Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Giving Away Secrets- How Michter's Distilled Whiskey on a "Large" Scale.

While taking a tour of Michter's the tour guide would be sure to take you into the Bomberger's Warehouse, which was the oldest standing building on the site during the Michter's era. In it were several things- an old barrel weight scale, some aging barrels of whiskey, occasionally barrels of purchased Scotch may have even been stored there before bottling. But the centerpiece was a large diagram showing in simplified view the entire distilling process at Michter's from grain to barrel.

Much has been written and said about the small still arrangement that once sat in the Still House and produced about a barrel a day of whiskey. Those stills exist today and were most recently restored and used by Tom's Foolery Distillery in Ohio. They are now in the possession of the modern day Michter's and the plan is to use them in their downtown Louisville, KY location once it is renovated. Little has been said or seen of the large scale- and I use that term loosely as they still only produced maybe 50 barrels a day- distillation process that produced the vast majority of Michter's and Pennco's whiskies and other spirits (Yes, they made more than whiskey, just not very often!). All the grain was stored and milled in the same location, but the grains destined for the pot stills in the Still House were then bagged and carried over to the Still House. Mashing and fermentation took place in the Fermentation building in large steel vats. After fermentation was complete, the distiller's beer was pumped under the creek in a pipe into a concrete vat under the Still House. From there it was run through a column still (Woah! Woah! Whoa! Yea, your "pot still whiskey" took a trip through a *gasp* column still!). Here's where it get controversial. After running through the column still, it took a trip into what Michter's called a "pot still." Some may call it a "doubler", others a "thumper". But it was run in batch form and not continuous form like the column still, so Michter's felt it appropriate to call it a pot still- thus maintaining the "Pot Still Whiskey" name. I believe it was Sam Komlenic that called it "One of the most controversial pieces of distilling equipment..." during a walk through of the distillery about 7 years ago. But that's neither here nor there anymore. The main distilling equipment is all gone, falling victim to the scrappers torch during demolition of the Still Tower and Fermentation Building. Michter's also had a large spent mash drying and processing facility. Used fermented mash was pumped over to the Grain Drying Building where it was dried out in a process that included evaporators, dryers, and the addition of sweet syrup. The end result was excellent cattle feed that was happily gobbled up by local steers and cows.

So about that diagram. In order to convey to the tour taker the uniqueness of the Michter's distillation process, the entire process was explained in good detail using a large, easy to understand diagram. It had not only the process from grain to barrel, but even included how the spent mash was dried and prepared as cattle feed. Pipes connected stills and tanks to show flow and each component was clearly labeled. Here's a great old scan of a slide showing the chart:

Here's another during a tour:

Lastly, here's a photo of the column still (Behind the Still Operator) and the controversial pot still:

Friday, December 30, 2016

But wait, Ethan. You only collect Michter's!

Has he branched outside of Michter's for his collection? Has he gone nuts? No. Yes. But that's a different story. Back to this strange decanter....

 Here's an odd little gem. Original Proof Rye. While all the modern day distillers are touting their single barrels and barrel proof offerings, again, a little distillery in the PA countryside beat them to it. Yup. You guessed it- Pennco/Michter's. Looking at this decanter, you'll first notice a striking similarity to the original batch of Michter's "crocks" that were released from ~1957 until 1970. You'll see it has green text, it's the same size, and has the same glaze. On the bottom, it even has the mysterious #153 on it (Only thing I can figure is that that was the part number from the maker of the decanters at that time.). The only difference is the text. Note that this was a bottling sold by M. Lehmann, Inc. Not much info exists about this company, but it was most likely one of a plethora of wholesale distributors that had proprietary brands made for them. Note too that this dandy of a whiskey was a straight rye whiskey, unlike Michter's, which was always simply a "Pot Still Whiskey." So we know for sure what resided in this bottle. Note too that the bottle is numbered and the cask number is listed, along with a proof of 101.1. Pretty cool, especially considering the era in which this would have been bottled and sold! It's also a solid 6 years old, which, in my opinion, is plenty for a good rye. But 101.1 as original proof? Indeed. Distillery distillation proofs, and more often, barrel entry proofs have risen over the years. Michter's and their predecessors would enter whiskey into the barrel at much lower proofs than most modern distillers today. Dick Stoll told me that they for many years put the white dog into the barrels at 109 proof, later they rose to 115 proof. So an ending proof of 101.1 is certainly feasible or at least not that far off what it would've entered the barrel at. A keen eye would note that on the decanter, there is no mention of Michter's or Pennco, but only a "Hammer Creek Distilling Company, Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania." During the time this would have been bottled, Michter's only existed as a brand and not a distillery. The distillery that became known as Michter's was still called Pennco. I've written before about this subject, so I won't go in depth here. But, during the Pennco era, they went under many names. Hammer Creek is just another one. I have a binder full of Pennco labels, and I'd bet there are at least a half dozen or more names the distillery was using at that time. I don't know why this was done, but there must've been some purpose. This practice still remains today. Look at the back of a bottle of Evan Williams or Old Grand Dad and it does not say Heaven Hill or Jim Beam. We can only guess at how good the rye was inside this bottle, but, as history has shown us, there was little, if any, whiskey that left that distillery that wasn't spectacular. Without further ado, the pictures:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Merry Michter's Christmas

