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