These words, uttered by Egyptologist Howard Carter, described his first glimpse at the treasures of King Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, the whiskey I’ll be reviewing comes from a time in American history when things were decidedly not wonderful, at least as far as brown spirits were concerned. This is especially the case for Michter’s, which gave us the whiskey being considered today.
As we discussed before, the surge of the packaging of whiskey in decorative decanters was a response to the extreme stress of declining demand. These kitschy vessels were a way to move whiskey by taking the focus off… well, whiskey. The more fancifully designed the surrounding ceramics, the less attention needed to be paid to the contents. Distilleries could shift mounting piles of inventory by appealing to consumers’ loyalty to college sports, national pride, dedication to outdoor activities like hunting and fishing… anything except whiskey.
Michter’s seems to have sensed an opportunity to jump on a trend with this King Tut bottle. The release of this whiskey coincided with the three-year U.S. tour of artefacts from the boy king’s tomb from 1976 to 1979. This decanter was created for those in the thrall of KV62’s valuables, specifically the young pharaoh’s iconic funerary mask, which was then drawing record crowds as it made its way from coast to coast.
Though Michter’s wasn’t alone in struggling to succeed during this bleak era, the distillery seems to have had it worse than others. This might come as a surprise to novice whiskey lovers, who are accustomed to seeing bottles of Michter’s on every liquor store shelf. However, a proper history of the Michter’s distillery reviews it to be a tale of recurring woe and constant tribulation.
This site’s only other review of Michter’s whiskey is Jason’s review of the contemporary Sour Mash bottling which, as he points out in the piece, is not from the Schaefferstown distillery of yore. Rather, the Michter’s name lives on in adornment of sourced whiskey without any connection to the original enterprise. The successor business provides a surprisingly straightforward and digestible history of the original Shaefferstown distillery on their website.
In short: Shenk’s distillery became Bomberger’s, which was passed from owner to owner as a hot potato. In the 1940’s, a then-part-owner created a portmanteau of his sons’ names (Michael and Peter) to create the “Michter’s” brand, after which the distillery was renamed. In 1989, the distillery declared bankruptcy and the remaining inventories were liquidated to pay back taxes according to Chuck Cowdery.
So, this whiskey is from the Michter’s distillery during its post-Prohibition, pre-bankruptcy period? Not so fast. Complicating things, Michter’s was sold and re-sold repeatedly, producing whiskey with a variety of names under its several owners. Furthermore, the distillery was sourcing and bottling whiskey in addition to distilling it. As a consequence, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain whether this whiskey came from the Michter’s stills or from another distillery in Pennsylvania, or elsewhere. The label itself states only that this is “Bottled by Michter’s Jug House,” giving us little clue as to the origin of the whiskey in the bottle.
So, we’re left with what we can glean by reading the bottle itself. The label states this is “Pot Still Sour Mash Whiskey,” bottled at 86 proof (43% ABV). As with these bottles from long ago, retail price is but a memory. I inquired of Ryan Alves, store manager for Justins’ House of Bourbon Lexington, about the likely secondary market price of this, which he pegged at $400. This sample was generously donated by Brian, and I thank him for giving me a taste of a past which can be described as “distant” in a whiskey context, though certainly not in Egyptian terms.
Michter’s King Tutankhamun (1978) – Review
Color: Golden sarcophagus
On the nose: Appealingly cheery and floral, this has a spring-like freshness. There’s the aroma of iced tea with a healthy squeeze of lemon juice, as well as a meaty note of roasted chicken. Over the top, I get the airily sweet scent of whipped cream. On deeper inhalation, there’s the clean perfumed aroma of luxury hand soap.
In the mouth: A nip of rosewater marks the entry of this whiskey and, sadly, remains one of the only discernible notes throughout the entirety of the mouth. Turning watery as it hits the middle of the palate, all the flavors in this whiskey become weak and tired. There’s the faintest, most dilute woodiness as the only character as this disappears through the finish.
At its best, the palate on this could be described as inoffensive, though I fear that’s too politic a way to phrase it. This is poor whiskey. Despite an intriguing nose, this falls completely flat in the mouth. The only saving grace is that there’s nothing overtly foul about this, but otherwise this is completely lacking in all the attributes that compel the type of love or admiration lavished on Michter’s today.
Tasting the intensely-flavored, supremely-characterful whiskey from the likes of Stitzel-Weller, one wonders how distilleries of days past were ever allowed to go bust. Tasting this Michter’s, on the other hand, one instead marvels that they were able to stay in business so long. I’ll file this whiskey away in the mental archives, but I’d be reluctant to urge you to go out and pay hundreds of dollars to experience this for yourself. Dusty bottles can indeed hold wonderful things, but this one seems to be afflicted by the curse of the pharaohs.