s range and am encouraged that Chatham is already making its own spirit. In fact, Michter’s now has a licensed distillery in Shively, KY and since December 2012 has operated two test stills there. In July of this year, they’ll install a full column still and will eventually be bottling only their own whisky. With this move (plus an additional micro-distillery and tourist facility in downtown Louisville), I look forward to the future of the brand, especially tasting it over the next several years to see how well they can transition from sourced to own-made whiskey. Having spoken quite candidly with Joseph Magliocco, Michter’s President, I am convinced that he is invested in making great whisky, both in financial terms and in bringing in the right equipment, processes, and people to make it happen.
Magliocco also has not hidden his ambition to elevate American whisky to levels that are currently more common in the Scotch market. Last year’s Celebration release, priced at $4,000 a bottle, points to what will likely become a trend among American distillers, as they test the market’s taste for it, just as it is now an accepted part of the Scotch industry. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to make money off their product, especially when it’s a genuinely excellent whiskey, and I think there are American whiskies every bit as deserving as Scotch of “premium” and “luxury” designations. And of course as drinkers get priced out of the premium Scotch market, they’ll turn to alternatives, thus igniting the economic cycle of increased demand and higher prices among domestic whiskies. But selfishly—because I’m not in a position to purchase a $500 bottle of 25-year-old rye, no matter how much I desire it—I wish we could keep the American whisky market where it is, where I can afford, without too much sacrifice, an amazing bottle like Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch ($90).
As far as Michter’s is concerned, marketing itself as an extension of the historic distillery is not, in my opinion, necessary. Although they are trying to play on the cachet of history and its associations with better quality, many people (well, many whisky geeks) have been turned off by what they see as deceptive language and “cashing in” on a legacy which the brand, with its undisclosed sources and location in Kentucky rather than Pennsylvania, hasn’t continued. Maybe these people aren’t a significant part of Michter’s target market; I’m sure the brand knows what it’s doing. But I think the whisky can stand on its own without any attempts to relate it to a backstory that is, at best, fanciful and, at worst, deliberately misleading.
Going forward—especially now that they’re making their own spirit—I think Michter’s should gently honor the legacy of their name and let their whisky do the rest of the talking. The stuff they’ve bottled well deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, without taking the old Michter’s into account. Even setting aside all the sourced whisky, just tasting the Michter’s US*1 range that has been made by the brand shows that they’re off to a good start. With a few more years’ time, I anticipate the whisky made in Michter’s own distillery will prove itself genuinely good and even great in its own right.
In the meantime, while we wait for the new Michter’s to come of age, let’s acknowledge that we can enjoy sourced whisky if for no other reason than it tastes good. And let’s support the ambitions of a brand that wants to make other good-tasting whisky to sell to us—hopefully at prices we can afford.
Rather than sourcing, Michter’s currently makes these expressions itself using another distillery’s equipment. They retail for $40-45 in most states.
Michter’s US*1 Bourbon
Aged around eight and a half years, it has a floral and citrusy nose with light herbaceous notes. The palate is grapefruit, spun sugar, lavender, and chicory—a lovely, spicy, lingering dram.
Michter’s US*1 Rye
With roses, vanilla sugar, coconut, and toffee on the nose, it has a comfortably rounded palate—spicy, chocolatey, gingery, with a hint of arugula—and lingers well. It’s about six years old and one of the best entry-level ryes I’ve had.
Michter’s US*1 Sour Mash Whiskey
Neither a bourbon nor a rye, this whisky offers something to love from both ends. It has a beautiful nose of cotton candy, caramel, and spearmint, with more mint on the palate mingling with walnuts, fruit, and floral notes. At about six years old, it shows lovely complexity. (Note that this whisky, while not meant to replicate the original Michter’s sour mash, is a sort of hat-tip to it.)
Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey
This whisky is a free-for-all, both in terms of how the distiller can make it and what it smells and tastes like. The nose has interesting notes of coffee and kettle corn—sweet and a little woody. I taste mint chocolate and orange peel with strong wood influence and a honeyed sweetness that reminds me of Bit O’ Honey candy. The finish is all cherry cough syrup—not unpleasant, but very unlike the other expressions.