From my files. Not sure about the date, but this mailing came with paperwork that would lead me to believe this was 1983-1985 era.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

What's old is, unfortunately, new again.

In the throes of an economic recession in the late 70's to early 80's, Michter's was feeling the pinch. Note the references to tightening budgets and bank issues. Sound familiar? Even the reference to problems with the car makers. This letter came out during a time of transition for Michter's. This is when Mr. Veru took control of the distillery. Reading the letter, it's not hard to understand what was going to happen over the next few years. It is obvious now in reading it that there were problems. No new decanters, a few-weeks-long closure, and no Christmas wreaths for the customers. Things were indeed tightening. Unfortunately for Michter's, their economic situation never got better. Attached is the full mailing from July of 1981. I would not consider reprinting this form and mailing it to the listed address with your check. The prices are probably no longer valid........

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A PA Distilling Legend And His Wife Are Back In The Game!

Folks, never say never. Erik and Avianna Wolfe won't be kicked down and defeated. After the folks at the current day Michter's in Kentucky forced them to give up their Bomberger's name, there was some regrouping. And through that, Stoll and Wolfe whiskey was born. Stoll? Yes! THAT Stoll. No other than Mr. Richard Stoll himself. 26 years after padlocking Michter's outside Schaefferstown one last time, he's back. I am honored to say I know all of them, Dick's wife included- Elaine was a tour guide at Michter's and that is where she met Dick. Right now Stoll and Wolfe has sourced some excellent barrels to blend as their first release- under the direction of Dick. They are currently having more product distilled for them and they've been actively involved with the distilling and barreling process. Even the mashbill is of their own creation. What's next? A still is on order and space is being readied for a small distillery. Rye whiskey is of course going to be the main spirit. But I have it on good word that there may be some brandy and other typical American spirits coming from the still too. Folks, look forward to these products. Rye whiskey coming from the historical birthplace of what we now know as American whiskey (PA, NOT KY!) being distilled by and under the expertise of Mr. Stoll.  It will be good. No. It will be great. I promise. Watch for the launch of Stoll and Wolfe in Lititz, PA.

Below is a Q&A with the Lancaster Newspaper as printed April 5th 2016 and written by staff writer Chad Umble. I've copied it here in case it expires on the website...

Direct link: http://lancasteronline.com/business/local_business/q-a-dream-of-distilling-whiskey-in-lititz-takes-winding/article_f9275888-fa8a-11e5-a080-a322023817cc.html

