Shot of History
Left for Dead: The Comeback Story of Michter’s Whiskey
The rebirth of one of America’s oldest whiskey brands is complete with a new tasting room and distillery in Louisville.
On the unseasonably warm last weekend of 1983, I took a spin through the Pennsylvania countryside with my buddy Bob. We had no goal in mind, no plan other than heading north out of Lancaster. After several crossroads decided on the flip of a coin, we were running north on Rt. 501 near Schaefferstown, when we saw a sign: Distillery Road. It was quickly followed by another sign: To Michter’s Jug House–America’s Oldest Distillery. Tours.
How could we say no? So, we hung a left on Distillery Road and soon found the place, a cluster of brick-and-glass buildings, one surmounted with a big water tank in the shape of a whiskey jug, around a white wood-frame house. It was busy, with at least 20 other cars in the lot. We got out and took the tour. We were told that distilling had been going on there since 1753, and the site had gained recognition as a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Okay, I had to look those facts up, and I’d be lying if I said I remembered much else from our visit. I know there was talk of corn and yeast, and I do remember seeing a small pair of squat copper pot stills. Bobby bought a little bottle of whiskey, and we got back in the car and headed north again. It was a good day: we wound up at the Yuengling brewery, and didn’t even realize that we’d just been to both America’s oldest distillery and brewery all in one afternoon.
Michter’s closed about seven years later, on Valentine’s Day, 1990. In 1997, I went to pay my respects to the abandoned buildings. It was a depressing day: cold, rainy, gray, as sad as the buildings slowly crumbled into the Pennsylvania countryside.
Why did I make that second pilgrimage? At the time, serious whiskey drinkers were obsessing about some 16-year-old Michter’s Bourbon. Ironically, it had been bought as the distillery was shutting down and was sold under the A.H. Hirsch label. It was phenomenal, but the supply was very limited. Chuck Cowdery wrote an e-book about it, aptly titled The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste. (Disclosure: I’m quoted in the book.)
I learned that the relatively Germanic-sounding “Michter’s” was actually a name constructed from “Michael” and “Peter,” the two sons of Louis Forman, who’d bought the distillery in 1950. C. Everett Beam, Jim Beam’s grandnephew, was the next to last master distiller. The last distiller, Dick Stoll, is in his 80s, and still lives in the area. (He is actively involved in a new small distillery, Stoll & Wolfe).
People talked occasionally about bringing the old distillery back to life, but the warehouses were falling apart, the brand was moribund, and the little copper stills had been bought by another Beam, David, and shipped to Kentucky. David was a retired Jim Beam master distiller, and apparently was thinking about starting up a small distillery with the stills. Nothing ever came of it, and they sat in Beam’s garage in Bardstown. That’s where I saw them again, about nine months after standing by the empty stillhouse in Pennsylvania.
About that time, a young entrepreneur in New York, Joe Magliocco, was taking a different look at Michter’s. He thought the brand might have some value. “Might was the operative word,” he told me, chuckling, on a recent phone interview.
Magliocco grew up in the wine and spirit business. “My dad, Tony, was a distributor and importer,” he said. “My first sales job, between junior and senior year of college, was actually selling Michter’s whiskey.” He started his own company, Chatham Imports, “a little supplier company that didn’t really have anything anyone wanted.”
When he decided to add a rye whiskey to that list of things no one wanted—and believe me, no one wanted rye whiskey in the mid-1990s—he thought of the Michter’s brand name. He looked for someone to negotiate with, but the brand had been abandoned. It was literally his for the taking.
That was the start of what he now calls Phase I of Michter’s. “The initial plan was to find some really good age statement whiskey, and put it out there,” he said. “We went around to people, and there was a lot of great whiskey. When we told them we wanted ten years old and older, they were really happy. There wasn’t any demand for it then.”
Magliocco tasted whiskies with his sales head, Steve Ziegler, and his mentor, Dick Newman, the former head of Austin, Nichols, which makes Wild Turkey. “We picked the style of whiskey that we liked a lot. We thought, if we ever do wind up producing, it would be a style we could emulate.”
Next came Phase II, which started around 2004, when a distillery in Kentucky (the identity of which is still under non-disclosure contract) started making Michter’s a few days a year. “It was more than just sourcing,” Magliocco explained. “It was made the way we liked it.” That included everything from using Michter’s proprietary yeast strain to filling the barrels at a lower proof, which is much more expensive but produces more flavor.
Once Phase II established the brand’s bona fides, and they were sure that enough people liked what they had produced, Magliocco started planning a distillery in Shively, a Louisville suburb. Construction started in 2012, and the brand first experimented with a small pilot still. In 2014, they put in a 32” column still and 250-gallon doubler and testing continued.
