It’s time for me to confront another one of my nemeses…
I am flummoxed by a great many things in whiskey, as regular readers of this site will be aware. In roughly alphabetical order: Awards aren’t worth the metal in the medal. Most “craft” whiskey could replace the “ft” with a “p” for more truthful labeling. Flippers get my goat. I loathe the majority of “Limited Editions.” Luxury bourbon is for the birds. Picks are dime a dozen. Many stickers should be stuck over the mouth of whoever designed them. Relax with the wax.
At the top of my pyramid of pet peeves sits sourced whiskey. You know the type: all story, no substance. Baroque yarns about a secret family recipe for great-grandpa’s old moonshine provide a (typically false) narrative to back up elaborately packaged bottles containing truly unremarkable whiskey from workaday distilleries like Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, or Barton 1792. To me, paying a higher price for inferior-quality whiskey (compared with what can be purchased directly from those same distilleries) in order to stroke the ego of someone who needed to have “their own” whiskey is the platonic ideal of a bad deal.
OK, so: sourced whiskey is largely a rip-off and should be avoided. What makes it doubly annoying is that some of these brands actually seem to engender the type of passionate fandom typically reserved for real distilleries. A misplaced loyalty evolves, with benighted admirers convincing themselves that there’s something special and wonderful about this essentially transactional approach to selling whiskey.
I’ve banged my head against the wall trying to convince partisans of this-or-that label that, no, there’s nothing unique about some three-year-old MGP bourbon from a stock mash bill, ordered off an Excel spreadsheet by a guy whose closest run-in with a still came during a distillery tour. Incapable of changing their minds and unwilling to change the subject, these fanatics double down on their affinity for the object of their affection. In my experience, no sourced whiskey brand inspires this type of blind, foolhardy devotion quite like Michter’s.
Please consult my review of a dusty Michter’s decanter for condensed history of this confounding marque. You’ll note that the narrative provided there cuts off in 1989, when – after decades of changing hands – the original business declared bankruptcy and liquidated its remaining stocks. Yet, even casual whiskey fans may have noticed Michter’s bottles on store shelves recently. What gives?
In the 1990’s, spirits importer Joseph Magliocco teamed up with former National Distillers and Austin-Nichols veteran Dick Newman to revive the brand. Magliocco’s company Chatham Imports acquired the disused Michter’s trademark; Master Distiller Willie Pratt (formerly of Brown-Forman) was recruited to be the public face of Michter’s in 2007. Pratt passed the torch to Pam Heilmann (former distillery manager of Jim Beam’s Boston facility) in 2016; Heilmann took on the title “Master Distiller Emerita” and handed the reins to current Master Distiller Dan McKee in 2019.
Michter’s showpiece location, the “Fort Nelson Distillery,” is in downtown Louisville. Though this building has “a legendary historic distillation system,” the company’s Shively facility (DSP KY-20003) actually houses Michter’s processing and bottling operations. Two experimental pot stills were augmented by the addition of a 46-foot column still and doubler setup in 2014. Distilling appears to have commenced (judging by photos of the facility), but that doesn’t mean we’re yet tasting anything that Michter’s has produced itself.
Michter’s web site includes all sorts of weaselly words that require attentive parsing. The whiskey bottled by Michter’s is said to be “[d]istilled to Master Distiller Dan McKee’s exacting specifications,” though the detailed-oriented among you will note that this does not indicate that the whiskey was distilled by McKee. Indeed, despite now having three folks who have held the title of Master Distiller, we’ve yet to taste any whiskey from Michter’s that is solely the output of their stills.
Rather, Michter’s whiskey is contract distilled at an undisclosed distillery in Kentucky, with the main point of differentiation being the comparatively low barrel entry proof of 103 (51.5% ABV). Most likely, the various Michter’s expressions (particularly the age-stated 10, 20, and 25-year old “Limited Production” members of the family) came from whoever was looking to get rid of aged stocks in years past, including Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.
