Saturday, March 8, 2014

Considering Michter's.

I love Michter's.  But which Michter's?  There are two.  There is what we'll call "old Michter's" the Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown that people known as Michter's - and which marketed itself as Michter's but was actually named Pennco for most of the recent past and Bomberger's Distillery before that.  That distillery has been closed since 1990.  It is most famous for one particular 1974 contract run of Bourbon made for a guy named Hirsch and aged for a heck of a long time.  This became the subject of a fantastic book called "The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste - The True Story of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  Distilled in the Spring 1974.  Made and Bottled in Kentucky" by Chuck Cowdery.  This book is a miracle, which somehow tells something profound and universal about the Bourbon business, the craftsmanship, and history by focusing on one particular legendary run of juice.  I cannot recommend this book more highly - it is a sweet and compulsive read and will teach you lessons about Bourbon that any enthusiast must know.  It will also make you crave a taste of A. H. Hirsch's Bourbon - and that's a bit of problem as it is not around except at auction and then at stratospheric prices - dozens of times what it sold for even half a decade ago.

Meanwhile, there is a brand of Bourbon, whiskey, and rye sold in many stores called Michter's which is made by an unrelated company - owned by Chatham Imports, a middle-tier importer/wholesaler.  We'll call that "new Michter's".  New Michter's has extensive distribution for a company producing small quantities - and an excellent reputation for quality offerings at the high end of their line.  You frequently see particular issues highly sought after in the Bourbon enthusiast community.

A few months back I visited the home of New York American whiskey enthusiast Jared Zuckman.  While his newborn son slept next to us, Jared graciously and generously led me through a tasting which spanned such Bourbon stellar bottlings Four Roses Small Batch 125th Anniversary, Jefferson Presidential Select 18, A.H. Hirsch 16 foil top ("old Michter's"), and Michter's 20 ("new Michter's") among others.

Jared Zuckman's bottles of new and old Michter's

My quick notes from that tasting for the two Michter's are as follows:

A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 gold foil top Straight Bourbon 45.8% abv - 91.6 proof

Dark amber color
A beautiful big rich nose of Vanilla florals, brown sugar, sandalwood oak
The palate is thinner than you'd expect given the nose.  Thinner mouth feel.  Sandalwood perfume, citrus, and toffee bourbon flavors.  In the mid-palate there is a a pervasive but gentle mustiness.  The finish all about astringent oak.

Michter's 20 Single Barrel Bourbon 57.1% abv Barrel 2368, bottle 12 of 220

Hazelnut Chestnut color
Huge nose of dark oak perfume, deep musky loam, rich molasses and dark chocolate.  With air and a drop of water, raw chocolate chip cookie dough and pancake batter notes.
Huge sweet palate with thick mouth feel. Toasted & burnt coconut,  dark roasted cocoa, maple glazed roasted pecans.

In some ways it's not a fair comparison - the Michter's 20 is a barrel proof product.  But there's no point actually denying the fact that the "new Michter's" 20 is a superior pour - for whatever that's worth.  And pretty dramatically so.  Jared would be the first to say so.  He called the Hirsch 16, "historically interesting but overrated".  He called the Michter's Single Barrel 20 "the pour of the year" for him.  I had to concur.  Obviously the A.H. Hirsch is something more than just what's in the glass.  It's a "one year type" - like the 1793 Chain Cent is a one year type - rare and unique as a type - beyond just rare as an issue - functioning as a vanished symbol of something beautiful and gone.  Pennsylvania's demise as a distilling center is all tied up with the death of rye, the death of distilling in the North-East, and the decline of American Whiskey in general in the dark days of glut.  A.H. Hirsch's batch represents the "jewels in the darkness" - which came out of the rickhouses in the 90s as forgotten treasures, like the gold of King Tut's tomb.  More on Tut and Michter's later...  But for all that, what's in the glass (i.e. what you'd taste blind) is vitally important too.  And the takeaway here is that new Michter's 20 is a stunning pour - and a true leading product.

So, what is "new Michter's" and how does it relate to "old Michter's"?  I have my take on it, but here's how Cowdery describes it in "The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste":

http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2012/09/print-edition-of-best-bourbon-youll.html
http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com
/2012/09/print-edition-of-best-bourbon-youll.html
"What about the Michter’s bourbon, rye and other whiskeys on store shelves today? What’s that and what is its relationship to the Michter’s Distillery and A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon? After Michter’s closed, the Michter’s trademark was abandoned. A few years later, a Philadelphia company called Chatham Imports re-registered the abandoned mark and began to sell a line of Michter’s bourbons and other whiskeys. None of the whiskey they sell was made at the Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. They are a non-distiller producer, which means they buy bulk whiskey made by one or more of the usual suspects and bottle it under the Michter’s brand name. Because they control rights to the Michter’s name, they can and do claim what is now (as of 2012) 259 years of Michter’s history as their own, even though they have just the name and nothing else that connects them to the distillery in Schaefferstown. Ironically, the Michter’s name itself is only about 60 years old. Over the years, the distillery was known by many different names."

