Whisky Advocate

Guest Blog: Sam Komlenic on the legendary Michter’s Distillery

June 4th, 2010

Sam wrote such a great post, there’s not much for me to say (other than “nice hat!”). I was born in Lebanon, I lived in Lebanon County until I went to college, and my family still lives there. Had I only known then about Michter’s…

 

Well, I feel quite out of place here.  I’ve read guest postings by so many luminaries of the industry on this blog, a forum that I respect greatly, and have now been asked to put together one of my own while John’s out of town.  Personal business, he says.  Fishing, I’m guessing.

I am the copy editor for Malt Advocate and a life-long whiskey drinker.  Having grown up in the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania, that’s where my basic allegiance lies (rye whiskey), and I trust that, some day, someone will return rye whiskey distilling to its most basic DNA, to that valley.

That said, I’ve been asked to write today about my experiences at and with one of the two most vaunted lost American distilleries.  The most famous is Stitzel-Weller, and rightly so.  It grew up in the most notorious contemporary American distilling state, Kentucky, and with a family that was, and still is, well-respected in the business.  My focus today, though, is on the other.

I’m writing about Michter’s distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, a site where I spent time during its last decade, and where I came to realize more about the importance of Pennsylvania to the American whiskey business than I would have ever imagined.

Though this blog is not about history, there is some of note to be mentioned before we move on.  Tracing its roots back as far as 1753, the site where Michter’s was distilled was the oldest in the U.S. at its original site when it closed in 1990.  It was also the only domestic distillery permitted (by special exemption) to sell whiskey on site as early as the 1970s.

Michter’s was the last survivor of the centuries-old distilling business in Pennsylvania, outlasting giants like Schenley and Publicker, to hang on by the fingernails of its very existence through the lean years of the 80s, only to succumb at the very end.

My first visit was in 1979, on my back from a business trip to Philadelphia, when I saw their billboard along the turnpike, encouraging me to visit.  Who was I to refuse?  I saw a farmer in bib overalls walking back to his farm from the distillery with a bottle of Michter’s in hand, and I knew then that this was a special place, but despite the marketing hype you’ve heard for years, it had nothing to do with pot stills.

Michters’ was located in a very rural part of Lebanon County.  No developments around, no major highways, no railroad connections; just a big distillery in the middle of a lot of farmland.  In the 70s, it was quite the tourist attraction, even offering donkey rides for the kids.  The tour started in the visitor center, which was also the souvenir shop adjacent to the Jug House, where they sold the whiskey. 

The tour cost a dollar, and included the distillery, an older warehouse that had been converted to display space, and the old Bomberger distillery, which held the small pot still that was built for them by Vendome Copper & Brass for the American bicentennial.  At the end of the tour, your guide took a picture of you with the whiskey you had (hopefully) bought, and sent you the photo with a thank-you note.  Mine is printed here, and no, that’s not a raccoon pelt attached to my head, dammit, just a virile sign of the times!  Michter’s was distilling whiskey here at that time, but get this, and listen closely once-and-for-all…there were never true pot stills involved in the modern incarnation of this distillery. 

What the company considered a pot still, its doubler, is indeed a pot still, but not in the truest sense.  So the deception, whether intentional or not, began at a very early juncture and continues to this day.  As it turns out, Michter’s used a column still like everyone else in the U.S., but was different than the norm in almost every other respect of the whiskey making business.  The vaunted Hirsch bourbon made here (first for the Hue family, afterward sold to Preiss) was distilled in their ubiquitous 400 bbl. batch, under contract, to a different recipe than usual.

Louis Forman, the creator of the Michter’s brand, was said to be an imitator of the highest sense.  He supposedly copied Jack Daniel’s mash bill and their square bottle.  He never called Michter’s anything but “whiskey” because the product didn’t meet the standards for “straight whiskey.”  Michter’s used a certain percentage of re-used cooperage (like the Scotch) in each dump to affect the intended result.  The name Michter’s was a combination of his sons’ names, MICH-ael and pe-TER.

Over ten years, I visited a number of times, my last being in November, 1979, scant months before they closed.  On my way out of the Jug House, I noticed a warehouse door open, and stopped in to see what was going on.  I entered a nearly empty building where barrels were being dumped into a trough that sent the whiskey to the bottling house.  A couple of men were at work there, and I began to ask questions.  I was told that the whiskey in the barrels was around 125 proof, and would I like a taste?  Are you kidding me?

The man reached for a dusty bottle in a corner, and after rinsing it once under the gurgling stream, offered me a taste straight out of the barrel.  The most amazing experience I have ever had in any distillery.  In phone conversations with him twenty years later, I realized that man was Dick Stoll, distillery manager and the last master distiller there.  He still lives in Lebanon County.

