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Michter's Distillery

Michter’s is one of the oldest trademarks in American whiskey, with the first distillery founded in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania in 1753 by John Shenk who made rye. Originally known as Shenk's and later as Bomberger's, after Pennsylvania Dutchman Abraham Bomberger bought the distillery in the mid-1800s. After changing hands many times over the course of Prohibition, eventually Lou Forman created the Michter's brand name by combining his sons' names, Michael and Peter. Though sadly, the distillery closed in 1989 due to bankruptcy.

However, Michter’s prevails! Joseph Magliocco and Richard Newman joined forces, both men with a passion for whiskey. After filing for the abandoned Michter’s trademark, they planned to resurrect Michter's in the heart of the modern American whiskey industry, Kentucky. The Magliocco family-owned Chatham Imports bought the trademark for $245 in the 1990s. Joseph J. Magliocco, the youngest of three brothers, enacted a three-step process to make American whiskey at a time when the industry was in a slump, beginning by moving operations to Kentucky from Pennsylvania on advice from his mentor Dick Newman of Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, and Wild Turkey fame. Without the initial financial resources for a distillery, the second phase entailed acquiring barrels from Kentucky-based whiskey makers. There was already a style in mind for Michter’s, so it had specifications in place that required the sourced stock to match.

Some criticism followed for presenting as a distillery even when it was buying whiskey in, since 2015, the vast majority of Michter’s you’ll see is distillery made, with the odd limited-edition expression or blending component the exception. The current historic Fort Nelson site was first built in 1890 and purchased by Michter’s in 2012, after years of restoration the site opened to the public in February 2019. As well as the Fort Nelson site, the company owns Michter’s Shively Distillery in Louisville, as well as its 145-acre farm in Springfield, Kentucky.

All whiskey begins with grain and Michter’s only uses non-GMO grain that has been given the highest grade from the Department of Agriculture. Family farmers provide corn from Kentucky and Indiana, rye from Minnesota, and barley from the Dakotas and Montana. Cage mills are employed to mill grains, a more passive system with two opposing wheels turning against each other at high speed, so when the grain falls into the hopper, it causes the grain to toss around and shear against itself. It’s an expensive method, but the benefits are less maintenance, no friction burn from metal which affects grain quality, and lots of control over speed. Consistency and quality are the goal, cost be damned. That’s a company motto. Those words are literally on the website.

Grain is brought into the cooker where no exogenous or chemical enzymes are used with a portion of the previous batch utilised via the sour mash process. Ten fermenters work 24/7 to meet demand before distillation takes place in Vendome Copper and Brass Works stills. This includes a column still with nineteen trays and a custom copper grid system at the top to influence the spirit with copper as much as possible. There’s also 250-gallon pot still doubler system with a good amount of reflux, while Fort Nelson Distillery has a pot still system from 1976, a 550-gallon beer still, and a 110-gallon spirits still originally from Michter’s Pennsylvania Distillery that adds a different dimension to the distilling program. The aim is to create a fruity, floral, grainy white dog that already demonstrates a lot of pronounced flavours due to how clean it is.

Maturation takes place in warehouses that are just four floors high with fourteen-inch concrete walls and an insulation layer that allows tracking and modification of temperature and humidity, so Michter’s can age its bourbon longer than most. The whiskey is bottled to taste and there are 25 people who sample it for quality control, leading to the ten-year products often having spirits that are well over age, while the core expressions get a long five to seven years in bourbon terms.

After distillation, there’s a core process made up of six philosophies. First, everything that Michter’s bottles are single barrel or small batch. There’s no legal definition for the latter and it’s all relative. At Michter’s, a tank creates 20 full barrels. That’s really small batch, with nowhere to hide or any margin of error. At this scale, precision is everything.

The second philosophy concerns the natural seasoning and air drying of all wood for at least 18 months, even up to five years. When you cut down an American white oak tree, over 60% of its weight is water. You need to extract that water so the wood can better interact with the whiskey. A kiln will dry it, but not the same as air drying and seasoning. By cutting the wood into stave lengths and sitting them in a stack precisely organised for air movement in an ageing yard, the wood is drying in the elements. It’s constantly chemically and biologically changing, growing fungi that release enzymes that metabolise different wood compounds and give way to beautiful aromatics. Bitter, astringent, tannic characteristics are being removed too.

Toasting before charring is philosophy number three. The law only dictates you char new American oak for bourbon. But toasting, an art imported from the wine industry, is a big flavour creator too. By making a little white oak fire to put the barrel over, you create radiant heat, one that’s heating the interior of the barrel. Different temperatures for different amounts of time will allow you to break down different compounds in the wood that you can then extract into your whiskey. Really high temperatures could get you mocha and chocolate and oaky and smoky compounds. Whereas lower temperatures mean more fruit and spice. It can take hours and you can only do half a barrel at one time. Charring, at its longest period, won’t take more than a minute and a half. Toasting is a long, committed, and not very cost-effective process. It’s also risky because there’s no good spending all that time if you remove all detectable effects when you char the barrel.

Number four is the use of a lower barrel entry: 51.5% ABV. You’re allowed up to 62.5% ABV in bourbon, but doing it the Michter’s way means that there’s a split of about 75% whiskey to 25% water in a barrel, which you might think dilutes it, but actually, this method utilises water’s properties as a powerful hydrolyser. It becomes part of the barrel chemistry while ageing, enabling concentrated sugars in the toasted and charred wood to dissolve more into the distillate. This kind of ABV entry was historically regarded as the gold standard in Kentucky.

Philosophy number five is heat cycling. Kentucky has hot humid summers and cold dry winters. Seasonal changes give you about six cycles a year, defined as the moment when the whiskey is moving into the capillaries of the wood or it’s moving back to the centre of the cask. During winter, the cask is more dormant so to increase interaction, Michter’s will heat the warehouses and then allow them to naturally cool down. As they are warmed, the vapour pressure in the barrel gets tight because it’s a volatile substance, pushing the whiskey into the capillaries of the wood where the caramelized red lines are, and as the whiskey cools down it slowly makes its way back to the centre of the cask. This simple motion can have the effect of increasing the maturing quality by about six months, so a whiskey at six years old will present more like a nine-year-old whiskey. Again, it’s extremely costly because heat cycling significantly increases Angel’s share, but the richness it brings to the whisky is the reward.

The final stage is arguably the most interesting. If you ask most whiskey fans, they’ll tell you they don’t like chill filtration. Michter’s, however, has its own customised chill filtration process. There’s no typical carbon filtration or one-size-fits-all approach common at many distilleries. In this filtration system, multiple plates can be removed and added, filtering to select for flavour, with micron filters selecting which fats go into the whiskey. You simply adjust based on what you think is best suited to each individual whiskey. This is clearly not a commercial, cynical approach to chill filtration an, once again, it’s cost be damned.

A poll called The World’s Most Admired Whiskies, run by Drinks International, bamed Michter’s number one in 2023, and number two in 2022 (behind Springbank, but first for whiskeys from the States). It’s an indication of the regard Michter’s is held in the whiskey industry and demonstrates a remarkable rise. Bigger, older brands with greater financial muscle and marketing reach didn’t place as high.

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