"In 2011 , the new Michter’s announced its intention to build a micro-distillery in downtown Louisville, and they joined the Kentucky Distillers Association. That Michter’s had nothing to do with A. H. Hirsch Reserve and has no further role in its story."

Cowdery, Charles (2012-05-02). The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste. The True Story Of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Distilled In The Spring Of 1974. Made and Bottled in Kentucky.

Everything that Chuck says in that passage is factual and these facts have led some people to be angry at the new company selling whiskey with the brand name Michter's.  But, as I'll explain later on, it's not quite the whole truth.  Yet the anger in some quarters is quite real.  For an example of this angry reaction you can't do better than the anonymous blogger of http://thebourbontruth.tumblr.com/ who writes under the pseudonym "Lloyd Christmas".  He rages at Non-Distiller-Producers (NDPs) like Jefferson's and others.  but he reserves a special vitriol for new Michter's:

"The distillery closed in 1990 for good and when the abandoned name finds its way into the public domain for Mr. “Sleaze of the Year” to take it as if it’s been his forever. The new Michter’s starts releasing Michter’s Rye, Bourbon and Whiskey under a very fake, very dishonest story. Washington’s troops drank it, you say? Bullshit, I say."

"Makes up a bunch of more crap that only a con man comes up with. Obviously this sleaze has never taken — or at least never paid attention in — an ethics class while at Yale, but I bet he aced Lying 101 and Advanced Greed."

"I’ll be honest and say I don’t know if he owns barrels he sourced, aged or if he bought them ready for bottling. What I know is that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottled most/all of it and, I believe, supplied the barrels. Many, if not all, are being bottled by someone new, I believe in California."

"To give some credit, there were some older batches of 10 year Rye and Bourbon that were great. Incredible 25 year and first batch 20 year bourbons as well. The rest is stuff you try at a bar and are glad you didn’t get a bottle. Chatham imports is not even second rate but they beat the Michter’s name they adopted from the scrap heap as the gift that keeps on giving."


http://thebourbontruth.tumblr.com/post/41798018064/whisky-sleaze-of-the-year-and-sinking-to-the-bottom-of

Actually - "Lloyd" says some much worse things in that post.  His rants peel paint and often go way over the line.  I actually picked some of the more gentle areas to quote from.  I have issues with many of the things "Lloyd" says, but there are some legitimate beefs here.  If you go to Michter's web site the first thing you see (before giving your birthday) is the caption "Wine Enthusiast Distiller of the Year" and the following image:

Photoshopped barrel heads - see missing support cables at right and just left of center.
Michter's is, as Chuck reported, building a pair of distilleries - one in Shively, KY and another in urban downtown Louisville on the strip.  The one in Shively already has a pair of small test stills and a large 60' column still from Vendome is being fabricated and is expected to be delivered and installed this coming summer.  It will have a pot doubler - or "thumper" - as the old Michter's distillery did.  But Michter's isn't in full production yet - and that group of barrels in the photograph on the web site are a dream for the future rather than an actual group of physical barrels with that printing on the barrel ends. Michter's was, indeed named "Distiller of the Year" by Wine Enthusiast in 2012.  But those barrels in that photograph are photoshopped.  Lloyd rages that this photograph is a deliberately constructed lie - calculated to mislead people into believing that the whisky they buy is actually distilled, barreled and aged by Micther's.  That's clearly where Michter's intends to go - but they aren't there yet.

 Let's deal with "Lloyd"'s objections.  They are, to summarize:

  • Willie Pratt given the title "Master Distiller" while Michter's still isn't distilling
  • Wine Enthusiast awards Michter's "Distillery of the Year" in 2012 before their distillery operations are in production.
  • Michter's Celebration sold in a fancy box for $4000.  The idea is that is like Dalmore: elitist and ultimately based on hype.
  • new Michter's chose to base operations in Kentucky, rather than in Pennsylvania where old Michter's was located.
  • The assertion that early releases were wonderful - and had Stizel-Weller stocks, and have gone down hill as those stocks disappeared leaving current bottlings inferior to older ones.
  • new Michter's claims the mantle of centuries of history in their advertising, but are totally unrelated to old Michter's .  

Some of these points are straight up correct, and some are just wrong.