But that’s all it was: testing. This is when Magliocco and his distiller, Willie Pratt, really began to display the dogged insistence on quality that has become the hallmark of the reborn brand. Not just any white dog was going to become Michter’s. (Pratt was later nicknamed Dr. No, by the brand’s sales force for not allowing any whiskey to be sold until he thought it was ready even if it was in short supply.)
“We were distilling, but not barreling,” Magliocco said. “We wanted the white dog to be virtually identical, chemically and organoleptically, to the Phase II stuff. We didn’t barrel anything until August of 2015.” I visited in the spring of 2018, and toured with Magliocco and his current master distiller, Pam Heilmann, who had been the distillery manager at Jim Beam’s Booker Noe distillery. (Pratt retired a few years ago and handpicked Heilmann as his successor.)
The attention to detail was striking. The distillery was immaculate, everything was clearly labeled. Heilmann explained how the different whiskies were filtered using different technology; Pratt had carefully tested 32 combinations of filters and whiskies to determine the best combination for each. I was much more impressed by my second tour of a Michter’s distillery.
Meanwhile, Magliocco was working on another piece of the Michter’s experience. In 2011, Chatham Imports bought the historic Fort Nelson building on Main Street in downtown Louisville. The ornate building had even been used by Union troops during the Civil War but had been unoccupied for years. He wanted to open a distillery on what had been the city’s Whiskey Row before Prohibition, but it was not to be. The start of renovations revealed near-catastrophic flaws, including a brick exterior wall that was bowing nearly two feet over the sidewalk.
It took years, and an undisclosed amount of money, to restore the building. Right about the same time Magliocco bought the building, those old Michter’s pot stills came up for sale. He had been waiting for that, and got in touch with David Beam but he was a day late. Beam had just sold them to Tom Herbruck, who wanted to put them in his Tom’s Foolery Distillery in Ohio.
“I called Tom and asked him: ‘Do you want to flip it?’” Magliocco recalled, and I could still hear the eagerness in his voice. Hersbruck didn’t, but in 2015 he decided to expand the distillery beyond the little stills capacity, and asked Magliocco if he was still interested. Yes, he was.
So while the Fort Nelson building now looks unchanged, it was in fact rebuilt inside, complete with a new steel frame. It also houses the two little copper stills I’d seen in Pennsylvania, and the three cypress wood fermenters from there as well. The system has essentially made a roundtrip, since it was built in Louisville in 1976 by Vendome Copper & Brass Works. “Some of the guys from Vendome who installed the big equipment in Shively saw the Pennsylvania system,” Magliocco said, “and they said, ‘hey, my father, my grandfather worked on that!’”
Distillers Dan McKee and Matt Bell went through the same process with this set-up as had been done at the Shively plant. After months of tests and tweaks to make sure it tasted like the whiskey produced in the big still, the brand filled the first barrel from Fort Nelson on January 31, 2019.
I toured Fort Nelson a week later, and there were the Michter’s stills, back in Louisville about a mile-and-a-half from where they were made at Vendome. As I leaned on the rim of the cypress fermenters, which I’d last seen 36 years before, 600 miles away, I was struck by the different circumstances of the two visits.
In 1983, I’d seen a distillery on its last legs, in the midst of a last hurrah before ignominiously being abandoned to molder in the Pennsylvania hills. American whiskey was a losing proposition, slowly declining. It still saddens me to think of how the original Michter’s narrowly missed the spirits and cocktails revival that would start about five years after it closed.
There had been some resentment about the way Magliocco had picked up the Michter’s brand and ran with it, mainly from folks who would have liked to see the Pennsylvania site reborn. But that’s largely water over the dam now, washed away by the quality of the whiskey that has been bottled under the Michter’s label. (And to be fair, many historic Pennsylvania and Maryland brands are now produced in and owned by Kentucky companies.)
I talked to Magliocco about the symbolism of those stills. He was more excited that David Beam’s grandson, Ben Beam, was running them as a distiller at the Fort Nelson facility. “You can have the best equipment,” he said, “but if the people are sloppy, you won’t get good whiskey out of it. Our people are talented, and one of the reasons they’re at Michter’s is that they’re on a mission. They want to do what we’re doing.”
What’s next? Settling down and making more whiskey, “the greatest American whiskey,” Magliocco was quick to point out. “That’s the goal. We have another facility in Springfield, where we’re growing non-GMO corn, barley, and rye. It gives us more experience with grain. We continue to try different distillations and maturations. Sometimes things are uniquely horrible, and we get rid of it. But sometimes, hey, it’s really good! We’ll just continue trying to make really good whiskey.”