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?
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.