  • Willie Pratt's title is "Master Distiller" and he is already doing test distillation batches, and he is doing barrel selection and is vatting.  That's all some master distiller type stuff.  But the whiskey you buy on the shelves wasn't distilled by Willie Pratt.  So this is ambiguous at best.
  • The text accompanying Wine Enthusiast's award is a well written restatement of Michter's marketing literature.  It commits the mistake of confusing old Michter's and new the same entity.  It states that Michter's was "restarted".  This simply isn't true.  While the award text describes both of Michter's distilleries which are under development in the present tense - it also talks a lot about Michter's "making" whiskey.  This is clearly misleading.   It reminds me of the Nobel committee awarding Obama the Peace Prize - presumably in the hopes that he would be a force for world peace going forward.  Clearly new Michter's has some very well defined ambitions about being a distiller that they are sinking capital into.  But that's the future.  What you are drinking now wasn't distilled by Michter's - although some was contract distilled for them - and to their specifications including some unique mash bills.  I don't know if you can blame Michter's for the wording of the award - but it clearly confuses the truth of the matter.
  • Michter's Celebration is an exercise in fancy decanter type "ultra-premium" marketing, like you usually see high end Cognac or single malt Scotch whisky engaged in.  It's an ominous development for American whiskey - primarily from the price pressure perspective.  I don't like the decanter business, in general, in any market.  However, it was a tiny production run.  No one forced you to buy it.  It sold out quickly.  Who really cares?  If it's a matter of principal to you, then you do.  Otherwise, not so much.
  • Joe Magliocco, Michter's President makes clear that the decision to locate their new distilleries in Kentucky was a business decision based primarily on the culture and labor resources there.  It's hard to argue with that.  They didn't attempt to resurrect the old Michter's site because it's a rat's nest of liability. 
  • While Lloyd Christmas regularly asserts that Michter's is going downhill, I took part in a blind tasting held by Steven Zeller - The Smoky Beast - where we had three different bottlings of Michter's Single Barrel 10 year old Bourbon (and a Pappy Lot "B" thrown in for confusion).  I ended up picking the newest one as the best and, in fact, ranked them in inverse order of date.  In other words I liked the oldest bottling the least and the youngest the most - in order.  And that was tasting blind:  http://smokybeast.blogspot.com/2013/10/going-vertical-history-of-michters.html
  • Lloyd's complaint about new Michter's deliberately stating that they have a multi-century history in their marketing (which is not true) is absolutely correct and is certainly troubling.

Joe points at old Michter's King Tut decanters.
A little while back, New York food and whisky blogger Susanna Skiver Barton of http://whattastesgood.net/ and I spent a very nice evening with Joe Magliocco, President of Chatham Imports and Michter's and Emily Malinowski who works with him.  (She blogged about the evening here).
Over the course of the evening we discussed a few of these issues, but mostly we talked about history and drank most of the Michter's line (and then kept drinking various other things late into the evening).  The first thing that popped out at me was that Joe Magliocco has a long history with old Michter's whiskey and has a real affection for it.  He tells a story about his first job, when starting at Chatham - his father's wine and spirits import and distribution business in 1976, was to move a large number of surplus King Tut decanters which old Michter's had produced to catch the fever of "Tutmania" that accompanied the traveling exhibition of King Tut's treasures.  He still has a good collection of King Tut decanters - among his extensive collection of Michter's decanters generally.  For example I had never seen some of these Michter's decanters before:

Some unusual 1970s Michter's decanters.
Joe Magliocco and Old Michter's
American Whiskey
Magliocco shows plans for the Louisville distillery.
Joe began our conversation by putting a tax stamped 1970s-80s dusty of old Michter's whiskey on the table and cited it as a frequent pour of his father's and an inspiration for a number of the things they are doing today.  This is the odd extremely high rye and high-malt corn whiskey that was almost but not quite Bourbon (because the mash was 50% corn.  1% too low to be legally Bourbon).  Joe said that his father drank and enjoyed it.  This old, unusual, classic Michter's form of American whiskey continues to be an inspiration for new Michter's today and is found in at least two of their expressions US1 American Whiskey and the Celebration bottling.  This effort at continuity with Michter's past is admirable.  Over the course of the evening we tasted much of the Michter's line up.  I'll post tasting notes for a few of those expressions below (the ones I took samples of, and/or have bottles of), but suffice it to say, there's some excellent cask selection and some very good palates on display at new Michter's.  The whiskeys, Bourbons and ryes in the US1 line are quite good and some of the single barrel offerings are state of the art.  Furthermore, as Joe made clear, and already noted Michter's isn't just an NDP and a bottler of contract runs made elsewhere.  They are actively developing two distilleries in Kentucky.  They aren't alone in independently bottling other distillery's whisky while developing their own distillery.  There are a range of examples. from Willett's (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), to Smooth Ambler, Old Pogue, Widow Jane, and many others.  The fact that they are developing their own whiskey production and are members of the Kentucky Distillers Association should give them a degree of legitimacy and respect.

One of new Michter's test stills in their new Shively distillery.
image from:  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-29/
forget-scotch-rye-whiskey-comeback-packs-100-proof-punch.html 

The US-1 line up.
By the way, when we tasted that homage to old Michter's Sour Mash Whiskey, the US1 American Whiskey - I found that the new batch was considerably better than the one I had tried before.  It is butterscotchy, grassy, with nice jujubee juicy fruit flavors.  The other entry level expressions were good too. US1 bourbon was light, floral (marigold) with nice balance.  The US1 Rye (6 years old) had floral herbal spice but also a characteristic toffee note you'll find in all the Michter's ryes.  Michter's US-1 Sour Mash (little over 6 years old) is very nice with floral sweetness, but also some sophisticated notes of clay, dust, butterscotch & spice.

