Recently I reacquainted myself with Michter’s, one of the hottest American whiskey brands today. All of their whiskies are premium priced and they are all also mighty tasty.
Michter’s began life as the chosen brand whiskey to be distributed by a New York-based company called Chatham Imports Inc., which is owned and run by entrepreneur Joseph J. Magliocco. The original Michter’s whiskey was based in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, and had a pedigree that traced itself back to 1753. The brand name Michter’s was created in 1950 by businessman Lou Forman; he merged the names of his sons, Michael and Peter, to create a brand that sounded vaguely Pennsylvania Dutch, which he thought suitable for his Pennsylvania whiskey.
During the 1990s, Magliocco decided to break into whiskey production. He and his consultant and mentor, Richard “Dick” Newman, a legendary whiskey industry veteran, learned that the Michter’s brand had been all but abandoned. They took ownership of it in 1997.
Michter’s was re-launched as a Kentucky, rather than a Pennsylvania, whiskey around 1999 (the company was still New York-based at the time). There was then no distillery as such, and the brand’s products were sourced on the open market, and then made under contract. Magliocco had always intended, however, to make Michter’s a real distillery and a legitimate producer rather than a “Potemkin Distillery”—to use whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery’s apt phrase. The journey proved both long and expensive.
In 2007, Michter’s brought on 40-year industry veteran Willie Pratt as its master distiller, though his role was overseeing distillation of the company’s custom recipes at other Kentucky distilleries since they did not yet have an operational distillery of their own. In 2011, Michter’s purchased a 66,000 square foot facility in the Shively section of Louisville, Kentucky, and began converting it into a distillery. In 2012, Michter’s announced that it had purchased and would renovate the historic Fort Nelson Building in downtown Louisville and establish a micro-distillery there. This turned into a bit of a money-pit as the renovations revealed that the building was decrepit and structurally unsound—Magliocco persevered at terrific additional expense (and delay). In 2014, Michter’s Shively distillery, which had expanded to 78,000 square feet, finally opened and went online. In late 2015, all Michter’s whiskey production was finally brought in-house at its Shively distillery; in 2016 Pratt retired and Patricia Heilmann took his place as master distiller. Last month Heilmann became “Michter's Master Distiller Emerita,” and Dan McKee became the new master distiller.
In January 2018 Michter’s purchased 145 acres of farmland in Springfield (KY); the plan is to house its barrel warehouses there for maturing whiskey and to grow their own non-GMO corn, rye, and barley grains for future whiskey production.
This past February, Michter’s finally opened its Fort Nelson micro-distillery and visitor’s center. I haven’t made it back to Louisville yet, but this Fort Nelson home of Michter’s has been widely acclaimed. Even though Michter’s reputation has been built on shrewdly sourced hooch, its position as one of the industry’s star producers has been firmly established. Thanks to Magliocco and his team, the name Michter’s has a solid reputation for, as the website puts it, “producing the best whiskey possible, cost be damned!”
While Michter’s is premium-priced hooch, here is a solid and more relatively affordable offering to get started with: Michter’s US #1 Single Barrel Straight Rye (42.4 percent abv; $45-50): this is young and enjoyably feisty, with notes of rye spice, black pepper, vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, and sweet caramel flan. The finish is lively and enjoyable, with an interplay of orange marmalade, caramel and zesty rye. The initial bite lingers, but is not a nuisance, an attractive burn develops and hangs around awhile too, while ice moots both, and renders the whole milder and, well, dangerously quaffable. Delicious! L’chaim!