“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” – Acts 9:3-4
I am going to tell you some things that might surprise you. The first is a story of a conversion which, if not quite Damascene, at least represents a dramatic reversal from my prior orientation. The second is the story of a distillery doing things that others only dream of.
Repeat readers and those who follow me on social media may be aware of my longstanding skepticism of the Michter’s brand. I provided a history of the original distillery when I tried the King Tut decanter back in 2020. I really hit my salty stride, however, with my review of the Barrel Strength Rye. In that piece, I criticized the company’s repurposing of a legacy brand to sell sourced whiskey with little transparency about the actual contents of the bottle.
The conclusion, especially, presented my most cynical take on the likely future of Michter’s. I posited that they had been so successful with the sourced model that it seemed unlikely we would ever get unadulterated distillate from Michter’s own stills, and that the veil of the brand’s “pre-Revolutionary War” mythos would continue to obstruct our ability to glean anything about what actually constitutes Michter’s whiskey.
I was therefore astounded when I received an email from Michter’s owner, Joe Magliocco. It was phrased in a complimentary way and included an invitation to visit Michter’s, to see the company’s operations in person the next time I found myself in Kentucky. I responded with cordial thanks for the offer and promised to be back in touch ahead of my upcoming trip to Louisville.
I respect this approach immensely. Generally, the best way to ingratiate oneself with a business and its owner is not posting and tweeting disrespectful snark constantly for several years. So, the fact that Michter’s was willing to let me investigate firsthand spoke to a high degree of conviction in the integrity of whatever they were doing down there in Shively.
On the other hand, the cynical interpretation of this strategy is also apparent. Like the little kid in the schoolyard who punches the object of their affection, I’m sure at least one critic has made a nuisance of themselves in the hopes of being bribed to shut up with a VIP distillery visit or an unobtainable bottle. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson: Michter’s perhaps decided that it was better to have me “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”
There was only one way to find out which of these possible interpretations was the true one. As soon as I finalized my travel plans, I got in touch with Joe and made arrangements to come visit the Shively distillery. He agreed to accommodate three of my friends as well; I am noting all this in the spirit of complete transparency.
We were met at the Shively distillery by Joe, as well as Master Distiller Dan McKee (formerly Distillery Supervisor at Beam’s Booker Noe distillery in Boston, KY) and Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson (formerly Director of Distillation and Maturation, North America at Diageo).
Joe Magliocco speaks with Brooklyn accent, though gently, with a tonal softness infused with what sounds like a very serene form of joy. His eyes are kind but also inquisitive, in a disarming way. He’s a smart guy (Yale undergrad and Harvard Law) but he’s humble, quick to admit when some of the finer points of whiskey chemistry are beyond his ken. Throughout our tour of the distillery, he greeted every employee we encountered personally, the vast majority of them by first name. He was dealing with me generously, of course, but I also got the sense that he’s a generous guy.
This impression was certainly reinforced by many of the anecdotes relayed by Andrea and Matt during our four-plus hours together. At numerous points throughout our visit, they pointed out areas where no expense was spared on building construction or the purchase of equipment. Though many folks share the dream of opening their own distillery and doing everything “right” – cost be damned – the exigencies of economics and the interests of investors and lenders usually mean these plans remain only dreams.
Our tour began in the liquid processing area, where barrels of rye were being dumped in preparation for bottling under the US1 Barrel Strength label. We were able to hold our Glencairns under the stream of whiskey gushing from the barrel and – finally – I had my first taste of proper Michter’s whiskey, distilled and matured and bottled by the contemporary distillery. More on that in a bit…
At this point, we learned the three-phase history of Michter’s in its reincarnated state. The first phase entailed the purchase of the abandoned trademark for a nominal sum (a few hundred dollars in administrative fees) and the reestablishment of the brand using sourced barrels.
The second phase consisted of selling barrels of whiskey contract distilled to Michter’s own specifications, particularly the lower barrel entry proof of 103 (51.5% ABV). Though Joe cites a nondisclosure agreement as his reason not to divulge the distillery of origin, I have seen it rumored that it was the Early Times distillery, owned by Michter’s current neighbor Brown-Forman. The fact that Brown-Forman was the prior employer of then-Master Distiller Willie Pratt also points toward this being a possibility.
We are currently in the third phase, in which the bourbon and rye whiskey distilled at the Shively distillery (the first barrel was filled in August 2015) has matured to the targeted five-to-seven year age, and now supports Michter’s core US1 bourbon, rye, and American whiskey expressions (the 10 year, 20 year, and 25 year age stated expressions still rely on sourced stock for the time being).
I asked Andrea (in a follow-up email) about the transition between the phases, and this is what she had to say:
Malt: At what point did Michter’s begin to move from phase two (contract distilled whiskey in the bottle) to Phase 3 (own distillate in the bottle)?
Andrea: We installed our 46 foot high, 32 inch diameter column still and our 250 gallon pot still doubler system in 2014. After several months of distilling white dog on the then new to us system, we were comfortable in August of 2015 that the phase three distillate was chemically and organoleptically virtually identical to the Phase 2 distillate, and it was that month that we started to barrel our Shively distillate.
Malt: Are all the core expressions (US1 bourbon, rye, sour mash, and American, and their corresponding toasted barrel and barrel strength expressions) solely Michter’s own distillate now?
Andrea: We taste barrels and release them when they achieve a certain flavor profile (not all barrels age the same in our opinion) that we seek for the product, rather than releasing barrels strictly based on their age. Our target for releasing US1 barrels is five to seven years. Given that we started barreling our Shively distillate about six years and 10 months ago, the overwhelming amount – but not totally all of – US1 we are releasing now was distilled by us at Shively.
What I came to see and learn about was the process by which this whiskey is made, and whether that process translates to superior aromas and flavors in the bottle and glass.
Starting at the start, we watched a truckload of malted barley get unloaded and checked for quality. All the grain Michter’s is using is non-GMO. Though I asked, mash bills remain “proprietary.” I’ve read that the Early Times bourbon mash bill of 79% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley is the one used but Joe, Andrea, and Dan remain tight-lipped about this aspect of the production process. Michter’s also has a farm in Springfield, KY (southeast of Bardstown) where it is growing its own corn.
We then moved along to fermentation, which takes between three and five days, per Dan. He declined to discuss fermentation temperatures. This led us to the stills, which consist of a 46 foot, 32 inch diameter column still plus a pot still “doubler.” Proof off the second still is 138, which is then reduced (as noted above) to 103 for barrel entry.
Stepping into the lab, we were able to marvel at the array of equipment available to the pair of scientists there ensconced. Dan mentioned that requests for new equipment were not denied, and that they had essentially “lost track” of how much had been spent kitting out the place. One reason for this is that the transition between phase two (contract distillate) and phase three (own distillate) demanded that the two be as close as possible, chemically as well as organoleptically.
At this point we got to taste Michter’s new make, which is a fascinating study in contrasts. On the one hand, the nose is comprised of floral and ripe fruity notes, and expressive grain. The mouthfeel, on the other hand, is very hefty, with development of licorice notes and an oily texture. It was clear at this point that great attention had been paid to flavor creation during the production stages prior to the whiskey entering the barrel.
We were then shown into the onsite barrel aging warehouse, which holds more than 14,000 barrels. Michter’s has additional warehouses on its farm in Springfield. Unlike the metal clad rickhouses (typically seven to nine stories tall) that dot the Kentucky landscape, this three floor warehouse is constructed of concrete and insulated. During the winter, the warehouses are heat cycled (warmed up and cooled down); Andrea declined to disclose the duration of these cycles, but noted that undergoing this process added the equivalent of an extra six months of maturity for every year (e.g. a six year old barrel would taste more similar to a nine year old barrel from a conventional rickhouse).
Michter’s barrels are manufactured from air dried staves, with that process taking between 18 and 60 months to complete. Barrels are toasted prior to charring; this adds expense, as does the lower barrel entry proof (more cooperage and storage costs). Maturity for the core expressions is achieved between five and seven years, at which point the barrels are dumped and chill filtered. It’s interesting to note that a custom, proprietary set of processes has been developed for filtration, with each expression getting its own tailored treatment.
At the conclusion of our tour, we were invited upstairs to a comprehensive tasting of Michter’s whiskeys. We started with a comparison of two US1 Ryes: one at the 103 barrel entry proof, and another at the maximum permissible 125 proof (both samples were proofed down to bottling strength for tasting). The lower barrel entry proof whiskey indeed tasted better, while the higher barrel entry proof had more tannic extraction and harshness on the palate.
This was followed by an encyclopedic tour of fifteen more whiskeys. Through them all, a signature note (apricot) emerged, as well as a general sense of above average (sometimes well above average) quality. We ascended the range until we reached the coveted 20 year, 25 year, and Celebration expressions. This latter whiskey, a blend of six barrels (four rye, two bourbon) is an exceptional and delicious experience loaded with notes of orange, crème brûlée, and honey.
OK, reality check: this was a tasting that most bourbon fans would give a left appendage for. The 10 year age stated bottles alone are rarities (never mind the 20 and 25 year) while the SRP on the last release of Celebration was $5,000. Lest they leave anything to chance, Michter’s spoiled each of us with a bottle of their Limited Release Barrel Strength Bourbon to take home. They also served us lunch, in my case a very scrumptious BLT.
How could I possibly maintain any objectivity after an experience like this? How could any review of a Michter’s whiskey by me retain a shred of credibility? I have laid this all out so that you can judge for yourself whether I have been compromised beyond redemption by Joe and Co’s generosity with their time, insights, and (especially) their whiskey.
With that said, let me tell you why I was excited to sit down and write this review. It didn’t have to do with the ego stroke of being treated like a big shot (I’m not one) at a famous distillery, with a lavish array of unicorn whiskeys laid out for my enjoyment. Was it a nice experience? The nicest. Would it have enticed me to say kind things about Michter’s whiskey, even if it were terrible (it is not) and overpriced (generally, at SRP, it isn’t)? I like to think that my integrity would forbid it, but we’re all fallible creatures with peculiar weaknesses.
The reason that I am excited to be writing this piece – even now, having come off the high of my visit – is that I am a man on a constant hunt for great stories to tell, and Michter’s has turned out to be a great story. It’s not the story of General Washington, or even of Bomberger’s or Shenk’s or any of the predecessor brands associated with the shuttered Pennsylvania namesake distillery.
Rather, it’s the story of a man in the right place at the right time, who took a brand of which he (and some prospective customers) were fond, and breathed a second life into it. More importantly, that initial success bought the time and provided the financial resources to hire some very qualified people to facilitate a seamless, successful pivot to the distillery’s own production.
From the moment the rye whiskey straight from the barrel touched my lips, I knew I was in for a major reconsideration of everything I had previously thought and said about Michter’s. It was delicious, with a character and a personality all its own. It was obviously very, very good whiskey, produced (as it turns out) by qualified folks empowered to make all of the right decisions at every step of the process.
I can feel myself veering into maudlin territory here, so I’m going to stop the paean to Michter’s – Michter’s circa 2022, the Michter’s of today – and review some of their whiskey. As noted above, this was a bottle gifted to me by Michter’s, and they have my sincere thanks for that and all the rest of everything that preceded it.
For our consideration, we have the Limited Release Barrel Strength Bourbon. This is barrel #21J2889, bottled at barrel strength of 111.4 proof (55.7% ABV). SRP for this expression is $100, per Andrea. Once again, for good measure: this was a gift of the distillery which is much appreciated, but will not affect my notes or score. Before we begin, though, a few extra comments from Andrea:
Malt: Can you confirm for me that this is Michter’s own distillate? Any other details relating to age, or otherwise, that you might be able to share?
Andrea: This bottle was from a barrel distilled by us at Shively that upon tasting had really wonderful maturity at about five years old. As discussed during our visit, it was barreled at 103 proof and aged in toasted then charred barrels made of 18 month air dried wood. The barrel was stored in our heat cycled warehouse which in our experience adds about six months of extra maturing quality per year stored, even though we cannot claim that on the label.