Michter's 10 (barrel 2340) 47.2%a abv

Color: dark amber with coppery glints.

Nose: Candy corn, blackstrap molasses, herbal rye, bourbon vanilla pods and char. Nosing deeper you get coconut, and beautiful sandalwood incense perfume. Musky, musty, earthy and spicy.

Palate: syrupy mouth feel, dark molasses sweetness, deep char, beautiful vanilla and coconut from white oak, and a lilting refrain of herbal rye spice dancing above the dark heavy brown cooked sugars and bitter char foundation.  That dark vanilla extract leads - with plenty of vegetal treacle and brightly acidic citrus preserves.  Notes of aspirin and ivy herbals speak to old rye.  The expansion is big and bold with dark toffee, caramel, and rich sandalwood oak.  The oak tannins wax on the turn - getting spicy and drying.  The finish is long, and complex with big old wet oak dominating, but also molasses, dark chocolate, black coffee, and aromatherapy oils hanging around.  It's a big, rich, darkly brown old style whiskey.  In some ways it's bigger, more darkly wooded, and more displays more dark cooked sugar Maillard reaction flavors than the 20.  But the 20 has greater complexity, bigger rounder sweetness, and more going on to tease apart.   It's oily heavy dark flavored whisky that feels like old fashioned whisky. It is very reminiscent of the style of the big Old Fitz's of the 50s (not the candy notes of a wheater, but the same dark malty feeling and balance).


Michter's Celebration 112.3 proof 

A vatting of 30 yr bourbon and 30 year old rye plus younger favorite casks
Color: medium amber
Nose: Honey, pecan, old musty oak.
Palate: Honey, citrus floral, rye spice.
Intensely floral, herbal, sunny and balanced.  There are sunflowers, lemon and candied orange peel.  Canola oil, almond oil, and orange rind.  Old rye's dark green aspirin and complex old herbal bitters flavor hang as a backdrop behind the sweet and sunny.  Added air brings out the sweetness and a bit of mineral dust.  This is big, complex, flavor dense stuff - but with a balance that is much brighter, sunnier, and less brown than the Single Barrel 20 or the 10.  The story is the vatting in of plenty of rye - both hyper mature and vibrantly young.  It's unusual, very good, and yet very much of a piece with the rest of the Michter's line.  It is, however, sold at a very silly price.


Michter's Single Barrel Bourbon 20 57.1% abv

Color Dark amber,
Nose: oak forward, qumquats, ambergris, caramel, marigolds and daisies, cooking oil
Palate:  Beautiful rich toffee and rancio roundness like old cognac, enlivened with tart acid citrus, which melds into rich sandalwood perfume and darker, mossier, old wet oak aspect.  Dark chocolate blooms at the turn which waxes into tannin spice.  This is a big bold dark brown flavor.  With extensive air, a beautiful sweet herbal flavor asserts itself - perfumed, darkly green, and complex.  This is a monster that opens with a drop of water too - becoming sweeter and more floral.  It's beautiful both neat and with a drop.

It's quite clear there there is a definite set of flavor preferences here.  There is a clear sense of aesthetic regarding  flavors across the line.  The preference is for full flavors - rich and dark and old fashioned.  There is also some excellent palates at work in barrel selection, batching, and filtering.  Why is it so good?  Joe Magliocco, not surprisingly, has some things to say on the topic.  Stuff they have contract distilled is barreled at 103 proof.  125 proof is standard.  They have barrels made using yard dried wood exposed to the elements for 18-36 months.  With their barrels they have them toasted them before being charred.  Their barrels come from Mcinnis in Cuba Missouri, Independent Stave in Lebanon Missouri and a 3rd source he cannot name.  They do a lot with filtering - which sounds like a dirty word to whisky enthusiast me - but Magliocco assures me that filtering a creative paintbrush that Willie Pratt can use to change the balance of flavors - executing creative control.  The unavoidable impression of all that is that there is some knowledge, palate, and crafting going on.  Good whiskey is seldom an accident.

Yet I find reactions like the one I got from EMT paramedic and bourbon afficionado, Ari Susskind, earlier this week at a whisky event who said that he doesn't buy Michter's because he doesn't like that they muddy up the identity of Michters.  Mr. Susskind is a leader of a whisky group, as well as someone who makes private cask selections for liquor stores in his area, not just a casual drinker - so this presents a troubling aspect.  It's not the whiskey - it's the branding story and it isn't just "Lloyd Christmas" howling in the wilderness over at BourbonTruth.  But many of the other examples I previously gave (Willet's Old Pogue, etc..) are apparently in the same boat:  old distillery brands resurrected with newly built distilleries, selling someone else's juice until their own is in full production and ready for market after barrel maturation.  You don't hear this complaint much about them?  So what's the deal?  Is it that Chatham Imports is a middle tier distributor  Shouldn't be.  There is a grand tradition of whiskey merchants becoming distillers.  Pappy Van Winkle himself was a wholesaler and distributor before he partnered with Stitzel and built a new distillery to resurrect a beloved old brand.  So what is it?

