Michter's Rise As An American Whiskey Great - The Whiskey Wash

Michter’s Rise As An American Whiskey Great

Editor’s Note: We explore Michter’s and this distillery’s rise from faded American whiskey brand to a very popular premium whiskey maker. Travel expenses were covered by Michter’s during our visit, but editorial control of this article remains with The Whiskey Wash.

The Michter’s brand and its legacy in American whiskey history stretches over the course of multiple centuries. It is said the original whiskey company was founded back in 1753 in Pennsylvania, becoming a popular rye whiskey maker over time. Prohibition impacted it like so many others, and the subsequent decades that followed were not kind to it, ultimately being shuttered and abandoned in 1989.

Fast forward to today and, with new ownership, multiple locations in Kentucky and plenty of whiskey both in barrel and being distilled, one gets a sense that the fortunes of this brand are going in a dramatically different direction. There’s pride in the whiskey coming from Michter’s, and it is something we’ve found through multiple reviews in the past few years to be of increasingly better and better quality.

To get a sense of what’s going on at Michter’s, we paid them a visit earlier this year in Kentucky, later interviewing company president Joesph Magliocco at length about the brand, its legacy and its future. Note this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Michter’s logo on a still (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Tell us a little bit about the historical backside of Michter’s.

Joseph Magliocco: Michter’s has a legacy that traces way back to a Pennsylvania distillery in Shaefferstown, Pennsylvania. The distillery was founded in 1753 by John Shenk and changed its name in the 1800s when it was bought by Abraham Bomberger to Bomberger’s. It wasn’t actually until the 1950s that the Michter’s name came along. The operating owner then of ownership, Lou Forman, actually came up with the Michter’s name. Some people think it was German. It’s not.

He actually had two children, Michael and Peter, and combined the two sons’ names and came up with Michter’s. Mr. Forman and the group there made some very nice whiskey well through the ’70s and the ’80s. The industry from the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, really to 2000, went through almost a virtual depression when it came to American whiskey and some companies failed. Unfortunately Pennsylvania Michter’s went bankrupt in 1989.

In the 1990s, I was running a little company called Chatham Imports, which is a wine and spirits supplier, and I wanted to do whiskey. One of my mentors in the business was a guy, Dick Newman. I knew that Dick had tremendous whiskey experience, so I asked him to help me as a consultant, and he was extremely helpful.

I was quite familiar with Michter’s because I had actually sold Michter’s as a summer job between my junior and senior year of college. I was aware of the history the brand had, and the Pennsylvania distillery, and it just seemed like a shame that it was out of business. We did some due diligence with our law firm, and basically, in the mid 90s, the Michter’s brand was abandoned. Nobody was using it, nobody wanted it. We acquired it for $245 dollars, which was the patent and trademark office filing fee.

So I restarted the brand, pretty much from scratch.

TWW: So you take over this abandoned and historic Pennsylvania whiskey brand, and you decide to bring it to Kentucky. Why Kentucky versus keeping it in Pennsylvania?

Magliocco: Obviously the brand had a long, wonderful history in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is a fantastic state. We really debated whether to try to revive the brand in Pennsylvania, or go to Kentucky. My advisor and mentor, Dick, was a strong advocate of Kentucky. He said to me that you have the best distilleries in the country in Kentucky, and that, his words were, “If you want to be one of the best, you’ve got to play against the best, and play with the best.”

It just was apparent that there were whiskey resources in Kentucky and, certainly at that time, no other state really had that. And so, we made the decision to try to revive the brand in Kentucky and I think we made the right one.

Remember you’re talking now about the 1990s because that’s when we acquired the Michter’s brand that was abandoned. And, by that point, Kentucky was awash with great whiskey because there was just too much for the demand.

As I said, the American whiskey business was almost in a virtual depression. And so, when people heard that we wanted to buy older American whiskey, we started with two types. We started with 10 year bourbon, and 10 year rye. When we wanted to look at 10 year and older stocks of bourbon the distilleries were thrilled because there was not much of an aged statement market then for bourbons. And when they heard that we wanted to buy rye they did the happy dance. They were thrilled because there was virtually no market for rye at that point.

That was really phase one of our production – we sourced stuff that had been made years before. We had actually nothing to do with making it. We tasted around, and basically picked the style that we really liked ourselves and the style that we hoped to emulate ourselves someday.

TWW: When you think about the historic style of Michter’s, is that something that you guys feel like you’ve been able to replicate? Or, are you going for something that is more contemporary?

Magliocco: I was a Michter’s drinker from the 70s through the 80s. And so, I’m very familiar with Michter’s style of mash, especially from Pennsylvania and some of the other whiskeys that they produced. I wouldn’t say that we necessarily were trying to pursue their style. We did not know their recipes. We didn’t know their mash bills, we didn’t know their formularies.

Even when you speak to people that are very knowledgeable, and knew a lot about Michter’s, you will sometimes get different mash bills for the same product. And, the fact of the matter is, we don’t know what they were. We were just trying to make a style of whiskey that we thought was really great, and that we liked a lot.

