Michter's Distillery

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Unread postby EllenJ » Thu Aug 24, 2006 12:13 pm

Okay guys, here's two more puzzle pieces to add to the pile on the table...

(1) Gary points out Michael Jackson's reference to rye production, and specifically Old Overholt, a brand most often associated with Broad Ford in the western part of the state. Post-prohibition, Old Overholt was also National Distillers' flagship brand of Pennsylvania whiskey, which is obvious in their advertisements and labeling. What is not so obvious is that ND was not the sole owner of that brand, nor of its stock. When Henry Clay Frick owned the A. Overholt Company (the last family member to do so), he sold one third of it to Andrew Mellon. Mellon picked up another third as trustee after Frick's death in 1919. A few months later, as Secretary of the Treasury, he found himself in the position of chief prohibition agent for the United States. Mellon sold his Old Overholt interest to David Schulte (Park & Tilford), who then purchased the Large distillery and its stock. In 1927, Schulte made a deal with Lewis Rosenstiel whereby Schenley would sell the existing stock, about 200,000 gallons. Then, shortly after repeal, National Distillers bought the distilleries (along with a million and a half gallons of new whiskey). Which is how ND came to acquire both Old Overholt and Large. But meanwhile, Schenley was now left with 200,000 gallons of very fine old Pennsylvania rye whiskey which, by contract, had to be sold as bonded straight whiskey and under the respective Large and Old Overholt labels. I think Chris Morris would really get a kick out this... that left Schenley in a position where its almost certain market success and the brand loyalty generated would (and did) go directly to National Distillers when Schenley's stock finally ran out.

Now I know what I'm about to suggest here sounds rude, crude, and downright sneaky, but Mike Veach can verify that whiskey folks have been known to do this, even in Kentucky. Ask him about Canada Dry sometime. Remember, Schenley didn't OWN the Large/Old Overholt whiskey, their agreement obligated them to BOTTLE and SELL 200,000 gallons, as agents for Schulte. While apparently the whiskey had to be labeled as Old Overholt (and probably Large, too), the actual whiskey used needn't have been the very same physical whiskey that came in those barrels -- it could be 200,000 gallons worth of any whiskey, so long as it completely met specifications. Now, if the intention were to sell whiskey under a brand name mostly associated with one's competitor, it should not be so amazing that those bottles might not be filled with the very finest product obtainable. It would certainly be worth contracting out to other distilleries (not ones they owned, of course) so as to fulfill their contractual obligations without promoting demand for a brand they would then have to compete with.

So why would Schenley be contracting with Pennco to produce rye whiskey to be bottled as Old Overholt? Well, maybe that says something about the quality of the Pennco product. But to be fair, let's not forget that (a) Pennco-distilled products may have been excellent; we're not certain we've never tasted any. And (b) whatever the relationship between Michter's and Pennco, Michter's was not a 100-proof straight rye whiskey suitable for bonded whiskey status, so it wasn't Michter's in those Old Overholt bottles, either.

Oh yeah, and another thing... it doesn't seem likely that Schenley's Old Overholt marketing lasted more than a few years. Certainly not into the forties, considering WW-II took up most of that decade. But then, Chuck brought up some evidence that suggests the Schaefferstown distillery wasn't operating before then. If that's the case, how were they distilling Old Overholt for Schenley?

I'll put the second puzzle piece in the next post, but here's those photos Chuck mentioned that show the amazing Michter's pot still
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michterstill50.jpg
In this version from the 1950s' brochure, it looks as though they either taped a new portion over the identifier, or touched up the photo later. I'd bet you a year's salary that it originally just said "Doubler", like all the others do. It might even have
michterstill50.jpg (31.2 KiB) Viewed 6233 times
michterstill80.jpg
By the '80s they'd replaced the sign, removing the word "Doubler" completely. Or maybe not; the sign looks suspiciously "post-production" to me. At any rate, in both cases it is that OTHER device, whose identity/capacity sign is so conveniently obscured b
michterstill80.jpg (20.45 KiB) Viewed 6232 times
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Unread postby EllenJ » Thu Aug 24, 2006 12:16 pm

The second puzzle piece is this photo. Actually, it isn't so much a "Michter's" thing as just a "Rye Whiskey in America" thing. Our friend Sam Komlenic has original detailed blueprints of the Dillinger distillery at Ruff's Dale, Pennsylvania. The photo is one Sam took when he visited the site again last year. The copper stills are long gone, of course, but their location isn't. At the time we thought this was the site of the main boiler tanks, but the blueprints clearly shown it as the location of two large pot stills (along with their associated input/output, steam, and coolant connections).

So what does that mean, you say? Well, these blueprints were made for the restoration of the distillery -- in 1940. The Ruff's Dale distillery, like the Pennco distillery, had a column still. And associated doubler. But as late as 1940 it also had these two pot stills installed. Now, they very well might not have used those stills for making whiskey (they also distilled brandy and rum, and made gin, all of which could require pot distilling), but it shows that such equipment was in use at that time, and even included in new construction. They certainly weren't being added to make industrial alcohol!
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Aug 24, 2006 2:12 pm

John, thanks, both posts offer food for thought!

Regarding those pot still cavities, my guess is (and I need to read the updates to your whiskey pages including for Dillinger) that this building or a predecessor orginally contained only pot stills. Either that or pot stills were used like a doubler. The throughput of a column still can be impressive. A distillery needs in doublers a multiple of the number of column stills to process the liquor (unless there is a rectification column). Note that by the 1980's, Michter's had 3 doublers at least but only one column still (in the purpose-built brick tower).

So Dillinger may have needed those stills to boil column still distillate or maybe they were used both for that and first and second distillations of brandy, maybe gin, etc.

Using a pot still to do a further run for whiskey is not unknown, think of Virginia Gentleman...

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Unread postby cowdery » Fri Aug 25, 2006 4:22 pm

Nothing has to be made in a pot still. Anything a pot still can do, a column still can do better. The notion that pot stills are inherently better is hogwash.

That's a very cool picture.

I have seen, but do not have, a picture of a classic teardrop copper pot still, like you would expect to see in Scotland, at Old Crow, but it was used as the doubler.

Anyone who wants to make American whiskey in a pot still has to contend with the grain solids. It's believed that pioneer distillers, working with small mash tubs and fermenters, simply let them settle out, and drew off the mostly-liquid from the top. Or you have to do what Woodford has done, or you have to do what they do in scotland and create a wash. That's not difficult, brewers do it, but that's what you have to do.
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Aug 25, 2006 6:01 pm

Some observations:

i) pot stills, as for bourbon doubling, or in the Virginia Gentleman process, are used to further refine the spirit, i.e., when the solids are not an issue. When only column equipment has been employed, bourbon quality has been judged inadequate (see Cecil's discussion in his book viz. certain experiments in the 1970's).

ii) pot stills often complement modern industrial-scale spirits production. That is, they are used not just to make spirits to be mixed with those made in a column still, but are used in succession with column still equipment in one process to make a given spirit (e.g., superior gin, some rum, bourbon, etc.).

iii) pot stills by virtue of the slow indirect heating of the wash and other characteristics produce spirits with different tastes than column stills even at similar final proofs. The use of copper in column stills helps close the gap but never completely. This is why pot stills are used to this day to produce the world's finest spirits - column stills cannot do so and are not therefore equivalent to or better than pot stills. In Cognac (the region), the use of continuous stills to make Cognac brandy is prohibited by law, for example.

iv) if Dillinger did employ pot stills it would have done so for one or more of these purposes.

Gary
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Unread postby bunghole » Sat Aug 26, 2006 1:57 pm

Very interesting shots of the interior of the old Michter's stillhouse, John.

Not to insult anyone's intelligence, but for the benefit of those that do not know their distilling apparatus - if you look behind the stillman standing at the desk in both photos you will clearly see an all copper column still.

:arrow: ima :idea:
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Unread postby gillmang » Sat Aug 26, 2006 2:04 pm

That's right Linn and it was contained in the brick-built tower seen in many exterior photos of the plant. Jackson mentioned continuous distillation at Michter's in his 1987 book.

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Unread postby gillmang » Sat Aug 26, 2006 2:16 pm

One more thought on bourbon and its stills modern and historical: when you think about it, a case can be made that the modern continuous still + doubler system (invariable except where a thumping vessel is used for the doubling, and also for WR now) is really as close as you can get to double pot distillation without using a wash still for the first stage. When I say wash still, I include the use of unfiltered mashes in this term since bourbon was first made using the European double pot still method. They worried about the mash sticking but found ways to address it.

The doubler is critical since it refines the spirit while leaving enough taste to be able still to call it bourbon. The steam separation of alcohol and water in columns achieves various goals: it obviates the need to agitate the mash in the pot to avoid burning and sticking; it economises on fuel (the largest expense historically in operating a pot still); and it maximises throughput.