Part of it is that it's Michter's.  Chatham took the brand name because Joe Magliocco loved it legitimately and it was abandoned.  He might have bought it but the owners had literally fled the liability of the busted down site of the physical distillery.  Picking up that abandoned brand name looks like good business and Joe is certainly a good businessman.  But the story is deeply connected to a sense of Bourbon's history and new Michter's connecting piece to that history is lacking.  With Willett's, Drew Kulsveen is a 2nd generation member of the Willett family and the distillery is the same one.  With Pogue - it's the same blood of the old family name.  With Smooth Ambler it's a new brand with no baggage.  But with Michter's the ghosts are thick and Michter's marketing talk that attempts to blur the very real line between old Michter's claims to history (already a bit fanciful - even when they were in PA) and the new project.  Michter's is special because it's about the tragic death of Pennsylvania's distilling tradition - deeply connected with rye whiskey in America.  It's about A. H. Hirsch and the story of that one amazing batch that has come to symbolize the dark tomb of the Bourbon glut era in the way that King Tut's glorious golden death mask has come to symbolize the vanished glories of ancient Egypt.

Should you care?  I'm here to tell you straight up that Michter's Single Barrel 10 is one of the best Bourbons on the market you can actually find on a store shelf.  I actually picked it blind ahead of Pappy (thanks again, Steve Zeller).  You have to decide for yourself whether what's in the glass is more important to you than a marketing story that blurs the truth that old and new Michters are separate things.

Michter's 25 yo rye. Toffee, dark spice, kiss of baby aspirin. Caramel, ivy, rich

Update:  Great post from "Lloyd Christmas" @Bourbontruth about Michter's:  loaded with scholarship and detail about specific editions.  It's also loaded with a point by point rebuttal of this post.  But he tempers his tone, and loads the post with some much empirical and useful data that I'm left only feeling grateful.   I readily concede that Bourbon Truth's post has a lot more specific information that this post provides.  It's also among the best writing that he has done to date:

http://thebourbontruth.tumblr.com/post/79568476215/deceit-vs-deception-the-heroes-and-hobos-of-whiskey

33 comments:

  1. Nice article. I admit to a slight bias against NDPs, particularly because of their advertising and uneven products. OTOH, I love the Smooth Ambler offerings so the bias isn't too bad, I guess. Based on your comments, Michter's 10 will be my next bottle purchase, and a restaurant we go to locally has some other offerings on its top shelf so I can try tastes. Thanks for helping to separate "wheat from chaff". H in WDC.

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    1. Thanks. There are quite a few NDPs who have "truth issues" these days. We have Whisltepig who claims to be an American distillery and they don't have a distillery at all all and their whiskey is Canadian. We have Jefferson's who recently admitted that the Presidential Select 18's last batch wasn't just Stitzel-Weller - but also had a bunch of 20 year old rye mixed in. We have Pepper, that isn't Pepper and Widow Jane that originally claimed to be distilling in New York (and they were - but only white spirits and neglected to mention that their Bourbon was sourced from Kentucky (they have started distilling their own and are now even selling some FYI)). In this environment there's a lot of anger - and I'm getting some on social media these days.

      Just to be clear and categorical - Smooth Ambler is an example of someone doing it the right way. They are actively distilling - and are releasing early peeks of their new stuff with the "Yearling" brand. They use a separate brand for their sourced stuff: Old Scout. And the stuff is very good at a very good price. Plus they have a clean and unencumbered history and a unique angle in being from West Virginia.

      There is some word that Michter's 10 is transitioning from their sourced stocks (which are awesome) to their own contract runs aged to their specs. Whether this remains as good is yet to be seen. However, all I've tasted so far is just wonderful and worth, in my opinion, the pretty substantial $90. Definitely try tastes - and note down the barrel number when you do. You won't find the same barrel numbers - but the series have a kinship of flavor.

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    2. You mention Whistlepig -- wasn't their intention to be distilling their own product by now? Even if it's not at market yet, are they still working in that direction? Or was that smoke and mirrors, and they have no production (just bottling) on their farm?

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    3. Whistlepig has been attempting to get the permits to construct a distillery on the farm. Check out the comments below this post: http://www.cooperedtot.com/2014/03/whistlepig-boss-hog-rye-whiskey-monster.html

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  2. Michter's rep is due through my town & tasting circle this month. Glad to have this balanced account to dissuade me from parroting Bourbon Truth's vitriol. Interesting to me that nobody talking about "old"
    Michter's mentions that the mothballed "barrel a day" still from PA has a thriving legacy revival.