That’s the Michter’s story for you, generally. Hopefully this explains why I have never personally purchased a bottle of Michter’s. The conclusion, to me, seemed pre-ordained: the whiskey would likely be OK-to-good tasting, though probably not as good as whiskey with a similar-or-lower-price from the folks who presumably distilled it in the first place. I’d award a score just below the middle of the range (with a point deducted for price), distribute the rest of the bottle among friends, and move back to my standby favorites.
I’m going to challenge that fatalistic preconception with today’s review. Keith (praise be to him) recently sent me a handful of samples, including one from Michter’s. Setting aside my misgivings and doing my best to evaluate this one its own merits, I will now consider the Michter’s US*1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey.
First released in 2015, the Barrel Strength Rye took a two-year hiatus before coming back to the market in March 2021. According to Michter’s own site for this “Limited Release,” this rye is typically bottled from 107 to 112 proof (53.5% to 56% ABV). This particular barrel (22B344) sits toward the low end of that range, at 107.8 proof (53.9% ABV). Suggested retail price is $100.
I’ll say no more about my hopes or expectations. Rather, let’s let the whiskey do the talking…
Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye – Review
Color: Medium-dark rusty brown.
On the nose: Some quintessential rye scents of key lime and aloe vera mingle with a note that is both creamy and citric, in the manner of orange creamsicle. Accents of roasted habanero pepper impart a smoky and spicy nuance, while a more luscious oaky vanilla emerges after a time. With some additional opening up, this presents more stern aromas of wet copper, as well as a volcanic rock note reminiscent of lava. There’s more expressive spice in here as well, with cayenne pepper and ground cinnamon becoming evident.
In the mouth: Initially, this starts with another ferric kiss of metal, before developing a rich and round woodiness that is exceedingly well-balanced. The whiskey on the sweetness of caramelized brown sugar in the middle of the mouth, though this has a pert stoniness as a counterweight. Some rye spice of black peppercorn blooms through the finish, with the lone off note being a woody aftertaste that comes across as slightly bitter. There’s a lingering bitter nut note of almonds here, as well as a surprising floral flavor that comes out of nowhere to coat the tongue and back of the mouth.
This is very tasty rye. When I compare it to the litany of rye whiskeys I recently tried, it would rank above average on flavor alone. However, with a triple-digit SRP (and likely a meaningful markup on the “secondary market,” which does a bustling business in Michter’s), being “very tasty” is table stakes. For my future rye expenditure, I’d be more willing to go back to Wilderness Trail or Peerless (both of which share a low barrel entry proof in common with this whiskey) than to revisit this particular Michter’s expression. In consideration of all that, I am (begrudgingly, but I hope fairly) awarding this an average score.
Look, I can understand why people initially fall under the sway of brands. Their narratives are crafted to seduce; their stories omit or distort key factual details in order to make something ordinary seem extraordinary. In this sense, Michter’s has created a “great” brand, if a recognized name – symbolizing nothing, but commanding a premium for other people’s hard work – is a flavor of greatness.
What I still fail to comprehend, however, is why those who have been duped persist in their folly once the truth has been revealed. With a resigned shrug, I have to accept that there’s some segment of the American whiskey drinking population that has decided that Michter’s is an excellent and very important whiskey, justifying a lot of their time, attention, and money. That group will have closed this article a few words in or will have scrolled directly to the comments section in order to impugn my intellect and taste.
Either way, I’m not writing this for them. I’m writing this for the other segment of Malt’s readership, the ones who believe that production processes have a direct impact on the flavors of the resultant whiskey, and that maximum transparency about these processes allows us to make better-informed decisions about what whiskey is likely to taste better. To us, a great whiskey story is a story of making great whiskey, whether or not it features former presidents, heirloom recipes, infamous gangsters, Vikings, etc.
This latter category doesn’t include Michter’s, and I doubt it ever will. I suspect they’ve been too commercially successful with the procure-and-pretend model to ever pivot to their own production, absent some seismic change in the availability of sourced whiskey. Michter’s diehard stans and those newer to the hobby will likely continue their tireless pursuit of bottles from this resurrected and repurposed brand. For my part, I’ll continue pounding the drum of truth and transparency so that others – should they decide to buy a bottle of Michter’s – know what they’re getting, or at least know what they don’t know about what they’re getting.
Image courtesy of Drizly.