Michter’s US1 Limited Release Barrel Strength Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brown.
On the nose: The nose has a few layers that can be delineated through concentration. The topmost layer is a cheerful mix of fresh cut spring flowers and confectioners sugar. Moving down a layer, I pick up the rich, fruity notes that emerged in my aforementioned tasting as Michter’s hallmarks: apricots, yes, but also clementines, and a very ripe pear. Finally, this transitions down to the bottom layer of new leather, cashews, volcanic rock, and a surprisingly intense umami note of teriyaki sauce.
In the mouth: This starts with a marriage of tart fruit and austere limestone notes in the front of the mouth. The whiskey floats gently toward the center of the palate on a river of freshly squeezed fruit juice, with piquant accents of cinnamon and some lightly woody influence that shift abruptly into a very pleasant, lightly sweet and creamy note of cherry flavored ice cream at the center of the mouth. Turning again toward chalky and sugary notes, the finish is then resolved in the same way as the nose started, with lingering floral flavors and a faint accent of mocha. The stony notes persist with a drying texture that pairs with a red-pepper inflected radiant heat throughout the mouth.
Evaluated in isolation: this is very good whiskey. It has diverse aromas and flavors that are each expressive individually, but which play nicely together. The highlights are the fruity notes on the nose and mouth, though the overall experience benefits from additional nuances at both the high (floral, sweet) and low (earthy, savory) ends of the register. It doesn’t slap you in the face, but it is no less captivating for its subtlety; each sip leaves the tongue begging for the next, and it would be easy to make this bottle disappear in a relatively short period of time.
Considering this in the spectrum of currently available barrel proof bourbon expressions: it’s priced at a premium to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof but is a completely different style of bourbon. ECBP is a bruiser from a 125 barrel entry proof, frequently coming in above 140 in the bottle, whereas this is a 103 barrel entry proof bottled in the mid-50’s ABV. The result is a marked difference in presentation, neither good nor bad, but this may be more to the tastes of people who want barrel proof bourbon but prefer a less brusque, more elegant whiskey. It’s similar in that regard to Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (usually around 110 proof; $40) or Rare Breed (Approximately 115 proof; $60), though a bit more expensive than both. It’s not nearly as old as ECBP (12 years), and likely not as old as the youngest whiskey in MMCS or Rare Breed, but it doesn’t need to be. Everything this should have, it does, but it comes at a price.
Further, unlike those other products, this is a single barrel rather than a batched expression. I’d be keen to learn how much barrel-to-barrel variation there is? Based on Andrea’s comments about the size and construction of the warehouses and the consistency achieved through heat cycling, I’d be willing to bet that there is less deviation around the mean with these, but I’d be happy to test that theory scientifically. As Andrea said above: not all barrels age the same.
In consideration of all this and reflecting the fact that I would be an willing repeat buyer of this whiskey if I were able to find it at SRP, but also reflecting that it comes in a meaningful premium to its competition, that I am giving it a positive score corresponding to “Great” on our price-sensitive scoring bands.
As a postscript, I should note that I offered Joe, Andrea, and Dan some constructive criticism toward the end of our time together. Michter’s has a great story to tell, but it’s not always the story that gets told by or about Michter’s. To the extent that Michter’s is willing to drop the “Pre-Revolutionary War” language which still adorns their labels, I believe there is an opportunity to refocus the narrative.
What I saw at Michter’s impressed me, and I believe it would be equally impressive to the types of folks who read Malt. Being freed from penny-pinching has empowered the distillery and all its employees to emphasize the elements that matter. Ingredients with integrity, a production process which creates exemplary flavor even before the whiskey hits the barrel, and a maturation regime that manages to produce some delicious whiskey in a comparatively short period of time. What is coming out of Michter’s right now is excellent, and I have every reason to believe there is more and better to come.
I’m happy for the opportunity to have learned about this firsthand, and even more glad that I’ve been able to share this story with you all. There are lessons for everybody (producer, consumer, and critic) in here, as well as some great tasting whiskey, and you can’t ask for much more than that.