Friday, January 5, 2018

You're Disqualified!!

With the recent strong feelings over whether Jack Daniel's is a bourbon or not (Read here for a great explanation: Chuck Cowdery's answer to the Jack Daniel's argument) I think it's time we take a look at Michter's.......

Let's preface this by saying I am referring to the product of the original Michter's from Schaefferstown, PA. Not the modern line of products coming from Kentucky. From the Bomberger Distillery a few miles outside of Schaefferstown came the product I so love, collect, and write about- Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey *Said all in one breath*. Read it again. Notice something? A something that is also missing from the Jack Daniel's label? Keen whiskey drinkers would notice there is no "rye" or "bourbon" on the label. No, it's not because there's some devious plot to pipe Jack to PA secretly. The reason for "bourbon" not appearing on the ol' No. 7 is a different reason than why it does not appear on Michter's labels.
Let's start with what makes a bourbon a bourbon and what makes a rye a rye. I won't go into each and every detail so this doesn't get confusing for those not as acquainted with American whiskey laws and regulations. Under Title 27, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, 5.22 "The Standards of Identity" you'll find (b)(1)(i) stating the following:

“Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

What does this mean in layman's terms? When you're making bourbon, you've got to have at least 51% corn in the mix. Rye gets at least 51% rye grain and so on. It can't come off the still at more than 160 proof and it can't go into a new charred oak (Very important!) barrel at more than 125 proof. 

And with that, Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey- YOU'RE DISQUALIFIED!!

Why? Well, the creator of the Michter's brand, Mr. Lou Forman, wanted something unique. He saw the popularity of Jack Daniel's and knew of the coming of Maker's Mark- both unique whiskeys for their time. Mr. Forman wanted a slice of this market. So he didn't just want to create another bourbon, or rye, or blended whiskey. Michter's isn't a blend. It contains no neutral spirits. It's not a bourbon. It's not a rye. It's not corn whiskey either. What is it?

Whiskey.

Yep.

Just. Whiskey.

Michter's does not meet the qualifications to be called a bourbon, rye, or corn whiskey. Nor anything else. Michter's, by mashbill (Recipe), is closest to bourbon. However, it does not contain the required 51% corn to be called a bourbon. While it was distilled below 160 proof and went into its barrel around 108-115 proof, it's already been disqualified on the mashbill from becoming anything but "whiskey." But there's more. To keep costs lower, if freshly emptied barrels were available, they were filled with the newly distilled Michter's. So now we have a second disqualification. Only corn whiskey is allowed to be aged in reused barrels (Corn whiskey must contain 80% or more corn in the mashbill). Even if Michter's had the required 51% corn, it would get disqualified by being aged in reused barrels. Not all Michter's was aged in reused barrels though. Some was aged in new barrels. My bulk whiskey inventory lists from the 1980's confirm this, as did Dick Stoll (Master Distiller at Michter's from 1976-1990). But ultimately, they were all dumped together when bottling batches of Michter's.

Whiskey. That's it. The Original Sour Mash Pot Still part is just fluff. It was sour mash whiskey, that is true. And it did come out of a pot still. Original? Sure, why not. Does it make Michter's inferior? Absolutely not. It's like saying Jack Daniel's would be inferior just because it was subjected to the Lincoln County Process. Michter's was and is regarded as a quality product. And with the odd mix of barrels that made up the small batches, some bottles and decanters have a bourbon flavor, while others have a more rye-ish character. I haven't had a bottle I didn't like!

So there you have it. A unique product that was purposely disqualified from certain titles by its creator just so it could be something unique. And unique it was. The modern day Michter's in Kentucky makes a Sour Mash whiskey that is made to replicate the Original stuff, and I've tried them side-by-side and it's worthy of its name. The folks in Kentucky also make a nice lineup of other whiskies under the Michter's name that include bourbons and ryes that are worth finding and trying. Even the original Michter's in PA made some bourbons and ryes, but generally either sold the whiskey to other companies for bottling or they would bottle it under other names. The only bottling that's ever been confirmed of Michter's that wasn't just "whiskey" was a one-off bottling of straight rye whiskey that was sold exclusively through the Jug House at the distillery. The Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still whiskey is still out there. Not on the shelf of your liquor store, but it's out there. And it's worth the money to check it out. It does taste different. And it's good.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

They're open! The day has come!

After years of hard work, planning, and getting things just right, the day has come. Stoll and Wolfe Distillery is open for business. You're now able to experience a distillery and tasting room unlike anything else in the heart of what was rye whiskey country. Stoll and Wolfe is a continuation of sorts. See, when Dick Stoll received the call from the bank to shut down the Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown in 1990, there was no official end. It was assumed at the time that a new operator would be found by the bank in short time and they'd be back at it. That day never came. The doors stayed locked. Eventually the whiskey was all removed and destroyed by the government. Mr. Stoll never retired from Michter's. No, he retired instead from a local school district, denied a final farewell from distilling. But maybe it's because there would be a new beginning for him? Yes, this is where Stoll and Wolfe begins. While Erik, his wife Avianna, and father Jim Wolfe put it all together, they wanted to give Dick the chance to be involved with what he so loved years ago. And to some day, have a proper send off- the opportunity to say "Ok guys, now I'm ready." And though over a quarter century has gone by, he hasn't forgotten much, if anything. I've asked him very specific questions about the process of distillation at Michter's and he knew the exact answers. During the opening festivities, S&W released the first of their batches of rye whiskey. This whiskey was distilled in Virginia by the Wolfes and the Stolls (Dick met his wife Elaine at the distillery when she was hired as a tour guide. Elaine has many fond memories of the distillery just like Dick and is also a wealth of great knowledge). Dick was involved with coming up with the mashbill and the actual distillation and barreling of the product. Have I tried the rye? Yes. It's wonderful. For only being about a year to year and a half old, it's a great balance. Butterscotchy and lightly oily and grainy on the tongue. Astringent and slightly dry on the finish. And it will only get better as more time in the barrel influences the distillate. While the tasting room is open, the distillery will begin operation in the next few weeks. There are some finishing touches that need done and test runs will commence. And of course you can expect the same quality in future batches. So, stop by. Have a drink. Or two. Buy a bottle. Or two. Chat with Erik, Avi, Jim, and the others. You'll learn something, guaranteed.

Check them out at 35 North Cedar St. in Lititz, PA and online at  http://www.stollandwolfe.com/


Below are photos taken by and used by permission from Amy Spangler.  Her photography work is second to none and shows some wonderful scenes from the opening week of festivities......


The tasting room. Very cozy.....

Erik Wolfe making a drink for a customer. Try his version of Rock and Rye. It's excellent.

Avianna greets customers.

The current menu. Vodka or gin based drinks are also available, as is wine.

Discussing the news of the day is Jim Wolfe and yours truly. I'm wearing one of my Michter's shirts for the occasion.

The legends. Dick and Elaine Stoll were on hand for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Some of the best folks you could ever spend time talking with about Michter's and anything whiskey.

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: