On the Trail at Michter's Distillery
There’s an old saying: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” I’m beginning to understand its wisdom. In the case of my grasp on the Bourbon industry as a paid whiskey professional, I have to admit my knowledge of the scene hasn’t progressed much since 2014 when everything began to change. Up until that time, getting our hands on most of the interesting American whiskies required us—like most things in life—to go out and ask for them. We had to cold call, take leads, ask questions, and make our interests known to the larger distillers. Selling what we eventually found was no cake walk either. We had to explain the whiskies, detail their specificities, and tell the story of what made them unique. That was then, however. That was before the real boom hit, the aftershocks of which we feel strongly out in California. What’s so different? Let’s start with access. First off, the supplies are so limited that everything desirable is allocated at this point. We can’t even buy a single case of regular old Buffalo Trace unless someone at Sazerac signs off on it. When we do get access to purchase interesting or limited whiskies, the offer comes to us rather than the other way around. There’s no point in even asking at this point (much like if you’re a retail customer looking for Pappy). The answer is always no unless you’ve been told otherwise by a supplier. Then, when the tiny allocations do eventually roll in, they get snatched off the K&L website in seconds, before we’ve even had a chance to taste a sample or write any notes. You can imagine how complacent that process can make someone like myself who’s in charge of a large spirits department with plenty of other things to do. What’s the point of doing any detailed work or information gathering for new Bourbon when whatever I acquire is going to sell in an instant whether I do the research or not? It’s automatic now. It’s a guaranteed process. Get the Bourbon allocation. Place the order. Watch it sell.
The truth is: I’ve taken my eye off the ball because of how automated the retail Bourbon market has become. I’ve gotten sloppy in my surveillance. I’m living off of data engrained in my brain from many years ago and I definitely haven’t updated to the latest version of Bourbon 2.0, mainly because it didn’t seem to matter whether I did so. That’s when I made a mistake and got called on it. I wrote in a blog post recently that Michter’s was one of many non-distiller producers (NDPs) that buys its whiskies from MGP in Indiana and bottles it under a house label. It didn’t take long for that article to find its way to Michter’s president Joe Magliocco, the man who first had the idea back in the mid-nineties to relaunch the brand in Louisville. An email was sent—one that quickly found its way to my inbox. Joe not only pointed out to me that every drop of Michter’s Bourbon and rye whiskey was made in the state of Kentucky, he also made sure to add another important detail: Michter’s was much more than simply purchased juice; it was a custom recipe that his team was allowed to distill using the facility of a friendly partner in the industry (one that must remain nameless due to a confidentiality agreement). Not only did I not know that (or if I did I had long forgotten it), I had also completely missed the boat on the new Michter’s distillery that opened in Shively last year near the old Seagram’s plant. While it isn’t open to the public, Joe asked if might want to come be his private guest for a personal tour. That way I could right the potential wrongs in my mind while clearing up any other misunderstood details. Isn’t that what I do for a living? Visit places, meet the people, and get the facts? That’s what I thought I did. I thought I’d better start doing that again in Kentucky before further atrophy set in. I wrote to Joe that it would be my absolute pleasure to accept his invitation.
The first thing you have to clear up about Michter’s to modern consumers its heritage. As luck would have it, some old pals of mine—two gentlemen who have actually visited the original Michter’s distillery—were scheduled for a tour along with me: Lew Bryson and Sam Komlenic. For guys like Lew and Sam, Michter’s will always be the old Bourbon company operating out of that legendary Bomberger distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania (even more legendary than Stitzel-Weller for you newbies out there). The old facility was closed forever in the late eighties (as Sam reminisced: “they just put a note on the door that said ‘closed until further notice’”), and the stocks were eventually liquidated (that’s where the legendary A.H. Hirsch 16 year was sourced). It was some time later when Joe and his partners got the idea of re-establishing the old Michter’s label and set out to buy the trademark. After months of research, trying to figure out who owned the brand name or had it licensed, the legal team discovered the label had been essentially deserted and all that was required was a filing to take new ownership of the registration. From that point on, they could use the Michter’s name, but would need a plan to get some actual whiskey. Why Michter’s, you ask? I asked that question as well and it turns out one of Joe’s first jobs as a youngster was as a seasonal sales rep for the company back in the day, so there was a personal connection. He admitted he wasn’t very good at it, but the brand always carried a soft spot in his heart, which is also why he went out and bought the original copper pot stills from the site. While that particular position with Michter's didn’t work out, Joe eventually moved deeper into the drinks business and made some close connections within the Kentucky Bourbon industry. It was because of those relationships that Michter’s was originally able to purchase aged stocks of whiskey to launch its initial batches. Joe refers to that era in the new Michter’s legacy as “phase one.” Phase two, however (from which the current expressions originate), went much deeper into the specifics of production.
The first thing you learn about Joe when you meet him is that he’s incredibly polite and personable; I liked him instantly. He’s old school New York, always moving, always talking—continuously worried about how you’re doing and if you’re comfortable before moving somewhat neurotically back into his presentation. The second thing you learn is that he understands and respects quality, insofar as he appreciates it. The fact that Bourbon is usually distilled to over 120 proof, then matured and emptied from the barrel at a proof as high as 140 always bothered him. “You’ve gotta add a lot of water to get it back down to to ninety,” he said with a smile, “but why should we charge people for water?” The Michter’s team didn’t want to bottle that kind of whiskey. They wanted to create their own recipe, with their own yeast, and fill their own barrels at their own proof of choice: 103. While it was more expensive to make it that way (because you wind up with fewer proof gallons), Joe managed to convince his distillery connection to allow for production of that custom recipe. He was allotted certain days a month when he could produce the Michter’s formula, paying for the use of the facility and the grains as he went. As Joe likes to say, “it’s like cooking in someone else’s kitchen.” For years, Michter’s distilled its whiskies at this remote location until finally—after more than a decade of planning for the rebirth of the brand—Michter’s began distilling its own whiskey at the new Shively plant. When looking for a new master distiller, Joe decided that the term “master” should actually fit the bill. He went out and got Pamela Heilmann, one the head supervisors and distillers at Jim Beam’s Boston distillery who was first hired under Booker Noe. Now the first woman to man (pardon the pun) a major Kentucky distillery since Prohibition, she’s got the new Michter’s distillery up and running like a pro. Make no mistake about it: this is no neo-craft operation. This is Kentucky’s newest major distillery, making whiskey we’re all going to want to drink. It's my kind of place because it isn't trying to show you how quaint it is or prove how rustic it can be. Joe is showing you exactly what he's about here.
How major, you might ask? It’s big. It’s way bigger than Willett, if that gives you any inkling of an idea. The column still spans several stories much like at Beam or Bernheim and the team is cranking out real “small batch” whiskey at a tremendous pace. I say “real” small batch whiskey because Joe purposely designed his blending vats to hold only a dozen or so casks at a time to make this a must. “When you’re making batches this small, you can’t have any bad casks,” he explained; “You do 400 barrel batches and you can blend away a few bad ones, but not here.” Not only does the Michter’s facility force the team to be picky about quality, it also houses a room full of stainless steel barrels for the brand’s single cask expressions. “We don’t mature to age here, we mature to taste,” Joe added. That means when a single cask is deemed ready by the team of tasters, it’s transferred to one of the stainless steel casks until it’s ready to be bottled. That way it won’t continue to mature past the deemed point of perfection. We tasted some of the freshly-distilled white dog as we passed through the still room. It came across to me as standard high-quality Kentucky whiskey, at least from what I’ve tasted off the still at other distilleries. It’s tough to get a sense of where a Bourbon will go from the unaged distillate, but I can always spot the craft whiskey white dogs a mile away because they taste completely different. This is no craft whiskey experiment. These guys are not messing around.
How much whiskey is Michter’s producing? It depends on which Michter’s distillery you eventually visit. Joe’s idea is to install the old Michter’s pot stills over at the Whiskey Row site in downtown Louisville where they plan on doing a barrel a day, much like you see at the Evan Williams experience. But at the Shively plant they’re seriously cranking: already close to 20,000 casks have been filled since the middle of last year. They’re making both Bourbon and rye and they’ve purchased space in a number of offsite warehouses as well for additional storage. They’re also rotating their barrels for consistency, moving casks from the top to the bottom over time so that they mature as uniform as possible with the differences in temperature. Seeing that they’re in the single cask and true small batch business, Michter’s doesn’t want vast differences between barrels—they’re very much going for a house style and have been since phase two. “So when do we start tasting phase three?” I asked Joe at the end of our visit. “In about six years or so,” he replied. I’m not really in any hurry though. Michter’s test kitchen editions taste pretty good right now! That night, excited by our visit, Julio and I went out in Louisville and ordered a pour of the standard Michter’s Bourbon, the custom-distilled recipe. It was delicious, with a roundness and weight that I felt was lacking from the more popular whiskey I was drinking next to it. Of course, in my experience I’ve always found that the nicer the people are, the better the whiskey tastes. My personal relationship with Jim Rutledge always made Four Roses a bit sweeter, while my negative experiences with others could add just a touch of bitterness. That might be why I thoroughly enjoyed my glass of Michter’s Bourbon last night, more so than I ever remember having done previously. Someone at the bar heard Julio and I talking about our experience at the distillery and said, “You met Joe? He’s such a great guy.”
That summed up exactly how I felt, but it was nice to hear it from a stranger as well (sometimes you feel like you're getting the dog and pony show in this business). It’s a pity I didn’t meet Joe earlier—I definitely would have sold a lot more Michter’s! But I’ll look forward to being a better advocate from this point forward. My approach and attitude will be entirely different now that I’ve updated my brain to today’s current market conditions. For the record, Michter’s is far from your standard NDP. In fact, it’s now the most exciting new distillery I’ve visited in Kentucky since this whole Bourbon revival thing got started.