Featured in our 'Heart & Soul' Auction is a stunning selection of rare expressions from Michter's that we couldn't wait to explore. We got in touch with Michter's Master of Maturation, Andrea Wilson, and here's what she had to say... (We want to extend a huge thank you to Andrea for sharing her story with us all!)
Could you please introduce yourself explaining your role at Michter’s including a brief overview of how you got involved in the whiskey industry?
My name is Andrea Wilson and I am the Master of Maturation of Maturation for Michter’s Distillery.
I grew up in a family listening to stories from my great uncle who worked for Seagram’s and my grandfather who was a moonshiner before he met my grandmother. My grandfather would take us outside the house to tell us stories of his old bootlegging days, as my grandmother forbid telling these stories around us children. In his own endearing way my grandfather wanted us to know his life journey. He grew up in Loretto, Kentucky and had many friends in the whiskey business, many of whom we were able to meet on our fishing trips which would usually end with a trip to a distillery. This served as the foundation for my interests in the industry.
As I got older, I knew I wanted a career in the whiskey business but there was not a school for me to learn the trade so through family and mentors I learned that I might consider a degree in chemical engineering which seemed to provide much of the curriculum I would need to be successful in making spirits.
I graduated with a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering in 1996 but, because Kentucky Bourbon is a career industry and the business was not growing at that time, it was hard to find a job. I knew I could not leave Kentucky as I had responsibility to family, so I decided to become a consulting engineer. I am grateful for this time in my life and all the people whom I learned from as I worked on a variety of different projects as a young engineer. It played a significant role in helping me grow and understand businesses of many varieties including manufacturing.
In 2003, I began work for Diageo as a contractor and in 2005 was hired in as warehouse manager. I worked for many years to hone my skills and learn as much as I could from many veterans in the industry. Ultimately, I ended holding various whiskey related positions including Director of Distillation and Maturation, North America - overseeing both the U.S. and Canadian distillation and maturation programs.
In 2014, I accepted a role with Michter’s and now as Master of Maturation I manage barrel specifications, barrel procurement, barrel entry strength, heat cycling and temperature monitoring during aging, tracking maturation of barrels, whiskey filtration in preparation for bottling, and innovation to continue to improve the aging process. I support our Master Distiller, Dan McKee in our goal of producing the best American whiskey and love every minute of it.
Could you please explain your role as Master of Maturation at Michter’s and what a typical day might involve for you?
One thing about this industry is that the days never look the same. Our team is the most important part of our operation, so I find checking in with the start of production is important and then it usually gives way to project work, tastings, troubleshooting, innovations, planning, strategy, research and many of the warehouse related functions mentioned above. There is also the hospitality side of the role spending time with guests sharing Michter’s philosophies and tasting through various expressions.
The famous Michter’s distillery in Pennsylvania has a significant history in that of American whiskey, could you share some of its story with us and why it was decided to revive the brand?
Michter’s traces its heritage back to Americas first whiskey company, Shenk’s, founded in 1753 by John Shenk. According to historical lore, commemorated by the Lebanon Valley Coin Club, in 1778 general George Washington visited the whiskey company to purchase whiskey for his men during a harsh winter at Valley Forge during the American Revolution.
In 1861, the distillery sold to Abraham Bomberger, and became known as Bomberger’s. The 1991 passage of U.S. prohibition forced the distillery to shut its doors until reopening in 1934. During the early 1950’s, then owner Lou Forman created the name Michter’s by combining portions of his son’s names, Michael and Peter. In 1989, Michter’s declared bankruptcy and shut its Pennsylvania operation leaving its name seemingly lost and abandoned to history.
Joseph J. Magliocco and his partners acquired the abandoned Michter’s trademark in the 1990’s and began work to resurrect Michter’s in Kentucky with the help of his consultant and mentor Richard “Dick” Newman, an industry veteran who had served as President and CEO of Austin Nichols Wild Turkey and other esteemed American whiskey brands.
Since that time, Michter’s has gone through three phases of production.
Phase 1 – We sourced Kentucky Straight Rye and Kentucky Straight Bourbon of a style that we really liked and hoped to eventually emulate ourselves. We had nothing to do with the production of this Phase 1 whiskey.
Phase 2 – We couldn't yet afford our own distillery, so we went to a Kentucky distillery with excess capacity and forged an agreement for the production of our recipes. In effect, we were like a chef who was cooking with his/her own recipes in someone else’s restaurant kitchen before he/she could afford his/her own.
Phase 3 – At this stage, we had the financial resources and built our own distillery in the Shively section of Louisville, Kentucky where we became a licensed distiller with 2 small stills in 2012. In 2014, we installed our main distillation system which is all copper and comprised of a 81 cm diameter, 14 meter high column still and a 946 liter pot still doubler.
By 2015, we were confident that our Phase 3 distillate was virtually identical to our Phase 2 distillate. And so over time, there will be a transition from our Phase 2 to Phase 3 product but the whiskey will have the same house style of rich, flavorful and easy drinking with a great mouth feel.
Currently Michter’s has three locations, all in Kentucky, we have our distillery in the Shively section of Louisville, we have our farm and our operations in Springfield Kentucky, and of course, we have the Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery.
Founder, Joe Magliocco has said before that the “cost be damned” approach that Michter’s has adopted today was actually a phrase that the old Pennsylvania distillery used. Are there any more examples of how the heritage of the brand impacts or influences what you do today at Michter’s?
All our whiskeys are made in Kentucky according to the traditional sour mash process whereby a portion of the previously distilled whiskey mash is "set back" into the next batch. The Michter’s Original Sour Mash whiskey utilizes corn, rye and malted barley and is aged exclusively in new toasted and charred barrels. It was created to honor the brand’s Pennsylvania heritage and its most popular offering during the 1970s and the 1980s, which was the Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey. It was named 2019 Whisky of the Year by the Whisky Exchange, the highly regarded global whisk(e)y source.
Can you tell us more about your “cost be damned” philosophy and the freedom/flexibility this gives you during the production process of creating Michter’s whiskeys?
Working for a family owned business is quite different. At Michter’s we have the freedom to focus on making the best American whiskey at whatever the cost. If we know there is something we can do to make it better – we do it!
Quality is a critical factor with consumers across the globe and we feel the focus on consistent quality is allowing our brand to grow. That is why quality transcends everything we do at Michter’s for example, in barrel aging we naturally season and air dry the wood for at least 18 months but sometimes up to 5 years. The longer air drying and seasoning provides for the break down and transformation of compounds that allow the beautiful aromas and characters we desire to fully express themselves. We want to get rid of bitter, astringent or green characters as those are not attributes we desire in the final product. We then toast and char our barrels to exacting specifications. Toasting being the art of slow heating the wood to achieve a certain break down of hemicellulose, oak lignin, tannins, and oak lactones to allow beautiful barrel extractives during the aging process. Producing barrels to these specifications is costly, but we believe it contributes to the highest quality whiskey.
Michter’s enters all our spirit into wood at 51.5% ABV, which is significantly lower than the industry allowable level of 62.5% ABV. Because we barrel our distillate at a lower-than-industry standard entry strength/proof, we need to expend substantial extra funds to purchase more barrels and build more rickhouse storage space. This more expensive protocol ultimately leads to richer barrel chemistry that produces a richer, smoother whiskey. To put this in context, by using our lower entry proof of 51.5% ABV vs. the industry allowable entry proof of 62.5% ABV, we add 50% less water to our whiskey on the day of bottling.
We also heat cycle our barrels in the winter which allows more interaction between the whiskey and the wood thus increasing maturing quality.
Once the whiskey completes it’s maturing cycle, it is important to understand the whiskey that took years to develop in the barrel and skillfully determine how to showcase everything that whiskey has to offer. There are many changes in the whiskey that are directly related to the storage in wood such as development of acids, esters, etc. which drive tremendous complexity into the product.