Does it do so at some expense to flavor? Maybe, since even the three distillations at Versailles produce at 5-6 years of age a very assertive whiskey even when blended with column still whiskey. Still, WR is but one example. Its practice does not mean all pot-stilled bourbon would taste as assertive. Also, the lighter taste of column + doubler bourbon has really become a part of what bourbon is today. Bourbon can also be made (as it was in the 30's in some plants - see Cecil again) in beer stills without doubling it in a doubler or rectification tower. That also did not survive as a style of bourbon and the 1970's experiment to revive the idea did not succeed.

Maybe bourbon today is the best of all possible worlds but in any case the doubler system is an essential part of its character.

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Unread postby cowdery » Sat Aug 26, 2006 6:35 pm

One of these days, Malt Advocate will run the story I did on column stills or, rather, on the American whiskey distillation process. What Gary says is exactly correct. The purpose of the doubler is to refine the spirit. It does this by removing a couple specific congeners that seem to resist removal by the column still. It also provides more copper surface contact.

The doubler stage is all about taste. Attempts to make whiskey without doubling have been unsuccessful. You can produce a spirit with all the right specs, but it just doesn't taste right.

As for the reasons to use a pot still over a column still, I believe the claims to an inherent quality superiority are overblown. The spirits that are traditionally made in pot stills continue to be made in pot stills because that is the tradition. They certainly are not going to discourage the belief that pot distilled spirits are inherently superior even though there isn't much to support that belief.

One very practical reason to use a pot still is for a fairly small production. The methods of control are different too because a pot still does in time what a column still does in space. If that sounds too cryptic, I'm afraid you'll just have to wait for the article.
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Unread postby bunghole » Sun Aug 27, 2006 11:00 am

A quick thanks to John 'Steve' Lipman for posting these important photos.

While it may not seem like much to some folks, collecting period photos, and visiting defunct distilleries to capture new images is modern day investigative anthropology/archaeology.

I appreciate it deeply.

Chuck - Where the hell is your article :?: :!:

Most folks can not accurately describe the distilling process at all - much less describe how a column still actually works.

How about a thumper :?: How many can draw an accurate picture of a thumper and accurately describe how it actually works :?:

:arrow: ima knows :thumbup:
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Unread postby gillmang » Sun Aug 27, 2006 11:35 am

I am reading a book on cognac which refers briefly to the early history of distillation. First, it was used to make perfumes and medicines. Also, cosmetics. Al-kohl is the Arabic word alcohol derives from.

Kohl is a term still used (I am told) to mean eye-liner.

The Arabs of course did not develop distillation for consumer beverage purposes since Islam is opposed to alcohol consumption.

In the West, distillation emerged from the university and medical circles and became an industry, initially artisan and later highly commercial. This was around the 1500's. At the same time, distillation penetrated to the peasantry and in parts of Europe home distilling became established often in defiance of the law.

By the 1700's, the science of distillation was advanced. The Dutch did a lot of the early work and developed from Swedish copper the modern pot still. It was understood that multiple distillations could cleanse washes and other ferments of off-flavors, "phlegms" they called it (congeners today). Many brandies (the term derives from "burnt wine") were distilled many times. In the Cognac region of France, the acidic, relatively flavorless local wines were found perfect for distillation. This was because you could distill twice only and get a good flavor. So it was cheaper to use these wines than better wines from elsewhere whose high flavor had to be cleansed by repeated distillations. That cost money and time and the final result still wasn't as good as the two-step distillation of cognac. So that became the gold standard for brandy.

The pot still was perfected early and has remained largely unchanged. The column still was the next big technological revolution. It was developed mostly in the U.K. with inputs from France (e.g. the Adam still), in the early 1800's. This mechanism was not adopted by Cognac makers but was adoprted in parts of Europe, e.g., for Armagnac which only undergoes one run in the still.

The doubler and thumping systems which achieve a result similar to a spirit still distillation are quite old too and probably were being used by the 1700's since they are part and parcel of pot stilling practice. The Thumper though may have been an American innovation, I think I read its use may have been inspired by moonshiner practice.

Today the mastery and application of distillation at least in industrial-scale establishments is a branch of chemical engineering. However, distilling will always be an art, too. In Cognac that is expressed through their wine and fermentation selection and practices and when to take the "cut", and through the blending they do (vatting in our terms). In Kentucky it is through the way aging is done, batches are put together and taste profiles developed (or single barrels selected, etc.). Yeast selection and maintenance are important too (e.g. look at Four Roses' focus on this area, with excellent results).

The stills are important but they don't in my view determine everything. I think fine bourbon can be made in a series of pot distillations as it used to be at one time. The column still evidently can be adapted to make fine bourbon. The equipment is not the (broader) issue, it is taste and the style of the whiskey that comes from them.

