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Michter's Distillery

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The History of Michters

The rich history surrounding Michter’s harkens back to America’s first distilling company established in the 1700′s by John Shenk, a Swiss Mennonite farmer who settled his family in Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain Valley. With his farm producing an abundance of rye, in 1753 Shenk decided to build a small distillery to convert his excess rye to whiskey. In time, this little distillery with its hand-hammered stills would come to produce what would someday be known as the famous Michter’s whiskey.

This particular rye whiskey was so valued that when the Revolutionary War broke out, General George Washington purchased it to fortify his men as they hunkered down in their camp through the long, brutal winter at Valley Forge. Michter’s, as the saying goes, was “the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution,” and it continues to warm today’s resurgent American whiskey revolution.

The passage of Prohibition in 1919 forced Michter’s and every other American distillery to shut its doors to the public. Although the distillery did reopen after the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, Michter’s changed hands many times over the next few decades and languished to the point where it eventually declared bankruptcy. With primary distilling operations shut, there remained two small pot still systems made in the mid 1970′s by still maker Vendome which were reportedly used in part to instruct tourists about distillation and to make whiskey to be sold in the gift shop.  After the bankruptcy one of these two still systems was purchased by David Beam, and the rest of the movable equipment was stripped and sold off from the former Pennsylvania distillery, parts of which eventually collapsed.  The remaining whiskey stocks were sold off as well.

Teaming up with Michter’s President Joseph J. Magliocco in the 1990′s, Richard “Dick” Newman undertook to resurrect the brand in Kentucky. An American hero who served as a U.S. Marine during the Korean War, Newman lost one of his legs in a battle and was awarded a Purple Heart. After leaving the military, Newman began an illustrious career in the spirits business where he eventually ran Old Grandad, Old Crow, and Old Taylor for National Distillers before becoming President and CEO of Austin Nichols, the distiller of Wild Turkey.

A Yale College and Harvard Law School graduate, who in the 1980′s decided to pursue his passion for spirits as President of Chatham Imports and later on as President of Michter’s American Whiskey Co., Magliocco says, “When we set up our whiskey program for Michter’s, Dick and I wanted to get back to the ‘cost be damned’ roots and produce the finest whiskey possible. Our goal was to show that whiskey made in the United States could be the equal of great whiskey made anywhere in the world. At the start, when we would sit with industry executives and tell them that great rye whiskey would be an area of concentration for us, they would sit there dumbfounded and stare at us like we each had three heads. Fortunately, whiskey drinkers started to rediscover rye, and we were more right than wrong.”

Michter’s Master Distiller Willie Pratt is a respected whiskey industry veteran with over forty years of distilling experience. He best explains the philosophy that has guided our product to such high critical acclaim since its move to Kentucky in the 1990’s. “The owners give me a free hand. I produce our product at a much higher cost because I barrel at lower proofs, and heat cycle our barrels with a much larger amount of whiskey lost than the typical “Angel’s Share.” But the whiskey comes out richer and smoother than if I made it the standard way. If a barrel is not at the exact right point of maturation and will benefit from more time, I won’t release it even if the sales guys and the distributors are screaming for more goods. That’s why they tease me and call me ‘Dr. No.’ ”

Michter’s production includes single barrel ryes, very small batch bourbons, single barrel bourbon, and unblended American whiskey.

The Master Distiller Willie Pratt

Michter’s Master Distiller, Willie Pratt has over 40 years of experience in the whiskey industry with in-depth knowledge ranging from selection of grain, to distillation, to barreling and maturation. Prior to joining Michter’s, America’s first whiskey company, Willie spent his career at Brown-Forman where he co-chaired a special committee formed to study cooperage – the art of barrel construction – and to identify optimal distillation and aging conditions for among other things, whiskey taste, aroma, color and yields.

Willie is responsible for the distillation of Michter’s Whiskeys and their barreling, which is done at a lower proof than the industry standard despite the substantially increased cost. He also insists on storing Michter’s barrels in rare heat-cycled warehouses even though this results in the loss of nearly twice as much whiskey to evaporation as the “Angel’s Share.” Good naturedly referred to as “Dr. No” by our salespeople, Willie is known for refusing to release whiskey for bottling until he feels it is just right, even though the whiskey may already be significantly older than the age stated on the label.

Willie Pratt is a proud native of Louisville, Kentucky where he, his wife Patsy, his children, grandchildren, and his great grandchildren live. Among Willie’s outside interests and hobbies are fishing in Florida, riding Harley motorcycles, and until recently when his parked plane was totalled on a runway, flying his Cherokee four-seater.
 

 

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