The design of all of these processes is not inexpensive but focuses on increasing the quality of the final product. All of this takes a great deal of attention to detail and discipline by our team to ensure our quality specifications are being met each and every time.
How are things going at your Fort Nelson distillery? We were very excited to hear that you acquired the original pot stills from Pennsylvania!
Things are going well at Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery since it opened to the public in February 2019. It’s an iconic Louisville building from the late 1800s, and we are so happy that after eight years of reconstruction, including the installation of a 400,000-pound steel structure to stabilize it, we were able to save the building and make it our home.
Currently, the distillery is closed due to Covid-19, but normally is open to the public with educational tours, tastings, a gift shop, and The Bar at Fort Nelson, which offers classic cocktails curated by spirit and cocktail historian, Dave Wondrich.
Our larger Michter’s Shively Distillery, which has continued to operate during the pandemic, has a traditional Kentucky column to pot distillation set up, and Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery with its legendary pot to pot system, originally from Michter’s Pennsylvania Distillery, adds a different dimension to our distilling program.
Have you started bottling any of your own distilled whiskey?
We began distilling at Fort Nelson distillery on the legendary pot still and cypress wood fermentation system back in 2018 but that whiskey will not become available for many years until such time as we believe it has reached the desired quality for release.
It sounds like you are doing a fair amount of experimentation with Michter’s, e.g. air dried wood experiments, toasting barrels etc. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Experimentation and innovation are a part of our business. People change, tastes change, and people more than ever want to explore and learn. While the fundamentals don’t change, you can still maintain traditions but venture into new worlds of grain, yeast, wood and toasting profiles, entry strength of whiskies, aging periods, blending, equipment design and other areas – all of which can change the outcome. You never want to become complacent and lose your competitive edge. We are always seeking and learning, that is why innovation is so much fun!
Could you describe a signature character/house style of whiskey produced at Michter’s?
Michter’s house style is one of creating a quality experience for the consumer. We want the whiskey to be rich, flavorful, with a great aroma and mouth feel but without a harsh astringency or burn. We strive for an exciting and dynamic experience for the consumer with a defined beginning, middle and end that will make it a great sipping whiskey.
Michter’s has a spectacular range of whiskeys. If you had to pick, which would be your favourite and why?
I have a special fondness for all of our whiskies but the ones that just have that extra special place in my heart are the toasted barrel series. We have produced the Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon, Rye and Sour Mash whiskies now. Each one of these whiskeys is aged to full maturity and then moved to a toasted only barrel for a specific amount of time to impart particular characteristics based on the specific natural air drying and seasoning and toast profiles for that second barrel. The influences of the toast profile are what make these whiskies so fun to experience.
Other than Michter’s, what else would we find in your drinks cabinet?
As I am born and raised in Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I take great pride in Kentucky and the many wonderful Kentucky bourbons made in my home state. I have been fortunate to make so many wonderful friends in the Kentucky Bourbon industry, I could never just choose one Kentucky Bourbon beyond Michter’s to have in my drinks cabinet. The beauty of the industry is that each distillery has it own unique philosophy and history and heritage with people who are passionate about what they do. Therefore my liquor cabinet is representative of my friendships in the industry.
Can you give us any insight into future releases from Michter’s or upcoming projects we can look forward to?
We just announced the release of the Michter’s 25 Year Bourbon which is the first bottling of this product since 2017 and an honor to work on with our Master Distiller Dan McKee. We spent a lot of time reviewing inventory for this special release and are so excited about the quality of the experience.
Can you share with us a few reasons as to why whiskey is the heart and soul of your life?
Whiskey brings people together for so many reasons and in so many ways. It compliments any experience and builds lasting memories. For me, the opportunity to pursue making something so beautiful and delicious to share with someone else is tremendously rewarding.