"Erik Wolfe has had to give up on his dream of distilling Bomberger’s Whiskey in Lititz.
But a year and a half after a trademark dispute forced him to pull the plug on reviving that historic distillery, Wolfe is still making a name for himself in the craft whiskey world: his own.
Having partnered with a former distiller Dick Stoll, the 38-year-old Warwick High School graduate is now blending Stoll & Wolfe whiskey and bottling it in Lancaster.
And, within six months, Wolfe expects to actually be distilling Stoll & Wolfe whiskey at a new distillery in the rear of 35 N. Cedar St. in Lititz. A tasting room is also planned at the site.
“If you would have told us it would have been this route when we started, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but it’s worked out well,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe and his wife Avianna were initially drawn to the idea of reviving Bomberger’s Whiskey, which had been made in Shaefferstown from the 1860s until Prohibition. That distillery eventually reopened as Michter’s, where Stoll was the master distiller until it closed in 1989.
In October 2014, Wolf, Stoll and their respective wives, Elaine and Avianna, released Bomberger’s whiskey.
But their use of that name was challenged by a company that filed for unused trademarks of Michter’s.
After a six-month halt to the business during which they re-labeled all their bottles, the partners returned with a new label with their own names.
Stoll & Wolfe is now distributed in several states and can be ordered online in Pennsylvania through the state Liquor Control Board’s website.
Wolfe declined to estimate sales so far, but a first bottling of Stoll & Wolfe produced 1,150 bottles. The product is available in five states.
“Our names may be on the bottle, but the amount of support that’s gone in to getting that there, you almost feel guilty that it’s just two people’s names,” Wolfe said.
Why did you leave a good marketing job you had in New York City?
I was in New York working Internet stuff and then Sept. 11 happened. I saw the second tower come down a quarter mile away. I watched it with my eyes. A lot of people were like, “What am I doing with my life. If it all ended tomorrow, what would I have to show? What have I done?”
For me I wanted to do something I could point to, that I could touch, that I had left a presence in some way.
So what did you do?
I left all that stuff and started working in food and hospitality. I was a director of marketing for a digital agency. By the time I left I was doing Fortune 100 campaigns and I went to being a busboy in a night club.
I was in my early 20s when I started doing that and that’s how Avianna and I met. As I was in that world, the local food movement really started to grow in New York and so much of that was so evocative of what I’d been surrounded by growing up.
How do you turn the inspiration about making whiskey into a reality?
With Avianna, we were actually coming home from visiting family. after one Thanksgiving break and talking about it. Within that car ride it went from “Wouldn’t that be cool” to by the time we were getting back to NY, it was “OK, let’s figure out how to do this.”
What were some challenges about starting out?
The hardest thing about getting in the distilling business is you can’t legally practice being a distiller. As a brewer, I could homebrew all day, I could invite you over to try my homebrew. As a distiller, that’s illegal.
Whiskey is (also) different than brewing where if I brew in a week, I have beer to sell. With whiskey, by law, to have straight whiskey, it’s a two-year process.
Another joke in the industry is that if you want to make a small fortune in distilling, it’s really easy. You just have to start with a really large fortune.
We’re very fortunate in that my wife had a house in Brooklyn that she was able to sell. It is through the proceeds of that plus the whiskey sales that we have made thus far that are funding this.
For us, we had to self fund because it was the only way. Nobody believes in us as much as we do.
How is your whiskey produced now?
Right now we’re sourcing whiskey that’s made in both Indiana and Wisconsin. Blending is a very proud tradition pre-Prohibition and in Europe with cognac and wine. That said, in the U.S. there’s been some pushback in the industry because folks in the industry are tempted to make it seem as though they’ve distilled the things they’re sourcing.
Even though we initially wanted to produce ourselves right out of the gate, because of the time it took to realize we were going to have to fund it ourselves, it did enable us to have proof of concept with the blend and to also really start to get that story out into folks minds.
Did you consider fighting to keep the Bomberger’s name?
We were advised that we could win but it was a lot of money. The reason that we got into this was to make whiskey and do preservation through production. So for us it made more sense to change the name.
How did the trademark suit affect you?
We had to stop in our tracks. We had been going about eight months. We were just getting traction. We were on menus at Robert De Niro’s restaurants in New York. We had all these amazing things happening. It’s like you just get started on your dream, and then the rug gets pulled out from under you.
For us there was never a question of stop, it was just how do we best preserve what we’re trying to do and continue. So for us it was always preservation through production.
What’s your attitude toward all your obstacles?
For us we come from a restaurant and food world where there’s not a question of, is there going to be an emergency? Is something going to go wrong? It will. How do you react to it? And I think in life in general it works that way too."

Also, Sam Komlenic wrote on March 25th on the Whisky Advocate blog about Dick and Erik doing distillation runs in Virginia:

Direct link with picutures: http://whiskyadvocate.com/2016/03/25/the-man-comes-around/

Sometimes life takes us down strange paths. And sometimes it's amazing where they lead. Who knew that Dick would get another shot at doing what he does best!

 Obligatory Michter's Picture:

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Collecting Michter's- The Basics For Beginners.

First are foremost, apologies for the long delay between posts. Spring and summer were busy, so certain things got neglected. This was, unfortunately, one of them.