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    1. Many of Bourbon Truth's comments are correct - or at least partly correct. He also seems to have more inside information that I do - so please be skeptical. I enjoy Michter's stuff - particularly the Single Barrel stuff so don't let the issues prevent you from tasting and possibly enjoying those whiskies. You are right to bring up the "barrel a day" still from the Old Jug Room. According to Cowdery, Tom and Lianne Herbruck have set it up with the intend to resume production. That was 2011. I don't know if they have been operating it. If so, we should be seeing some juice from it in a year or two or three...: http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2011/06/michters-barrel-day-distillery-in-new.html

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  3. I remember those old King Tut decanters. My father still has one. I have a half dozen different Michter's mini jugs that are pretty neat. I'm binge watching Game of Thrones with my wife right now and it makes me think of the different whiskey "houses" and their dynasties. New and old bourbon kingdoms fight for the loyalty of us minions through tales of romance and the truth of what's in the glass. When both align you have something very special. I would rather have a good dram with a sketchy backstory than rotgut with an amazing heritage.

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    1. Scott, have you tasted any of that old Michter's Sour Mash from any of those decanters? I'm intensely curious about it. As for back stories - that's a fetish in the Bourbon world. Whiskey brands get traded like Major League players. But Micther's does live at the confluence of a venerable name with a big back story and a small expansion modern company with no actual connection. That riles up a bunch of folks. Me? I'm with you. Just looking for good whiskey on the shelf... It doesn't bother me nearly as much as it does some folks out there.

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  4. I come from a very different viewpoint on Michter's than most. I toured and visited the active Schaefferstown, Pa. distillery a number of times in the decade before it closed. I toured it just a few years ago, when it was still fully intact, with the then-owner and Dick Stoll, the last master distiller there. My collection includes a bunch of full decanters (no bottles) of the genuine article. I have an affection for the place and the brand that most cannot comprehend.

    I too was worried about the brand's legacy when Chatham started the publicity machine up, but I couldn't agree with you more on many levels about what is taking place with the Michter's name these days. I've become acquainted with Mr. Magliocco through our bumping into each other at WhiskyFest New York a couple of years ago. Joe said that if I was ever in Louisville to give him a call. I did so when we visited there last summer.

    Joe was extremely gracious and open, and provided my party with the first public access to the Shively property. Our time with him was much like your own. He took us through the spacious facility, which was undergoing various stages of construction. He made the same case for their products that he did you, and we tasted through their range and were as impressed with the overall quality of their products as any I've ever experienced.

    The plans they have for Shively are genuine, in my opinion, and they have restarted a legacy that might have been lost except for the passion that Joe and his team have infused back into the name and product line. And make no mistake, there is passion at work here. They have taken a no-compromise stance to their production of world-class whiskeys and are a worthy possessor of the name and legacy of the brand.

    I appreciate your reasoned approach to the vitriol that has unfairly enveloped the Michter's name of late. It deserves better, and will receive it under Mr. Magliocco's guidance.

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    1. Sam K - honored you posted a comment here and I greatly appreciate its content. I, too, found Joe gracious. Some of the marketing wasn't truthful on the web and in some of the industry journals, but I found Joe perfectly intelligent, engaged, and not afraid of controversy. It's also clear he is making a major investment in whiskey distilling. Time will tell if the distillate they make can hold up to the stuff they have contracted for and bought in bulk. I'm rooting for their project simply because I enjoy the whiskey and hope for more.

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  5. The Whiskey Reviewer took up that question of whether Willie Pratt merits the title "Master Distiller." They made a very persuasive case about it:

    http://whiskeyreviewer.com/2013/12/whiskey-sourcing-and-scandalmongering-all-smoke-no-fire_120613/

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    1. That's fascinating and refreshing. However, I've found trying to find out what Pratt did at B-F for 40 years very hard to determine. On Pratt's own web site he lists his resume as follows:

      Michter's American Whiskey Co.: Master Distiller
      -Brown-Forman, Inc.: Former Co-Chair of Special Committee,
      Studying Cooperage, Distillation & Aging Conditions

      Back in 2010 on Straight Bourbon, Cowdery said the following:
      "Don't construe Mr. Pratt's previous employment with Brown-Forman as meaning that BF likely made the current Michter's juice. If they did it's more because of the connection between BF and Heaven Hill on the one side and Heaven Hill and KBD on the other. Mr. Pratt is simply enjoying a little post-retirement employment. Presumably he is engaged in barrel selection, which is part of a master distiller's job. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending the practice of a non-distiller producer claiming to employ a master distiller. You can't characterize that as anything other than an attempt to mislead the public. But let's call it that and not go over the top."

      Now, of course, there are two test stills at Michter's building in Shively and a big column still in construction for delivery this year. This issue might go away soon. I hope it does.

      But meanwhile, I remain a bit confused on this topic. I don't like that his official job title is "Master Distiller". That's an earned honorific. Just "Distiller" would have been more dignified and would have avoided some of this hand wringing - but it's a quibble.

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    2. That's not a bad point, but it's not a good one. The reason is that how many "master distillers" actually distill any juice these days?

      I think the point that the only people with the standing to quibble about whether a person has earned a specific title are people actually doing the job in question is 100% valid. Since that doesn't include Cowdery, he really ought to STFU about it.