And, when it came to Michter’s sour mash from Kentucky, which we came out with years later, we tasted a lot of old Michter’s sour mash bottles. We tried a lot of Michter’s sour mash dusties – open ones, closed ones, et cetera. And, that somewhat gave us directional ideas from tasting bottles that we had, though we did not have the recipe.

TWW: And so, you have this brand and you bring it into Kentucky. What, to you, was the first step in taking this brand and getting it reestablished?

Magliocco: Again, for phase one we sourced whiskey that we had nothing to do with making. We tried to select really great whiskey and again, a style that we liked. And, basically, it’s creating the package, and getting the glass, and then finding a bottler that’s a good bottler, and then trying to get some distributors who are willing to sell it. Which wasn’t so easy with a brand that had gone out of business.

TWW: Can you talk a little bit about who your sources are, or is that something you are not able to disclose?

Some of the whiskey barrels at Michter’s at rest (image copyright The WHiskey Wash)

Magliocco: We went through three phases of production. I talked about phase one. The people that we bought from for phase one, our understanding was that we were not going to disclose who we were sourcing from.

When it came to phase two, we started working with a Kentucky distiller in the early 2000s that was operating under capacity. Basically, everybody was at that point. A certain number of days per year were Michter’s days. We’re using the yeast that we use now, and the mash bills that we use now. At that distillery we were barreling at 100 proof, and we were cooking in somebody else’s kitchen, like a chef that couldn’t afford his own restaurant yet. That company, too, we have a confidentiality agreement with them, so I’m not going to get into who they are.

TWW: What year was it when you laid the groundwork for opening the facility that you guys primarily work out of right now?

Magliocco: By the time that we had our own distillery, it wasn’t until like 2012, that we became a licensed distiller at our Shively facility. At that point, we had two small stills. We were doing our own bottling and processing with them. We didn’t have our big stills here yet. And, we were still working with our phase two place. We were cooking in the other kitchen.

It wasn’t until 2015 that we became self sufficient, where we had the ability to make all our own stuff and move into phase three. We had already put in our 46 foot high, 32 inch diameter, copper column still, along with a 250 gallon pot still doubler, which is our main system. It wasn’t until August of 2015, though, that the white dog from our Shively still matched up super well with the white dog from phase two. We wanted consistency between phase three and phase two. And that took us until then to get that straight. And when we did, that’s when we started to barrel.

TWW: Talk a little bit about the Michter’s distilling process from start to finish.

Tasting through the Michter’s line up (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Magliocco: I will start my speech with a disclaimer that I am not formally trained as a distiller. I’ll do the best I can here.

Basically, at Shively, we do everything. We pay a lot of attention to the grain. I know Dan McKee, who recently became our master distiller and for years before that was our distiller, is really focused on grain quality. We use all non GMO grain, and we get the grain here. We analyze the grain before we accept the trucks. We mill our own grain. We use cage mills because it gives better control of the grind.

We do our fermenting. We make our own beer here. And we distill. Our still system, our column to pot system in Shively, which was built by Vendome, is obviously a custom system that’s all copper, 11,000 pounds of copper to be specific.

Meanwhile, over at Michter’s Fort Nelson distillery, which we opened to the public in February this year, is a second distiller. There, we have a pot to pot still system which is a different white dog than you would get with the same yeast and the same mash bill, versus a column to pot. And, we were able to buy the Michter’s Pennsylvania pot still system for that location. It’s a 550 gallon beer still and 110 gallon spirit still doubler, as well as three recyclers with fermenters from old Michter’s Pennsylvania. The system was actually built in 1976 from Michter’s Pennsylvania by Vendome.

Ironically, some of the people that worked on that system had children, and grand children, who actually worked on our Shively system making it all for Vendome.

TWW: So you have a few different things going on at Michter’s. You’ve got your own, in house distillation, and product that you’re aging and barreled out. You have a distillery outside that was distilling it for you, and then you were aging it, and then you have stuff that you sourced way back when.

Magliocco: As I said, we have phase one stuff, phase two stuff, and phase three stuff. We didn’t initially barrel phase three stuff until, when we took the chemical fingerprint, did we find it to be super tight with the phase two stuff.

For the phase one stuff, our team has tremendous experience with maturation but, when it gets to the older expressions, we really don’t know how much ultimately we’re going to have. And that’s because of the protocol that we use. Basically, we taste all our lots on a regular basis. But, as they get older, you try them more often. And, if they sense that a lot was at its peak, and if they felt the lot was going to get too woody, we actually would take that one barrel that they felt was going to get too woody, and was at its peak, and we would put that one barrel into one stainless steel drum.

We thus have some amazing whiskey that we stopped at 17, 18 years old. We didn’t just hold it until 20 so we could say, “Okay. Let’s release some 20 year old whiskey.” Whatever we release we want to be really special. Whether we’re doing it or not, our goal is to produce the greatest American whiskey.

