What is in the name of a whiskey? That is a big question in this day and age of America’s revived love affair with this spirit. There’s been a lot of debate online, in bars and at many distilleries about truth in marketing for whiskey, namely being honest on the labeling about where the liquor comes from (i.e. where it was distilled at) and who is behind it. With all of this in mind I thus became quite curious about the breadcrumb trail of one Shenk’s Homestead Original Bourbon Whiskey, which recently began surfacing for sale in the Northeast US.
The name Shenk in whiskey lore has some weight behind it. Specifically one John Shenk, according to the history of the Michter’s whiskey label, founded back in 1753 in Pennsylvania what would ultimately become Michter’s. A Swiss Mennonite farmer, he used his knowledge of grains in Shenk’s earliest days to produce whiskey from rye. Shenk’s was later purchased by fellow Pennsylvania Abraham Bomberger and renamed to Bomberger’s. This particular name is now seeing a revival under a new label as we speak.
Bomberger’s changed hands again as the decades went along, very much confusing who plays what part in producing this whiskey today. In the very recent past, for example, it was widely known that bourbon and rye produced under what is now the Michter’s label was at the very least bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) for Chatham Imports, which owns the Michter’s name.
Michter’s, in current times, is handling their own bottling and aims to be producing at least some of their own whiskey going forward. As the good whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery pointed out on his blog a few years back, however, it isn’t clear at times where Michter’s gets their current whiskey supply from. An unknown Kentucky distller? Some generic liquor out of Indiana? Leprechauns tossing around fairy dust under a full moon? Your guess is as good as any.
How this all plays into Shenk’s Homestead bourbon, which, according to at least one retailer, has a mash bill of 100 percent corn (I’m looking into this item right now), surfaces as you start to follow the paper trail for this whiskey. I worked with fellow whiskey blogger Sku on tracing this product and we found some interesting facts:
- The trademark for Shenk’s Homestead is tied to Chatham, the owners of Michter’s.
- The COLA filing for TTB federal label approval for Shenk’s Homestead lists Michter’s as the applicant out of Louisville, Kentucky.
- This same filing also reveals Shively Distillery to be used on the label as the bottler. This location is tied to Michter’s and a suburb of Louisville.
- The “Shively Distilling Company” used on the label is Michter’s. The Kentucky Secretary of State’s office lists it as an assumed name of Michter’s.
“It dawned on me the second I saw this,” Cowdery told me as I shared this story with him over Facebook, “[that] ‘Shenk’ was the family name of the founder of the distillery in PA that eventually became Michter’s. Clearly this is a Michters/Chatham product. I assume they’re doing it to secure rights to the name, after the new people in PA grabbed the Bomberger name. Interesting. My assumption is that it’s not a high priority as a product, just something to secure their rights to use the name.”
Now volumes have been written about Michter’s and how its branding plays out in the market, so I’ll leave it to you to read the lengthy posts by others on it. As for Shenk’s, I was told by a retailer that “they are the original distillery where Michter’s used to make their whiskey. They have been producing whiskey for others for a long time and now they are making under their own label.” I was also told it “is not Michter’s whiskey.” Umm, huh?
So the mystery at this point is: who actually owns this bourbon and where is it being produced? Most signs point to Chatham/Michter’s as the bottler and an undisclosed distillery as the maker (
someone in KBD’s back channels 2/6/15 update – a KBD spokesperson confirmed to The Whiskey Wash they are not involved with the Shenk’s bourbon or from the infamous MGP perhaps?), so for now we will call it that. I’ve reached out to them for comment and will report back with an update if I ever hear more, which I would love because this whiskey obviously has a story to tell.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...