Michter's Distillery

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Michter's Distillery

Unread postby gillmang » Sat Apr 01, 2006 6:39 pm

Fascinating information on the Lipmans' new East Pennsylvania and Maryland page on Michter's history. I did not realise how complex is the ownership story but John and Linda do a great job elucidating known facts. Whiskey writer Michael Jackson in his 1987 World Guide To Whisky stated Michter's Original Sour Mash was 50% rye, 37% corn, the rest barley malt. This formula was devised I understand in the 50's by Everett Beam, a member of the famed Beam distilling family of Kentucky. He worked with Pennco and my sense is this quasi-rye whiskey was intended for and did in fact fill the Michter jugs. Maybe those first jugs were supposed to be sold in '42 but had to wait until the late 50's to be filled when the whiskey was 6 years old, because it seems the war delayed the start-up of the distillery. Later as John and Linda said, similar jugs containing whiskey of the same name (Michter's Original Sour Mash pot still) were sold, but I think although ownership of the jug house may have changed and the jug house may have bought the distillery from Pennco in '78 as they theorise, the brand Michter's continued to be this proprietary form of straight whiskey (as Jackson termed it). I think Pennco, and Continental if it owned Pennco, probably used the plant in Schaefferstown to make bulk whiskey sold under different names and surely some was bourbon, and some was straight rye. Mr. Beam probably distilled all these types while employed at Pennco. E.g., Jackson said Michter's distillery supplied the rye for the Kirk's rye brand (an old name that pre-dates Prohibition) and I think he suggested the plant supplied whiskey for the Overholt brand for a while.

This suggests to me that the whiskey made in '74 and sold as bourbon by Hirsch (the 16 and 20 year old, and there was a rare 19 year old, versions) was bourbon whiskey that might have been sold under a Continental brand name or some other's name had Pennco continued to own the business after 1978. The back of the label of Hirsch 16 states the whiskey was made at "Michter's Distillery" in "small copper pot stills". This in my view refers to the doubler at the plant in Schaefferstown. True, as the Lipmans note, some bourbon sold by Pennco was made by Continental but not all was, I believe. And therefore the bourbon made in Schaefferstown in '74 probably was related (in type of materials, yeasts, etc.) to the proprietary straight whiskey sold in the jugs. Each whiskey met the legal spec for what it was but they would not have differed much other than the mash for the Hirsch/Michter's bourbon would have had a little more corn in it. I have tasted both at informal gatherings during Kentucky Bourbon Festival functions and they seem to bear a family resemblance. Of course, it is hard to be sure since one is 16 years old and the other (from 70's-era jugs) 6 years old, but even with this difference they seem to come from the same plant at least; I have no reason to think it wasn't in Schaefferstown.

The mystique surrounding Michter's and this is purely my opinion started with Jackson's essay on the place in his 1987 book. Jackosn called Michter's original sour mash "gingery" and this is a good description even of Hirsch 16 year old.

Anyway the Michter's section of the Lipmans' new page is just great and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in Michter's or American whiskey. For those who want more information the page points to other on-line sources.

Gary
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Unread postby EllenJ » Sat Apr 08, 2006 2:17 am

Thank you, Gary! What a glowing review.
As you so often do, you've brought up an obscure fact that turns out to be a potential bombshell (you have a knack for that, and I certainly appreciate it). You mentioned (although I was unable to find it in his book) that Michael Jackson refers to the pre-Prohibition Kirk brand and indicates that Michter's may have provided rye whiskey for it (actually, that would have to have been Bomberger's, as Michter's didn't exist pre-Prohibition). H. B. Kirk & Co. wasn't actually a brand, per se, but rather a marketer. They had the exclusive franchise granted by William Gaines for bottling Old Crow Rye whiskey (not the bourbon). I'm not sure what other rye whiskey Kirk may have marketed, but I do know that Kirk's Old Crow's label proudly states that every drop is made in Woodford County, Kentucky, so that would pretty much let Shaefferstown, PA out as a source for THAT one.
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Unread postby gillmang » Sat Apr 08, 2006 10:23 am

Thanks John and Linda.

I hope too you saw my review of the entire East Penn Maryland pages under the thread entitled "Stop The Press - Important Rye Whiskey News". They deserve (and I will repeat it) the HIGHEST praise and I can't wait to see the remaining items posted although you've given us so much already.