My last visit was in May of 1990.  A hand written note was taped to the Jug House door which read, “Closed until further notice.”  I have never returned, preferring to remember the flowing whiskey rather than the collapsing buildings.

As with so many tales, the Michter’s story is part truth and part fiction, but there is no doubt that for more than 235 years this distillery produced legend, lore, and luscious American whiskey like no other.

No Responses to “Guest Blog: Sam Komlenic on the legendary Michter’s Distillery”

  1. Mark says:

    Outstanding entry. Thanks. Nice hat.

  2. Kirk says:

    Well done, Mr. Komlenic! I thoroughly enjoyed your virtual tour back to a time and place that will likely never be replicated. Thank you.

  3. It sounds like a place I would have enjoyed visiting. It’s sad that all good things must come to an end. Thanks for the great blog post, and photo, and for sharing your memories.
    I hope you return with another guest blog.

  4. Simon Corby says:

    Nice piece. Learned something new, as always when I visit. Cheers!

  5. sam k says:

    Typo alert…my last visit was in November, 1989. So much for my copy editing skills!

  6. Mark C. says:

    Enjoyed reading your memories of a lost time and art.

  7. two-bit cowboy says:

    Wonderful tale, Sam. Thanks for sharing your memories and the distillery’s history. Way out here in the West, I’d not heard of Michter’s so please excuse my ignorance, but how do you pronounce the name?

    • sam k says:

      Thanks Cowboy, and good question. It’s MIK-ters, and sounded just Pennsylvania Dutch enough to fit the image they were trying to project. There’s a lot more history behind the brand than would be appropriate here, but as with most failed companies, there were changes of ownership, poor decision-making, mismanagement (to say the least), good money thrown after bad, etc., etc

      I’m just sad that they lasted so long, only to fail on the very cusp of the whiskey revival in this country. Another five years, and they’d likely still be open today. And so it goes…

  8. Louis says:

    Sam, with all of the distilleries in Scotland being reopened in recent years, do you thing that there is any chance for Michters?

    • sam k says:

      Louis, I’m not sure. Ethan (below) lives near there and has a better grip of the situation. I’ve seen photos that show totally collapsed buildings, including all the warehouses, but there may be parts of the distillery proper still intact.

      I’m going there for the first time in over 20 years in July and will have a much better perspective at that time. It would be cool to see someone step in and bring her back, for sure. Fritz Maytag, though, surveyed the site personally as a potential option for Anchor Distilling, and declined. Wonder what made him turn tail those many years ago?

  9. Sku says:

    Fabulous report Sam! What a great opportunity you had. Were you a fan of the old Michter’s label whiskeys (as opposed to the Hirsch label and the new Michter’s) at the time they were coming out?

    • sam k says:

      I bought their whiskey from the time I first stopped there, and tried to spread the gospel, but it was already too late. Michter’s was always placed right next to Jack Daniel’s on the shelf and priced just a few cents less. I remember buying the last two bottles in my local, probably in 1990, for between ten and eleven dollars each. Michter’s also billed itself as six years old, came at 86 proof, and was chill filtered since the 1970s.

      I have also been told that the whiskey in the decanters was not necessarily the same whiskey as that in the bottles, nor was the decanter whiskey necessarily consistent in the blend from batch to batch. I’ve had awesome decanter whiskey and some which was less than stellar. A couple I’ve dumped. I always attributed that to the vagaries of long-term decanter storage, but it may to some degree be that there were different blends of barrels over time.

      Also, to clarify, I alluded to the 400 barrel batch of Hirsch, but a day’s run through the still produced 50 barrels from 600 bushels of grain. I believe that 400 barrels was the minimum for a contract batch.

      I also found out recently that all the whiskey the last owners left behind (hundreds of barrels) was seized by the feds, and sold to be re-distilled into racing fuel!

      • sam k says:

        Just looked over my notes. There were THOUSANDS of barrels in the warehouses that eventually got burned in racing cars!

  10. John Lipman says:

    Wow!
    In fact, Wow! again!
    It’s about time someone who really loves a deceased-but-mythologically-revered brand found a way to present it truthfully, with warts and scars intact, without making some sort of “exposé” out of it. You’re the first writer (yours truly humbly included) I know who’s been able to pull that off, at least that successfully.
    Wow! a third time.
    (and by the way… GET A HAIRCUT, YOU HIPPIE!

  11. Ethan Smith says:

    A great article indeed. If the owner of the site can get his internet up and running again, I’ll show him the article! He’ll love it.