Older can be better, but it’s not automatically better for every barrel. And the protocol that we use at Michter’s, where we will stop the clock if we feel something’s at its peak, is that the barrels that do get to 20 years or 25 years, are obviously going to have some wood to them. It’s not like biting into a piece of dry wood, though. They’re really extraordinary whiskeys.

TWW: Right, so let’s talk about your aging process a bit. You’ve had the Shively facility a good time now, and you continue to do distillation and whiskey aging there. How do you handle maturation?

Magliocco: So, aging is not just at this facility. We have 40,000 barrels of capacity that we control long term in another part of Kentucky. Shively has 14,400 barrels capacity here. We also have 40,000 barrel capacity in Rollinsboro.

In general we do a lot of stuff with our maturation protocol. The wood that we are using is air dried outside for a minimum of 18 months, which cures it, softens it and takes a lot of the green and tannic elements out of it. Our barrels are also not just charred. By law, they have to be charred for bourbon or American rye, but they’re toasted first. There’s so many different permutations of toasting protocols you can do, and Andrea Wilson, our Master of Maturation, is very particular about what she wants for this one, and what she wants for that one.

Another thing that we do, which is, I think, probably the single most expensive of these extra steps that we take, is barreling at 103 entry proof. It used to be that to call something bourbon, by law, you couldn’t barrel it at over 110 proof. And then, some lobbying was done, and that was changed to where you can barrel at 125 proof now.

If we barreled at 125 proof, which is permitted, instead of the 103 entry proof, which is the sort of more traditional one that we use, then the day that we bottle our US One bourbon, you would be adding 50% more water then if we barreled at the permissible 125 instead of 103.

One of the other big quality steps that we take is heat cycling. Kentucky gets quite cold in the wintertime. And, when it’s cold in Kentucky we will heat up our warehouses to roughly around 90 degrees or so for a period of time. And eventually, we’ll open the windows and cool everything down. The temperature change is really what makes the whiskey soak in and out of the wood. When it heats up, the whiskey soaks into the wood. When it cools down, the whiskey soaks out and the one in and out is called a cycle. And that will happen naturally in Kentucky, from anywhere from four to six times a year on average. We will induce extra cycles in and out thought because we want more interaction with the sugars and the red line and wood because we think it gives a richer whiskey.

The historic stills at Michter’s Fort Nelson facility (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

TWW: So you guys haven taken over an old historic building in downtown Louisville and turned it into this front facing experience for consumers who want to know your brand more. Talk a little bit about the history of the Fort Nelson building, and what you went through to get it to what it is today as this sort of showcase distillery on Whiskey Row.

Magliocco: Fort Nelson has a lot of history. There was in fact a Fort Nelson in Louisville, and there’s a lot of history to it. The particular building is thought to have been built in 1890 and it’s a really striking, iconic building. It has a gorgeous turret and is a great example of stone and cast iron architecture from that time period.

Unfortunately, the building was in really bad shape when we bought it. We purchased the building, and went to contracting and building in it in 2011. We didn’t open until February of 2019 because there were a lot more challenges than we expected. When we were doing our due diligence part of the closing, a structural engineer found that the brick in the top middle of the long side of the building was bowing 23 inches out of place, which is a quite dangerous circumstance.

We notified the city, and they had to shut the street for over a year. We had to spend several hundred thousand dollars building a temporary buttress system to hold up that wall while we did structural reinforcement. The only way to save that building was to put in a steel skeleton that would hold the building in place and we put in, literally, a 400,000 pound steel structure.

Nowadays our structural engineer, who was quite concerned about the building, feels that if there’s an earthquake in Louisville he wants to be in that build because it’s not going anywhere. We’re really happy how it came out, and we think it’s a wonderful home for the brand.

TWW: So why do a consumer facing distillery, like that, in such a location, given that you guys already had a very popular brand at retail? What was it that you felt like you wanted to achieve in opening this place?

Magliocco: Louisville has such a distilling history. Whiskey is such a part of the fabric of the culture, in Kentucky, and especially in Louisville. We thought it would be great to be right downtown where people could visit us easily, and really learn about the brand.

TWW: You guys have a range of whiskeys that are pretty much award winning and consistently scoring high marks with reviewers and consumers. You have a production facility that is pretty cutting edge. You have a downtown facility that is new and designed to really show a consumer facing side of Michter’s. You guys also now have a farm with some acreage on it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Magliocco: We have a farm, and some operations, in Springfield, Kentucky. It’s really nice land – we were able to buy 145 acres there that we liked a lot. We’re working with local farmers there, growing our own non GMO corn. We’ve already harvested that. Now we have rye and barley malt growing. We’ll be growing some of our own grains. We didn’t have enough land there to grow all the grain that we need, but we’ll be growing some of our own grains, and using them, and perhaps maybe even at Fort Nelson.

TWW: How do you keep quality across the three phases as you grow?

Magliocco: We are laser focused on quality. Look, I love whiskey, and I have been very fortunate to work with people that really cared about the quality. I really think that it is just a tremendous attention to detail that really has allowed us to get the quality that we believe we have.

Again, I don’t make the stuff, but I’m very proud about what our production people have done over time.