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Unread postby cowdery » Mon Aug 28, 2006 12:42 am

I hope Malt Advocate runs the stills story soon, because I think it will make some waves, which is always fun. They have "banked" it simply because it isn't time sensitive. It's what they call in journalism an "evergreen."

But I will tease you a little bit with this, from the article, which answers Linn's query about the thumper.

The traditional doubler is virtually the same as the spirit still in a two- or three-step all-pot-still process, in that the spirit is fully condensed before being reheated. A variation takes the hot, uncondensed vapor from the column still and introduces it into the doubler below the liquid level, producing flash condensation and instant re-vaporization without added energy. The flash-condensing vapors make a loud thumping noise, so this type of doubler is called a ‘thumper.’

Every American whiskey-maker uses some kind of doubler. This step is not necessary for making neutral spirits, like vodka, nor for making ethanol fuel. It is, however, essential for making good-tasting whiskey.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Sep 08, 2006 3:06 pm

Chuck and John,
I am going to meet some Diageo people at the archive at Stitzel-Weller next Thursday. I think I will get there early and see what I can find out about Schenley and Michter. Help me put together a list of questions with dates so I can look through records such as correspondence.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:24 am

"Everybody knows" that National Prohibition meant the sudden death of a major and very politically powerful industry. What we may tend to forget is that Repeal was just as effective at doing exactly the same thing. For fourteen long years, the organized bootleg liquor industry had reigned even more powerfully than in the notorious Whiskey Trust's wildest dreams. And, just as Prohibition didn't stop the manufacture and sale of liquor, neither did Repeal end the corruption and deceit of the underground production and distribution system. It only allowed some of the principals to take on roles that appeared to be legitimate, or at least sanctioned. I'm not pointing a finger at Schenley here; at least not a lone finger. The Rosenstiels, Porters, Weiskopfs, Schwarzhaupts, and Kleins who created, virtually overnight, a controlled and overseable system from what had been the world of mobsters and organized crime could not have accomplished that without a certain degree of cooperation and professional respect. Which usually comes from a long and trusted prior relationship. I would not expect such a suggestion to be readily confirmed.

And, to tell the truth, that's really not such a difficult thing to understand and accept. I don't think any of us here are "muckrakers", looking for dirty laundry to air. At least from my point of view, I'm only good-naturedly curious. Nevertheless, some real personal damage could result from letting certain cats out of their bags, and I'm not sure I'd really blame your Schenley guest for not having believable answers to some of our questions. Here are a couple that might not be TOO difficult...

(1) What was Adolph Hirsch's relationship with Schenley in the thirties and forties? Specifically, I'd be interested in learning whether he played a key role in either developing or absorbing the Pennsylvania Distilling Co. of Logansport, and/or the East Penn Distilling Co. (which, I believe, was in West Mifflin); and/or Ruffsdale Distilling (also known as Sam Dillinger and Thos. Moore); and/or Meadville Distillery; and/or (of course) Pennco. Was part of Hirsch's assignment with Schenley associated with dispersing the Old Overholt and Large stock they'd obtained from David Schulte?

(2) I'd also enjoy knowing how long it took to get through those Schulte Overholt barrels. Someone, I think it was Chuck but I'm not sure, recalled that Everett Beam said they were making Old Overholt whiskey at Pennco. Unless Pennco had another arrangement with National Distillers, that must have been for Schenley. That's not as unlikely as it might seem; distillery vendor contracts are not always exclusive, and they could have contracted with ND as well as with Schenley, especially if it were years after Schenley was no longer part of the picture.

(3) And if Schenley were somehow involved corporately with Hirsch's acquisition of what became known as the "1974 Michter's whiskey", were there any records kept of the lot BEFORE it was dumped into steel tanks and the barrels discarded? That is, is there any specific evidence that the whiskey in the Hirsch tanks that is CLAIMED to have been made (or at least stored) at Schaefferstown really had anything to do with that distillery, other than possession by an investor with a legal claim to that amount of whiskey? If that claim were against whiskey produced when the distillery belonged to Schenley, could not those barrels have been delivered from any Schenley warehouse (Logansport, for instance) whose product met specifications? That would make sense, and it would answer Chuck's question as to why Hirsch delayed so long in claiming the product: Perhaps it wasn't Michters' demise that concerned Hirsch after all -- maybe it was Schenley's imminent closing in 1987 that was the catylist.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:27 am

P.S. Linn, thanks for the nice words. I also mentioned what you said about that "other" piece of equipment hiding behind the technician. Unfortunately there's a limit on the length of captions and it got cut off. I was going to correct it but never got a round tuit. Now I don't have to 'cause you did. Thanks!
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