    To answer the question about it ever being restarted again- it can be. With a motivated individual or group, some money, and an appreciation for history, the distillery can once again be in production. The only main component missing from the distillery is the Vendome pot still- and that is still complete in the possession of the Beam family.

    Also, as for the column and doubler vs. the Vendome pot still, Dick claims that the batches out of each process were often blended. The only KNOWN pure Vendome-produced whiskey was the “Quarter Whiskey” 80 proof moonshine and the 4 year old whiskey in the 23K gold pot still decanters sold during the National Historic Landmark designation ceremony weekend.

  12. B.J. Reed says:

    Nice – Its sad to see these lost distilleries and now with the explosion of micro distilleries it seems tahta the death and life of great America distilleries (apologies to Jane Jacobs) is coming full circle.

  13. Gary Gillman says:

    Sam, excellent article and kudos to John to place this on the blog.

    Michael Jackson, in his The World Guide To Whisky (1987), stated at p. 149 that Michter’s Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey was 38% rye, 50% corn and 12% malt. I always understood Jack Daniels to have far less rye than that (being mostly from corn that is). I think Waymack & Harris’ book give the exact figures but I can’t find it quickly to hand. Both whiskeys were – still are of course for Jack Daniels – distilled under 160 proof. The distilling-out number for Michter’s Original Sour Mash was stated in a series of news articles on Michter’s from the 1980’s linked on various bourbon sites, I think from a Bomberger historical web page. This is from memory but I think the number was 154 or 155.

    I always thought, therefore, Michter’s was a straight whiskey even though the label did not state so. It couldn’t be straight bourbon or straight rye due to the corn and rye not exceeding 50%. But if it was distilled-out under 160 proof and aged at least 2 years in new charred wood, it could have been called a straight whiskey is my understanding. Of course, if some re-used wood was used to age Michter’s Original Sour Mash, that might explain why the word straight was not placed on the label. Your comments on that possibility are most interesting and are the first I have read in that regard. If it did occur, that would differentiate it further from Jack Daniels, which (from everything I have read over the years) is aged in all-new charred oak.

    It’s good to hear from people who visited the place and tasted the product in its heyday. Maybe one day the Michter’s Original Sour Mash recipe will be revived.

    Best regards (and to John).

    Gary

    • John Hansell says:

      Thanks Gary for stopping by. I feel very fortunate to have good friends like Sam to add a little spice to WDJK.

    • sam k says:

      Hi Gary. It is indeed good to see you here! According to Dick Stoll, Michter’s was distilled out at 145-150 proof, but I can’t for the life of me find the mashbill he provided. I’ll have to get that information again. You’re right…that much rye seems out of place for JD.

  14. Ethan Smith says:

    Gary, there is suspicion that the current “Michter’s American Whiskey” marketed by Chatham Imports is the old recipe. It even states that it is aged in “bourbon-soaked barrels.” I’ve tried the original Michter’s right next to the American Whiskey and there are certainly similarities, but they are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. The original stuff is a lot better!

  15. […] history, Michter's, Other blogs, PA distillers A great guest blog entry on an already great blog: Sam Komlenic talks about his experience with the legendary Michter’s distillery on John Hansell’s What Does John Know?. Filed under Other American Whiskey, Uncategorized […]

  16. Gary Gillman says:

    Ethan, I agree that Michter’s American Whiskey does not resemble Michter’s Original Sour Mash – it’s good but is a different kind of taste. In the current Michter’s range, I like the 10 year old straight rye the most, which I understand was 18 years old when bottled: it has a rich, gingerbread-like flavour. Jackson wrote that Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey was “gingery”, and the said rye seems to me more the heir of the Sour Mash than the others in the range although they are all good.

    Gary

  17. John Hansell says:

    That’s it. I’ve decided that I am opening up my 1976 Bicentenery 1/2 gallon jug of Michther’s this year. And Sam, when I do it, you WILL be with, buddy!

  18. Ethan Smith says:

    Gary, I’d have to agree there. I have a bottle of the Michter’s single barrel rye- not the 10yo, just the standard stuff- and that does seem to have a little more in common with the original Michter’s. One thing that I have found really odd is the bottle of George Dickel 12 that I have seems to share some common elements with Michter’s. Maybe it’s just me.

    John, hopefully the cork stayed good all those years and that Michter’s whiskey in the jug is in good condition. That whiskey would have been distilled in 1970- which was when the distillery was still under Pennco ownership. If you find the whiskey is no longer good, I have 16 quarts that are still good so I think I can spare some!