Regarding Kirk's, Jackson was I believe referring not to the Bomberger era but to the Pennco era.

He states:

"Some fine whiskeys have emanated from Michter's over the years. For a period, the distillery produced a much-loved product called Kirk's Rye, named after one of its owners. At another time, it supplied rye to the owners of the Old Overholt label. At the beginning of the 1980's, it was supplying rye to Austin Nichols, owners of the Wild Turkey brand."

Kirk's rye was a different brand (or label) from Old Crow rye. I have seen pictures of the Kirk's rye label. Kirk's rye was more a Northeastern brand, associated to New York State I believe and environs. I believe Bettye Jo Boone once posted a picture of a Kirk's rye label, I think in connection with showing the kinds of whiskeys distilled at Pennco by her uncle Everett Beam. I think Kirk's Rye must have had some circulation up to the 70's at least and that rye made at Schaefferstown filled its bottles.

The real question to me (and Jackson can't assist here in my view because clearly he had limited information at the time ('87)) is whether Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey was sold under that name before the 1980's and late 70's. I believe it was, in the jugs or other decanters, but am not 100% sure. If it was not, the question is why Michter's released this type of whiskey.

Jackson states that production ceased at Schaefferstown in 1981 but resumed in 1984. Then he says, "In the meantime, there had been stocks available of a splendid product called Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey and this is what the company offered upon resumption of distilling. In Michter's Original Sour Mash, the company had created an unusual whiskey - not a rye, but containing a high proportion of that grain (38 per cent rye; 50 corn; 12 malt). The result: a delicious and distinctive whiskey with a full, smooth palate, sweet but clean, almost gingery, crisp, dry finish".

If this whiskey was not sold before the late 70's, I assume it was made as an alternative to straight rye (and clearly although Jackson did not say so in so many words, this whiskey was straight otherwise, i.e., aged 6 years and distilled at low proof and aged in new charred wood) for the consumer, "jug" market. If it was sold in the 1960's and later 50's in the white jugs, it was designed for that market from the beginning. I.e., even if Continental owned Pennco or controlled it, it may from the resumption of post-Prohibition production or rather sales (late 1950's) had the distillery make this Michter's-branded whiskey for the jugs, sold from the jug house that was the retail side of the business (even if owned by a separate agency), and clearly from what Jackson said Pennco also made other, bulk whiskeys, for the wholesale market.

There are still many questions unanswered about Michter's/Pennco. I think the Michter's Pot Still Whiskey was made in fact from the 1950's on in column still and doubler until operations ended at Pennco ('81) and was again made when production restarted in '84 using this time the 1976 mini pot still (or maybe the pot still was used from '76 on too, I am not sure). My main reason for thinking that the Michter's brand was available from the late 50's was because I recall Bettye Jo posting materials that suggested Everett Beam devised the recipe Jackson was referring to in the 1950's. It may be that that whiskey was also sold into the wholesale market, e.g., might have ended up as a component in blended whiskeys sold by others. Possibly only in the late 70's or 80's did someone think to sell it branded as Michter's for the consumer jug market, but the fact that the first jugs were stamped 1942 as John and Linda said suggests to me they were marketed first in the late 50's (allowing that is for the delays of the war). I am sure someone (probably many people) still living know the full story of what was sold by Pennco/Michter's when, people associated with the plant or former ownerships. Hopefully the full tale will be told some day. It is a fascinating story and John and Linda have given us a great overview and revealed aspects of whiskey arcana that are of great interest to many here. Also, they have done this from the standpoint in part of industrial archeology and that is just so fascinating.

Gary
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Apr 08, 2006 4:05 pm

Gary,
If I get nothing else out of your essays, (and I did get more), the one phrase that I love is "Industrial archeolgy". You are a master word smith and a joy to read. Great stuff!

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Unread postby gillmang » Sat Apr 08, 2006 4:26 pm

Well thank you Mike.

But I must credit where I first read the term: Michael Jackson's books. Jackson is the master of beer and whisky writing.

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Unread postby Strayed » Sun Apr 09, 2006 8:44 pm

Industrial Archeology: Indiana Johns (and Pennsylvania Lindas) -- Who could ask for more!! :smoke:

Couple of things...

