Whiskey Review: Michter’s Barrel Strength Straight Rye

Michter's 2016 US*1 Barrel Strength RyeEditor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a free sample to review by the party behind it. The Whiskey Wash, while appreciative of this, did keep full independent editorial control over this article.

Ask most people what the most quintessentially American spirit is, and they’d probably say bourbon, the word conjuring images of grizzled old-timers cooking moonshine in the hills of Kentucky. But in the Northeast, rye whiskey, not bourbon, was the spirit favored by early Americans. In fact, it’s likely that the nation’s oldest distillery—up until its closure in 1989—was Bomberger’s Distillery in Pennsylvania, a rye distillery dating to 1753.

The site, now listed as a National Historic Landmark, has a storied past. According to local legend, rye made at the Bomberger site (then called Shenk’s, after its Swiss Mennonite proprietor) kept George Washington’s army warm at Valley Forge. The distillery changed hands a number of times over the years, and despite its small size, its transformation from farm to commercial distillery make it an exemplar of the shift in American whiskey toward large-scale industrial production. After shutting its doors during Prohibition, the distillery was acquired by Louis Forman—of Brown-Forman fame—who labeled the rye he produced there “Michter’s,” a portmanteau of the names of his sons, Michael and Peter.

In 1989, with the American whiskey industry floundering, the distillery closed. But a few years later, in a move representative of yet another trend in the whiskey business—namely, its small batch-focused 21st century renaissance—Chatham Imports, a spirits-centric holding company, acquired and resurrected the Michter’s trademark. This time around, the brand that began as a Pennsylvania rye distiller would be based in Louisville, Kentucky.

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These days, Michter’s products are mostly sourced, and the company has a famously opaque stance on the sources of their distillate—although Chatham Imports recently completed an enormous new factory build-out and began distilling its own juice in 2015. The company ages and bottles a range of bourbon, rye, and American whiskeys.

Michter’s Barrel Strength Straight Rye Whiskey, as with the rest of the Michter’s lineup, is sourced from an undisclosed distillery in Kentucky and aged for an undisclosed length of time (at least two years, based on the “straight” designation). Like their other bourbon and rye expressions, it’s entered into the barrel at an usually low 103 proof, meaning the bottle proof isn’t quite as hair-raising as some barrel-strength whiskeys: the website notes “the majority” of bottles are between 108 and 110.8 proof, although the bottle I sampled was at 111.8.

Tasting Notes: Michter’s Barrel Strength Straight Rye

Color: Finished cherry wood

Nose: On the sweeter side for a rye, with caramel and vanilla mingling with blackberry, cherry, and warm cinnamon. After a few minutes in the glass, I notice a little more pepperiness.

Palate: Quite hot and heavily woody, especially on the finish. I still get vanilla and black cherry, but oak definitely predominates. After adding a few drops of water, I notice a pleasant toast note I couldn’t taste at all before, and the baking spice and dark fruit notes are clearer.


Overall, Michter’s Barrel Strength Straight Rye Whiskey is a nice whiskey, but as is often the case, I was left scratching my head about the logic of leaving it at barrel strength. This may be down to personal preference, and it may also have to do with the fact that my bottle seems to be at the high end of the ABV scale for this expression, but I found that a little water substantially improved it.

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Sipped neat, I found it too hot, with woodiness too dominant. Cut down just a little, the palate opened up well, and the mouthfeel went from nearly painful to pleasantly sticky.