Musings on Michter’s

bourbon whiskey rye whisky Michter's single barrel American

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.

whiskey whisky Michter's sour mash original old 1970s

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey from the 1970s/80s

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.

Michter's Joseph Magliocco distillery micro-distillery Louisville Kentucky bourbon rye whiskey

Joseph Magliocco shows off a mock-up of Michter’s planned Louisville micro-distillery and tourist center.

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. 

Tasting Notes
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.

Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.

The Jewel of the Village: East Ville des Folies

Photo 42

The last time I attended a spirits-fueled theme event, the focus was murder, mayhem, and a roving cast of characters straight out of Dickens. This past weekend, mayhem and characters (sans murder) abounded in a Prohibition-esque party held at Webster Hall, infamously publicized as a former speakeasy run by Al Capone (well, there’s the murder, I suppose). East Ville des Folies seeks to become an annual event celebrating “rare Whiskeys and Beers from around the world” while immersing its guests in “the culture of the original burlesque hall as it was at the turn of the century”.

The jazz was swinging as scantily-clad ladies sporting feathered headpieces beckoned on the dance floors. I headed for the whiskey first, finding a wide selection from Highland Park, The Famous Grouse, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and others. As always at these sorts of the things, the ambience didn’t lend itself to properly tasting each separate dram, but I was at least able to weed out the dreadful from the exceptional. (On the former category, I’ll keep silent; on the latter, I’ll point out Whistlepig Rye as a new favorite and the ever-reliable Balblair—represented here with the 1989, 1991, and 2001 editions—as consistently pleasing.)

Three Roses

Three roses at Four Roses

Having exhausted my companion with spirituous refreshment, I moved on to the beer floors, which were far more crowded. Was it just that more people had arrived by that point, or that the demographics of ticket-buyers skewed towards beer lovers? No idea, but it was pretty rough. I managed to taste a few new-to-me brews such as Leinenkugel’s Vanilla Porter (no joke on the vanilla), Curious Traveler Shandy (I’m not a shandy drinker, and I liked it), the range of Full Sails (excellent, each one) and Moa Breakfast, a New Zealand “blend of premium wheat malt, floral Nelson hops and cherries” that, I’m sorry to say, tasted of Dimetapp. Sadly, the Crabbie’s table was all out by the time I got there; but luckily, Williams Brothers was still pouring Fraoch Heather Ale, one of the tastes I miss most from Scotland.

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Swingin’ jazz set the tone of the affair.

With four floors of tasting tables, music, and more, this event certainly gave bang for the buck. I loved all the bands (and the phonograph DJs), and the entertainment, which included stilt-walkers, a photo booth I never managed to get to, and an aerialist, definitely wowed me. I had great fun exploring the nooks and dark corners of Webster Hall, too, especially with new drinks to try at every turn. Touting the some of the beers and whiskies served as “rare” might have misled some folks, though at $40 a ticket I’m sure no one expected Pappy Van Winkle. The selection, especially some of the beers, was unique, if not so difficult to find that I’d call it “rare”.

In short, East Ville des Folies provided three solid hours of booze-tastic entertainment and—in a truly “rare” turn for New York—was incredibly affordable. The event sold out, which means with any luck it’ll return next year. I’m already looking forward to donning some beads and feathers, springing for the early-access VIP ticket, and finally getting my shot at the photo booth.