1. No whiskey labeled "Michter's" was ever sold as anything other than "Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey".
There was never a Michter's bourbon.
There was never a Michter's rye.

2. The references to Overholt and Wild Turkey may be partially correct, but not in the way you might think. It is, from what we've learned, quite possible that some or all of the rye whiskey used in some bottlings of Overholt and Wild Turkey (among many others) may have been produced at the Schaefferstown distillery operated by Pennco and sold (either in bulk or by contract) to Continental/Publicker, none of that has any bearing on the product sold by Michter's Jug House. It is our contention that, until late in its history, if at all, the whiskey contained in jugs and bottles labeled "Michter's" was not produced by Pennco at all; the Michter's jugs were bottled at Publicker in Philadelphia with whiskey produced there, and the Michter's Jug House (completely ignored in Yvonne Bomberger's history of her family's distillery operations) was little more than a souvenir liquor store with a "house brand".

3. This is not to detract from the obviously superior product sold as A. H. Hirsch, which we believe was never in any way connected with the rather ordinary whiskey found in bottles wearing the Michter's label. Our current (and this is open to further learnings) take is that Pennco was capable of producing far better-quality whiskey than what was being sold in the tourist shop located onsite. It was whiskey of that quality that Continental/Publicker purchased from them and that may have found its way into Wild Turkey, Old Overholt, and eventually A. H. Hirsch. The fact that the barrels were labeled "bourbon" is positive proof that they were never intended to be used for Michter's.

4. Everett Beam's job was to help make the sort of "tourist's introduction to American Whiskey" that some of us (certainly L&J) would LOVE to be able to produce. That it wasn't successful is a shame, and certainly no reflection on his contribution. Maybe someone with deeper pockets than yours truly will be able to do such a thing again someday, and maybe this time it will be successful. Meantime, if you find a bottle of (real, original) A. H. Hirsch, by all means buy and enjoy it. It's every bit as good as they say it is. And if you get a chance to buy original Michter's, you should do that, too. Once. You'll see immediately that (as our web page is subtitled) sometimes the sizzle is better than the steak.
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Unread postby gillmang » Sun Apr 09, 2006 10:22 pm

John, most interesting thoughts. But why do you suppose that Everett Beam devised a recipe for Michter's Sour Mash Pot Still that wasn't made at Pennco, the company he worked for for 40 years? Why is it not conceivable that he distilled different straight whiskeys there (bourbon and rye sold in bulk by Pennco and sour mash pot still put in jugs)? The fact that the jugs may have been bottled in Philadelphia does not mean the whiskey wasn't made in Schaefferstown. Schaefferstown simply probably didn't have a bottling line or not one suited to filling little jugs. You may be right of course but I don't think so. Yvonne Fowler's site with all those brochures seems to me to suggest Michter's pot still was put on the market from the start-up in Schaefferstown in 1956. Why would she focus on that brand if it was a gimmicky house brand really made by Publicker? Anyway, someone knows the answer (e.g. people who worked in the Schaefferstown distillery, it only closed about 20 years ago), surely the story will come out at some point. As to mystique, I think Michael Jackson had a lot to do with it, and Hirsch too via the bottlings of bourbon advertised (on the back label) to have been made in the Michter stills. I would think Freddy Noe, the nephew of C. Everett Beam, may know the scoop or Parker Beam. Max Schapira surely would know too I think. If I see 'em at Sampler I'll ask. :)

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Unread postby Bourbon Joe » Sun Apr 09, 2006 10:34 pm

Strayed wrote:1. No whiskey labeled "Michter's" was ever sold as anything other than "Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey".
There was never a Michter's bourbon.
There was never a Michter's rye.