    If any of you want to do more of your own detective work, here are a few of the other labels that were distilled there:

    Port Royal Vodka
    Port Royal Gin
    Port Royal Blended Whiskey
    Main Line Bourbon
    Holiday Blended Whiskey
    Highland Fling Scotch (distilled in Scotland but bottled in Schaefferstown)
    Kirk’s Pure Rye
    Old Vandergrift
    Wild Turkey rye
    Union Town blended whiskey
    Happy Hour blended whiskey
    Pennco 86 bourbon
    Penn Esquire bourbon
    Sam Thompson rye

  19. it feel happy by reading your memories of a lost time

  20. Red_Arremer says:

    Sam, do you think the pot still thing was confusion on the part of the owners? Is it possible that it was some kind of sly attempt to increase the perceived quality of the whisky?

  21. Ethan Smith says:

    I’ve been through Louis Forman’s business papers (available to the public at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, DE) and he knew exactly what he was doing pushing the “pot still” angle. Mr. Forman saw the success of Maker’s Mark in the 50’s and how their marketing (and product) was so different and unique and wanted a piece of the pie for himself.

  22. Fantastic

    Thank you vert much for the information on Michter’s. I’ve been a big fan of the 10yr bourbon and rye for years now, and especially a fan o the 25yr rye. The big question though is who is making th 10yr? I imagine that the 25yr rye/bourbon is from the distillery?

    Thanks for the history lesson – I’d like to add that I heard last year that the distillery was for sale for a cool million bucks, so if anyone wants a nice bit of land in PA…

    Andrew Friedman
    Liberty – Seattle.

  23. Ethan Smith says:

    The 25 year old rye and bourbon marketed by Chatham Imports is not Michter’s from Schaefferstown. All whiskey was destroyed under the supervision of the government in 1993. It was sent by truck to Philadelphia and redistilled into racing fuel (ethanol) and coolant.

    The million dollar price tag is not true. The owner of the site knows about the website that had been listing that and they were correctly informed that there is no set price tag at this time. People wanting to purchase the site should contact the owner directly. Email me if you’re interested in his contact information!

  24. Liberty Bar says:

    Thanks, Ethan.

    Do you know who made that 25yr that is marketed under the Micheter’s brand?

    Thanks in advance.

  25. Ethan Smith says:

    Often wondered the same thing. The only thing we can be sure of is that it isn’t Schaefferstown produced whiskey since it was all inventoried and destroyed. The whiskey in the current Michter’s line-up is from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which don’t actually have a distillery of their own in operation. I read at one point some speculation that it may be Heaven Hill, but who knows. I have a copy of the advertisement from KBD/Chatham on my computer. The text reads:

    “In the Michter’s tradition hailing from America’s first whiskey distilling company, our very limited release
    of 25 Year-Old Single Barrel Rye and 25 Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon are made from the highest quality
    grains and aged for 25 years in fire-charred, new American white oak barrels until the respective whiskeys meet
    our exceptional quality standards. It is then further mellowed by our signature filtration. Michter’s warmed
    General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge and continues to warm whiskey lovers today.”

    First of all, Michter’s was not the first whiskey distilling company. That’s just downright misleading. The distillery where Michter’s was made was the longest operating distillery. Secondly, the wording is very wisely chosen so it makes it sound like it is the original stuff, but if you read it carefully, it makes no claim whatsoever to be distilled in Schaefferstown. In fact, at the bottom is
    “Michter’s American Whiskey Company, Bardstown, Kentucky”- Home of KBD and Heaven Hill!

    It would be interesting to see where they were able to buy a few 25 year old barrels of whiskey!

    • sam k says:

      There’s also no evidence that I’m aware of that proves George Washington ever provided himself or his troops with Schaefferstown-produced whiskey

    • sam k says:

      For quite some time near the end, Michter’s used the slogan “The Whiskey That Warmed the Revolution.” That’s all well and good as far as it went at the time…referring to the fact that they existed prior to the Revolutionary War, but it seems to have been co-opted to a much greater degree afterward to include the inference that Washington actually made a trip (or trips) there for supplies, which is really nothing more than B.S.

  26. mashbill says:

    The current “Michter’s” does indeed come from KBD. While KBD has barrels from various Kentucky distilleries, most of what’s in their warehouses comes from Heaven Hill. And yes, the new “Michter’s” labels are mis-leading and unethical. I have no problem with most secondary or tertiary whiskey bottlers, but regarding the guy who owns the rights to the Michter’s name, I don’t know how he lives with himself.

  27. JON HIEB says:

    Always wonderful to read another story about Michters. Still have a few of the origional bottles
    and some of the Hirsch… What a sad ending to a marvelous Pa. Icon and what an insult that what was left was burned…Thanks for the Article !

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