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  6. Thanks, Joshua. I'm glad to provide perspective. As for the Michter's decanters, I was told by Dick Stoll that since they didn't expect many of those decanters to be opened (and many weren't, as evidenced by the secondary market), they did not always contain Michter's best juice. I've had some that were like honeydew vine water, and others that were immediately poured down the sink, not even fit for ginger ale.

    I know that the vagaries of corks can provide some of this variance, but I'm sticking with Dick's opinion...the decanters are a crapshoot, and I've owned about 50 of them.

    It's my (perhaps self-inflated) opinion that Michter's is the second most-legendary silent distillery in American history, with Stitzel-Weller being the first. The difference now is that Michter's has been stripped, while S-W could yet be resurrected.

    The demonstration stills from Schaefferstown are up and running in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The initial run was done under the supervision of Dick Stoll. Tom Herbruck has said it was like Dick had never been parted from them and despite the somewhat different setup, ran them just like the old days. Can't wait for the aged result!

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    1. Sam, thanks so much for your news about the "barrel a day" still being in operation. That is exciting news indeed. Thanks, too, for the intelligence about the iffy Michter's decanters. That's true of pretty much all decanters of whisky. Cork and ceramic seems to make an iffy seal. Although I've had some good decanter sipping - particularly those goofy old 1970s Old Fitz decanters and the strange and beautiful Bowmore Sea Dragon decanter that looks just like a black bottle with excellent orange dragon art. Both of those examples contained extremely impressive whisky, however. Let me say here and now, that I'm a huge fan. I recently read your book and am grateful for it. I'm working on some scholarship projects in connection with rye. I'd like to get in touch. Would you mind?

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    2. Not at all. Send me an inmail on linkedin and we'll get to talking!

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    3. Ah, now I understand. I'm not the Sam K you think. I wish I'd written that book!

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    4. Sam K. Cecil, right? This guy: http://www.amazon.com/Bourbon-The-Evolution-Kentucky-Whiskey/dp/1596527692
      I'm such a fan.
      If you're not that Sam K, then I apologize. I still need help writing a book on a history theme. I'll take whatever advice you can lend!

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    5. Sam Komlenic, copy editor at Whisky Advocate and Pennsylvania distillery historian. nothing more, nothing less.

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    6. I am from PA and old enough to remember when Michters was produced. I was under the impression that upon finding Michters in my local liquor store, that the brand was restored. I bought a bottle just to welcome it back. Now that I find that the only thing restored was the name, I am very dissapointed.

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  7. "You have to decide for yourself whether what's in the glass is more important to you than a marketing story that blurs the truth..."

    Really? The value of Truth is a subjective either or? Truth is one of the only real freedoms we lowly humans enjoy, Josh. Truth is paradise. Truth is precious, fragile and worth so much more than a few sips of whiskey.

    RN

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    1. There are two distinct issues here, RN: 1) the whiskey, and 2) the story. There are issues with the story. There aren't too many issues with the whiskey. If you are buying the bottle to simply have some nice Bourbon or rye, you might not care at all about larger issues around honesty and the details of the back story as they pertain to history. It sounds like the principle of honesty is extremely important. That's fine. Indeed, that's beautiful. However the question of what's in the glass - i.e. what you get in a blind tasting when you have no other information - zero - is vital. In Steve Zeller's blind tasting I picked three different generations of Michter's Single Barrel Bourbon 10 year old over a recent Pappy 12 Lot "B". That was my experience tasting blind - with no clues to "truth". I wasn't given any orientation (i.e. were we drinking Bourbon, or Scotch or anything). I can't ignore that kind of evidence.

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    2. "I can't ignore that kind of evidence..."

      Mr. Feldman, you seem like a very kind, curious, pro-social person and I enjoy your writing. And yes, experience is subjective and we are all indeed free to value the concepts of honesty and integrity however we choose. But the links in causality that objectively exist between integrety and quality of life, those aren't mutable.

      Best of luck to you.

      RN

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  8. RN: "...the links in causality that objectively exist between integrety and quality of life, those aren't mutable." Maybe so - how you reckon the term "integrity" is. What, precisely, are Michter's sin? Calling Willie Pratt a "Master Distiller"? Confusing old Michter's and new in marketing literature? Implying that they are an active distillery when they are not? Have you read Chuck Cowdery's recent post on Michter's? Chuck says he was provided a wealth of honest information about where the project is now. Did you read Sam K. Cecils comment above? Michter's have been moving towards fuller disclosure. They are moving towards being an active distiller. Look - I'd prefer it if American bottlers had to disclose the source of every drop they sell. But that's not the case. There is plenty myth telling going on in a host of situations. Michter's is moving beyond hanky panky and is make a clear effort to orient people better to what is actually going on. Does this excuse past mistakes? I don't know. I'm asking you.