Ah, but John, there is presently a Michter's Bourbon and a Michter's Rye, albeit not produced by Michters in Schaefferstown, PA, but peddeled by God only knows using God only knows who's whiskey. All of this is very confusing to many new to the game.
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Unread postby Strayed » Sun Apr 09, 2006 11:18 pm

JoeBourbon wrote:Ah, but John, there is presently a Michter's Bourbon and a Michter's Rye, albeit not produced by Michters in Schaefferstown, PA, but peddeled by God only knows using God only knows who's whiskey. All of this is very confusing to many new to the game.
Joe

Ah, but Joe, that is really a good illustration of the greater picture (as I'm sure you really know already). The so-called "God only knows" peddlers are easily identifiable; they are Chatham Imports, and are certainly no less legitimate a supplier of fine whiskey than Preiss Imports, and absolutely no less deserving to use the Michter's name than A. H. Hirsch (especially since we've shown that the Hirsch product is arguably no more related to the whiskey sold under the original Michter's label than is Chatham's. And, although we don't claim to be God, we do know who's whiskey is in the bottle, which is more than we do about the original Michter's. Chatham's original bottler was Julian Van Winkle, and although we don't know Julian's sources, we can certainly trust his expertise in selecting fine whiskey -- after all, he also bottled the original A. H. Hirsch product! Chatham now is using Kentucky Bourbon Distillers to bottle their product, and the Kulsveens are also no slouchs at whiskey quality. To imply that purchasing a defunct brand and releasing a quality product under that brand name is wrong is to condemn an entirely inappropriate number of current whiskey brands. What makes it even more silly is that the current Michter product is far away better whiskey than the original Michter's hooch ever was. :D
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Unread postby Bourbon Joe » Mon Apr 10, 2006 3:34 am

My latest bottle of Michter's Single Barrel Bourbon was bottled by UPC 39383. Any idea who this is?
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Apr 10, 2006 7:45 am

Joe, I am not sure where that comes from but when Julian bottled the current Michter's labels, I believe the whiskey was from UDV in Louisville (now Bernheim and owned by HH). Bernheim was opened in 1992 and before that, UDV sourced whiskey from S-W for wheated whiskey and I am not sure where it got its rye whiskey and rye-recipe bourbon, Mike Veach would know that of course. I refer to this older history because some of the whiskey in those bottles may have been made before 1992 (I think the 10 year old rye may have been but I am not sure, maybe not). Today, as John said, the Kulsveens in Bardstown bottle the Michter's labels and select the whiskeys. I like the Michter's Straight Rye which is at least 4 years old and has a very good balance. I believe it to be made by HH because it resembles to my mind Pikesville rye except finer, possibly it is taken from the best (single) barrels used for Pikesville.

On John and Linda's page on Michter's, they give the links to the Michter's pages of Yvonne Bomberger Fowler, a descendant of the Bomberger family who established the distillery in Schaefferstown over 200 years ago. She reproduced a 1980 Michter's brochure which contains a detailed explanation of the distillation of Michter's Sour Mash Pot Still whiskey. The description does not refer to the one barrel a day production that came later from the mini-pot still. It refers to 50 barrels per day from a column still and doubler (the latter is clearly the pot still referred to on the label of the product at the time and in this advertising). A "blend" of rye and corn is referred to for the mash with no percentages given, but clearly this is the 50% corn, 37% rye and 12% barley malt mash referred to by Michael Jackson. The whiskey is described as soft, 86 proof, 6 years old. It is also stated in the brochure that Michter's was distilled out at 156 proof and entered in charred barrels at 115 proof.

A 101 proof version was also available in decanter and bottle. Photos show mostly decanters but also some bottles of this Michter's pot still whiskey.

This shows that this sour mash pot still whiskey was made in a straight whiskey style. The only thing that prevented it from being bourbon was the corn content was 50% not 51% or higher. But then too some of it at least in some years may have been technically bourbon, which is perhaps why the 1974 barrels that produced the Hirsch 16 and 20 year old whiskeys contained bourbon. The distillery or bottler may have in some years put Schaefferstown-made bourbon, especially if it was 51% corn, 38% rye, 11% malt, in jugs called Michter's sour mash pot still, i.e., I do not think under law they had to call that bourbon, but whether this is so or not, the Schaefferstown distillery may simply have made different but stylistically similar whiskeys concurrently or at different times.

Michter's sour mash pot still whiskey was I would say a kind of amalgam of straight rye and bourbon whiskey and this is the recipe that I understand was devised for this whiskey for Pennco by C. Everett Beam in the 1950's.

I think this recipe reminds us that "bourbon" and "rye" are specific types of straight whiskey, the kinds defined in the books after Prohibition. But there can be other kinds (whether or not technically straight whiskey under the regs). The Pennco type was very much in my view in the American whiskey tradition, it was an inspired variation on a theme that is probably as old as whiskey making in America.