Collecting Michter's. If you're going to collect Michter's items, you've got to start somewhere. And you've got to define what you want to collect and how much of it. Here are a few hints and things to contemplate when starting your Michter's collection. Some of these ideas can apply to collecting almost anything as well.

Starting the collection:
    Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start. First and foremost, define the depth and breadth of what you want to collect- just jugs, just decanters, paperwork, signage, barrels, just pot still decanters, or in my case- everything! Understand that collections take up money and space. If you don't have much space, I recommend concentrating on certain decanters like the jugs, hex items, or Tuts. Or even postcards and cups and ashtrays. Once you've got a groundwork down of what you want, plan a budget and also decide how much of each item you want. You can get carried away really quickly and tear through cash and end up with cases of Conestoga Wagons. Trust me. I know. Remember too that Michter's items vary widely in price and availability. Most common decanters can be picked up for $20 or less. Full glass bottles and rare decanters regularly exceed $100 each and are very uncommon. If you want to grow a small collection quickly into a nice display, I highly recommend pursuing common decanters. You can read my other posts to get a good idea of the rarity or commonality of most Michter's items. Another thing to think about is having good storage and display places for your collection. Dampness, sunlight, and extreme cold or heat will rapidly damage your items. Decanters crack or tarnish. Labels fade and peel, and paperwork can become moldy or bent. Don't use cheap shelves to display decanters. Even empty, they are heavy and can fall and smash and/or cause injury. Make sure your display/storage areas are safe and secure so your investment does not get destroyed. Keep in mind too that you will want to dust and clean your collection now and then to keep them looking mint. Dust can easily be removed with a Swiffer cloth or used dryer softener sheets. Unless you've got stubborn dirt on your decanters, I would not recommend Windex or other cleaners due to the possibility of them harming the paper labels. If you do have stains or dirt, use cleaning products sparingly and only on the dirty area so as not to harm the labels.

Where to buy Michter's items:
    Geography comes into play when trying to find Michter's items. I am fortunate to be close to the Schaefferstown site, so it's relatively easy to find stuff around here. Public sales can be an excellent source of all sorts of Michter's stuff if you're in eastern Pennsylvania. Craigslist sometimes yields results as well. For those that are not fortunate enough to be local to eastern PA, there is always EBay! You'll have to pay for shipping and risk damage in transit, but if items are packed properly, they should make it to you just fine. Even with the steady sources of Michter's around me, I still buy frequently on EBay as well. Prices are generally reasonable, and you just never know where in the USA items will show up. It's quite convenient! However, be prepared for bidding wars on uncommon and unusual items. I sometimes have surplus decanters. If you're looking for inexpensive, common decanters, contact me and I'll see what I've got.

So there's a crash course on collecting Michter's. Hopefully it gives you something to contemplate and a basic starting point for your collection. Good luck!

 You may wonder how I started my collection. It started with two jug decanters:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

25 years ago....

This past Valentine's Day, amid all the love and happiness, there was one event that, outside the world of American whiskey, went unnoticed. On February 14th, it's been 25 years since Michter's was in operation. It was Valentine's Day 1990 when Dick Stoll and the crew locked the doors one last time. Much has changed in 25 years. Dick is still with us, as is his wife Elaine (Who was a tour guide.). So are a handful of other employees. And the myriad of decanters! And the cups, hats, trays, lighters, aprons, postcards, lamps, barrels, and other Jug House trinkets. Even the "Barrel-a-day" still is in use in Ohio by the Herbruck family at Tom's Foolery Distillery. The property, however, has vastly changed. Due to neglect over the last 25 years, most of the buildings had to be taken down. The Bomberger Warehouse, Warehouse B, Warehouse C, Warehouse D, the column still tower, the grain drying building, the Jug House, and the Grain and Fermentation buildings are all gone. Only the Still House, gauging building, Warehouse A/Rectifying and Bottling, and 2 of the pump houses stand. And I must say, they DO look the best they've looked in 25 years. The Barry family put the correct windows back in the Still House and everything still standing got a nice coat of paint. Even the hex signs were redone on the top of the Still House. I must commend them for doing that. While it is a shame that the other buildings were removed, they were a hazard and most likely in too bad of condition to save. So on Valentine's Day, I had to do one thing- go visit the distillery with a bottle of the finest Sour Mash ever made!