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    1. I have no problem excusing honest mistakes, or moving beyond misunderstandings, or forgiving faulty reasoning... we humans are mistake makers. Even careless mistakes can and should be addressed and remedied, but that process requires an open acknowledgment of the mistake(s) and an earnest willingness to set things right.
      Deceit, however, is much more injurious to trust than a mistake and therefore a more treacherous action than a mistake. But you're a smart guy, you know this.
      Maybe we could agree that restoring trust where trust has been neglected is (for both the offender and the offended) an altogether more profound process than excusing mistakes? And also that this process (for you, I, and others) is rarely harmonious? I'm asking you:)

      RN

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    2. RN - indeed, I agree that restoring trust when there has been an intention to deceive is a different situation from when there has been an honest mistake. There is ton of myth telling in the Bourbon world and it has been so for a long long time. Brands have been shuffled around like playing cards since the 19th century and rarely has this ever been acknowledged. Reading Veach and Cecil and Cowdery shows plenty of situations where brands have changed hands and changed distilleries without acknowledgement or statement. This includes pretty much every whiskey brand sold, except new brands created in the last 20 years with the possible exceptions of Old Forester (which switched distilleries in the 80s, but not owners), and Wild Turkey (which switched owners and age statements, but not distilleries). I enjoy Eagle Rare 10 - particularly the Old Prentice (Four Roses) distillery version from the 70s. Less so the Sazerac (New Orleans) version or the Frankfort (Ancient Age - then Buffalo Trace) versions. Was any of this accident or deceit - or just business? I'm not trying to disguise myth - making in advertising. I'm just pointing out that shuffling brand names to different distilleries isn't anything new in American whiskey history. When United Distillers (later Diageo) started up the modern incarnation of Dickel in the 1960s - using the town and name of the Cascade Hollow product from pre-Pro and early Repeal days were they practicing deceit? They certainly used a ton of old style looking typography and harkened back to the history for what was essentially a brand new product made in a brand new distillery?

      Virtually every single brand brought back in Repeal was a new instance in a new distillery. The old distilleries, mash bills, recipes, and yeast strains were all gone. So, in virtually every case, any reference to 19th century history or roots by any brand of American whiskey is a lie. Every single one. Who has engaged in such advertising? Pretty much EVERY single one. I have Pinterest boards that detail this stuff. That's just the way it is.

      Once again. I'm not excusing Michter's. I'm just trying to put it in a larger perspective. American whiskey's history is chock full of myths and marketing lies. I'd love some legislation that required labels to reveal details such as distilleries of origin, mash bill, etc.. in the Scottish fashion. Scotch single malts tell the origin of their whiskies unless teaspooned or blended. That should be the rule here too. Until it is we will be guessing in every situation except where explicitly revealed. If truth and transparency are requirements for your pleasure in drinking, so be it. But be consistent and even handed in your application of this set of values and realize how much of the American whiskey world (and history) you are cutting yourself off from.

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  9. I'd rather drink fantastic juice with a faulty label than swill, with a label telling me it is indeed rat piss. It's about the liquid, not the label.

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  10. Michter's is a load of marketing b.s. and my money goes elsewhere. No way will I enrich a sleazy operation such as these phonies operate. Ever.

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    1. Good, but do me a favor and email me when you see a bottle of 10 year old Bourbon on a shelf, because I want another. I am glad you are not buying it. Let me ask you this... do you buy the VanWinkle juice that is not distilled by anyone named Vanwinkle, but rather by a guy named Buffalo Trace (odd name, I know... but I do not see much difference)

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  11. These last two comments really show the the polar opposite positions on this issue. Honesty counts and good bourbon (and rye) counts too. New Michters seems to be getting the need for better transparency. But in the future they will be distilling and aging (and ultimately selling) their own product, rather than just finding and selecting good stuff. It's a whole different ball game. Hopefully their home made stuff will be in the same league with their sourced and contracted stuff. Time will tell.

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  12. I'm in the wine business and have seen how this outfit operates for going on three decades now. I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw Chuck Cowdery or a full barrel of Bourbon.

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  13. so it seems to me that there are two things a distillery like heaven hill can do with their best barrels of bourbon instead of selling them to Chatham/Michters. they can either mix it in with other barrels and make EvanWilliams/Daniel Stewart, they can sell single barrel bottlings and risk pissing off their regular buyers who are not expecting something so fantastic, and then will be let down when the next single barrel bottling comes out that is not as good as what WOULD HAVE BEEN Michter's 20. Or they can keep selling to Chatham and let Michter's bottles be rare and hard to find and full of really good stuff.
    I have a feeling that their marketing people already weighed all of these options, plus about 50 more that I cannot even begin to think of.
    I wonder how many of the complainers about non-distiller bottlers realize that some products like perhaps Wonder Bread and Lay's potato chips are not really made by Wonder andLay's, rather they are made by local bread bakers who put their bread in Wonder and Lay's Bags

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  14. ...To the anonymous person who just submitted a comment which outs @BourbonTruth's identity: Despite our differences (and sometimes public flame wars on Twitter), @BourbonTruth and I are friends. He chooses to remain anonymous and I will respect that decision. Thus I will not be publishing your comment. I appreciate the measure of support, though. Thanks for that.

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