Hi everybody! This is my first post to Bourbon Enthusiast, so let me provide an introduction. My name is Sam Komlenic, and I am a friend of John and Linda Lipman, who encouraged me to participate here. I am currently the copy editor for Malt Advocate magazine. I grew up in Westmoreland County, PA, which includes both Jacob’s Creek and the Youghiogheny River, major tributaries of the Monongahela, and major arteries of very early and very late Pennsylvania rye whiskey distilling. My dad worked for the Jones Brewing Company of Smithton, PA, home of Stoney’s Beer, much of my life. Smithton is just a few miles down the Yough from Broad Ford, the home of Old Overholt. The nearest village to my home was Ruffs Dale, the location of the Dillinger Distillery aforementioned here, hence my fascination with that plant. I am also the only whiskey enthusiast I know of who actually toured Michter’s Distillery. Both of these reasons are why I’m chiming in at this juncture.
I refer to myself as the “last of the Pennsylvania Rye drinkers.” I am now 50 years old, and back in the late 70s, at the Longhorn Saloon in Smithton, we had both Old Overholt and Sam Thompson available. Both were distilled in PA, though Overholt was then bottled in Cincinnati. I preferred the Sam Thompson to the Overholt, and that opinion has been validated since in tastings of those same products with the Lipmans. They have an example of that Overholt, and I have a bottle of the Sam Thompson, an extraordinary whiskey. I still like the Sam better. I feel that I represent the very end of the drinkers who chose (or even had the ability to choose) rye whiskey distilled in its home state. Being a rye aficionado at that time, I also tried Wild Turkey Rye once it became available here in the early 80s. I was intrigued that the back label stated “Distilled in Pennsylvania.” I still have that bottle as well, thankfully.
My first visit to Michter’s, and the only time I took the tour, was in March of 1979. I was on my way home from Philadelphia, and passed a billboard along the turnpike touting Michter’s and encouraging me to visit. Talk about the power of suggestion! I made my way to Schaefferstown, and as I turned on the road down to the distillery, I passed a farmer in bib overalls carrying a bottle of whiskey, purchased at the Jug House, back home with him. I wish I had brought a camera from that point on! I parked in the visitor’s lot, near a groomed pond (where they offered donkey rides for kids!) across the road from the Visitor’s Center/Jug House. I believe the wells that supplied the distillery were also on this side of the road. When you crossed the road and entered the door, you were in the gift shop in the left part of the building, with the Jug House to the right, nearest the distillery. The tour cost a dollar, and a young lady named Lori Gassert was our guide. To the best of my recollection, we were taken into the main distillery first. This was unquestionably a tour of an active plant. Fermenters were filled with mash, and I believe the column still was in operation that day. I did not become familiar with the operation of distilleries in general until after this, my first experience with such a place, but I can tell you that I do not recall any traditional pot stills in that distillery, anywhere, until we were taken into the Bomberger building, which then contained the notorious (and gorgeous) bicentennial “barrel-a-day” distillery, which was not in operation that day.
After the tour, we were led back into the Jug House, where we looked over a vast array of decanters and bottles available for purchase. This was supposedly the only retail store at any American distillery at the time. Once I made my selection (a quart of Michter’s in the 1978 full color jug), Lori took my picture on a bench beneath a large photo of the Bomberger Distillery. The photo arrived a few weeks later in the mail, attached to a display card with “Michter’s” printed on the front. I have that photo to this day, and the back of the card has a hand written note from Lori, thanking me for visiting.
Over the next ten years, I visited the distillery at least four, and perhaps five more times. I never took the tour again, though I recall it being offered at least one or two of those times. I was obsessed with the Jug House, as they sold decanters and bottle sizes I had never seen elsewhere. Over the years, I bought the 1.75 liter bottle, their largest, and the 200 ml, their smallest. I have both of those bottles, though I never kept a 750 ml, the only size then available through the PLCB. They also offered the 101 proof expression, which was hard to obtain elsewhere. My last visit while the distillery was open was on November 10, 1989. That day, I met distillery manager George Shattls, who told me of their 230th anniversary decanter, which had been issued six years earlier. I inquired about its availability, and he told me that he had some at home, and if I gave him $40 then and there, he would send one to me. He wrote out a receipt on his business card (yes, I still have it) and the decanter arrived a week or so later. This is how I am able to know exactly when my first and last visits were. I actually have dated evidence.
Also on this last visit, as I left the Jug House, I noticed an open door on the warehouse that was on the same side of the road, uphill from the distillery. I pulled up to the door, and stuck my head inside. There were two, maybe three men inside dumping barrels into a stainless steel trough choked with charcoal bits, and I walked in and began to converse with the workers. I was fascinated to see how whiskey was transferred to the bottling department, through an underground pipe from the warehouse, and I began to ask questions. “Isn’t there supposed to be a government man around when whiskey is being dumped?” A large fellow with a beard, wearing a blaze orange hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap replied “I’m the government man.” He went on to explain that the feds simply “deputized” a distillery employee to keep the official tally of what was being moved where.
I asked about the origin of the Wild Turkey Rye I had enjoyed, and he told me that it had been produced at Michter’s. He also confirmed that the Sam Thompson that, years earlier, was the reason for my love of rye whiskey, had also been made at Schaefferstown. It was a contract brand, and when the label folded, he had encouraged the company to pick it up and produce it again, to no avail. He felt that it could have been a successful brand for the distillery, and that it was an excellent whiskey. I did not inquire whether they had produced the Old Overholt, though based on what I have learned over the years, feel that they probably did. I asked about the strength of the whiskey being dumped, and was told that it was about 125 proof. “You wanna taste?” he asked. I about fell over, and accepted his offer. He walked toward the wall and picked up a dusty, empty whiskey bottle. He stuck the mouth of the bottle under the gurgling stream, rinsed it around, and dumped it on the dirt floor of the warehouse. He then caught a small portion of clean whiskey and offered me what I figure was the warehousemens’ usual way of getting a little themselves.
The aroma was astounding. Michter’s was always a whiskey that had “a lot of vapors” according to my brother, and the “vapors” were incredible at barrel strength. That whiskey, to this day, is the best I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, part of it was the surroundings, but that fresh bulk whiskey was intense, yet almost gentle, and filled my senses. The man continued to tell me that they had been exporting a lot of whiskey to the Asian market, particularly Japan. There had been a batch of 20 year old straight rye sent there recently, though under what label, I have no idea. What excess they had was sold from the Jug House, but it was long gone by that time. Keep an eye out, collectors! Of particular note: this warehouse was virtually devoid of barrels. It was nearly bare, with perhaps 20 percent of inventory remaining, maybe less. The distillery was closed scant months later, with many of those same barrels left behind
I returned, I’m almost certain, in May of the following year, 1980. The place was deserted, and a scribbled note was taped to the Visitor’s Center door pane: “Closed until further notice.” I drove away, in an empty pickup truck, past what I would later find out were warehouses still containing substantial quantities of whiskey, both bulk and packaged! Many of those decanters would show up later along Lebanon County roads, discarded by local teens, the first indication to anyone that whiskey was left behind in the rush by Acquari Holding Co. to lock the doors. I’ve never returned to Michter’s, preferring to remember it as a viable and compelling enterprise rather than a silent shell.
Random thoughts round out the rest of this missive: I can confirm the multi-year shutdown in the early 1980’s. I wonder about the proportions of the purported grain bill in Michter’s: 50 percent corn, 38 percent rye, 12 percent barley malt. It seems sooooo convenient that it’s only one percent corn removed from bourbon. Why would a contract distillery want to eliminate any future flexibility on the bulk market by a factor of one percent? If you’re going to ignore the potential for any sale later as bourbon, why not take the corn down another five or ten percent, not just one? It seems too convenient for me, and I just have this gut feeling that Michter’s may indeed have been a rye-heavy, bourbon-qualified product that chose not to use that tag on its flagship brand, then fudged the disclosed “recipe” by one percent just for the hell of it.
I once won that same squarish 1960s-era Michter’s bottle referenced earlier in this thread, full and intact on an online auction, but it was never delivered, claimed by the seller (a Schaefferstown-area antique dealer) to have been lost prior to shipment. Yeah, right!
I have a few old PLCB price lists which shed some light on brands available in 1957, 1962, and 1963. In 1957, Michter’s is not on the list, though the Holiday brand from Louis Forman is available both as a bottled in bond rye and as a blend of straight whiskeys. Pennco is represented that year with Old Vandergrift bourbon (an Armstrong County name previously associated with Logansport) and Pennco Rye. All of the above brands have disappeared by 1962, though Michter’s Pot Still is now listed in a category simply titled “Whiskies,” which includes Jack Daniel’s, a brand also not evident in the 1957 list. Both are quite pricey for the time, Jack at $7.49 the fifth, and Michter’s at $7.26. These listings and prices remain for 1963. Michter’s was always priced nearly identically to JD, even when they folded. I recall both being priced identically, between ten and eleven dollars when the end came for Michter’s. Michter’s also enjoyed distribution beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. I bought a quart jug in Georgia about 1980 or 81, so where else might it have been available?
I believe the number 42 which is referenced on early Michter’s jugs to be irrelevant. Those in bottle collecting circles know that sometimes the numbers on the bottom are significant, sometimes not. I have seen the exact code from the Michter’s jug repeated on other brands of ,stoneware jugs dating from the 1960s. I am convinced it is some sort of non-date related manufacturing code. Why on earth would someone attempt to start a new brand in 1942, the depths of WWII, when distilling for profit was nearly nonexistent and materials were appropriated almost exclusively for the war effort? I would be hard pressed to be convinced otherwise on this one. By the way, I have a very extensive collection of Michter’s jugs, of which there were four series, and I’d be happy to share any further information on those with you all.
I have evidence that this distillery was also known as Penndale, at least during WWII, for what that may be worth. There has also been mention made of trains at Michter’s. I believe that there is no rail access to the distillery at Schaefferstown. Someone also asked about the grain bill for standard rye whiskeys. According to Jim Murray in his Complete Book of Whisky, Wild Turkey Rye contains 54-55 percent rye, Heaven Hill’s contains 52 percent, Jim Beam has 51 percent, and Old Overholt is described as “the big boy,” with 61 percent rye grain.
My next missive will be on the Dillinger Distillery at Ruffs Dale, PA, perhaps one of the most significant and least rememered of the Pennsylvania rye distilleries. More to follow. Thanks for your consideration!