The 1980 Michter's brochure states more than once that the pot still sour mash whiskey is "made" or "produced" at the distillery in Schaefferstown. Numerous photos are shown of the plant, its control room, its barrelhouse, etc.

This does not mean for certain the whiskey was made there (or always made there) but I think it is some evidence it was, at least around 1980. And since the news stories also posted by Ms. Fowler state that Pennco sold the plant in 1978, I infer what was available for sale as Michter's sour mash pot still in 1980 was distilled at Schaefferstown by Pennco in 1974 or earlier.

Other materials collected by Ms. Fowler on her page state that distilling started at Schaefferstown (post-Prohibition) in 1947 and continued until 1980 when use of the column still ceased. So, not long after this 1980 brochure was produced, production stopped. It started again in about 1984 (according again to the materials) and stopped in 1989. I am not sure if the column still started up or just the mini-still though. Maybe the column still and doubler started up again from '84-'89 and the mini-still after until the jug house was closed. Here the details get a little hazy to me.

These are data one can glean from Internet sources but many questions are still not answered. It may be that Schaefferstown produced different whskeys at different times, responding to varying market conditions. But surely most of what it produced in its history was bulk whiskey for the wholesale trade, or that is what I infer. The only real question unanswered in my mind is when Michter's sour mash pot still whiskey was first marketed in decanters (jugs or other). Was it the 80's, 70's, 60's, or 50's? I am not sure but believe that some was put out from the 50's onward under this name, in the little jugs, i.e., in the Pennco era, and that the practice continued until and after the sale of the plant in '78, until no more whiskey was available to be "decanted".

Of the Michter's brands available today I believe Michter's Straight Rye is closest to Michter's original sour mash whiskey. True, the mash bill could not be the same. But its age and color and soft flavor correlate approximately in my view to what is described in the brochure.

Gary
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Unread postby Bourbon Joe » Mon Apr 10, 2006 9:04 am

Gary,
I know from my own experience that decanters were produced by Michters from at least the 60's and maybe even the 50's. There are a couple places (restaurants, etc.) around the Reading area where Michters decanters have been displayed for many years, at least the 60's when I first noticed them. They are still there, scores of them. Now the real question is "are they full"? I'm going to find out.
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Apr 10, 2006 9:30 am

Thanks Joe, that's great. I believe that from 1947 or whenever exactly after the war Michter's (then Pennco Distillers) got going, it produced bulk rye and bourbon for the wholesale market. Then, fairly early still, the decanter program started. These containers were always (as far as I know) labelled Michter's Pot Still Original Sour Mash Whiskey or Michter's Pot Still Whiskey. I think the earliest jugs did not use the term sour mash, that came later. The decanter program may have been run by the jug house or someone separate in whole or part from the distillery ownership. No evidence has surfaced that I have seen of Michter's-labelled glass bottles from the 50's and 60's. The bottles shown in the picture on Ms. Fowler's page seem to have come later, maybe late 70's/early80's.

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Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey

Unread postby DocM » Tue Jun 13, 2006 2:21 pm

The question that occurs to me...is that WHY isn't some entrepreneur seeing this market opportunity! Why isn't someone re-opening Michter's...or any one of the other glorious old names? Okay, so it would have to be small scale...at least at first. But, if Fritz Maytag can do it in San Francisco, why can't it be done here in PA? Imagine...authentic Pennsylvania pure rye whiskey available once again! Or "old Monongahela"! Can there be that much red tape? Who ever heard of a California whiskey, anyway?
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Jun 16, 2006 10:51 am

The biggest problem for opening a distillery is government regulation and taxes. The red tape is daunting and then there are a multitude of taxes and fees involving the distillery and label approvals. This is probably even more true in Pennsylvania. The distilleries closed down in that state for a reason and the biggest reason was the state was making it unprofitable to run a distillery. Pennsylvania is a control state so the state government has a heavy hand in the sale of alcohol in the state. Its hand is even heavier on the distilleries.

The last twenty years may have changed some of this attitude towards distilling. You would hope that with the decline of steel, the politicians would want to create some jobs with distilling and work to ease the regulations and make it more profitable. It would also be good to see a traditional industry revived. Pennsylvania Rye deserves a better fate than to be remembered only in Kentucky distilled whiskey with proud old Pennsylvania labels.

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