Michter's - The Jug House That Warmed The Revolution
In the great Susquehanna Valley,
sometimes the sizzle is even better
than the steak
Michter's Jug House
COOPERSTOWN, NEW YORK is the home of
several important American icons. Perhaps best-known is the Baseball Hall of Fame,
established there in 1939 because Cooperstown’s Abner Doubleday is said to have
invented the game of baseball there a hundred years earlier. Testimony to the
power of nostalgia and marketing is that no one, not Major League Baseball®, the sportswriters, most of the fans,
the Hall of Fame itself, which dedicates an entire exhibit to various
alternative suggestions, even pretends to believe that
story wasn’t made up as part of Cooperstown's promotion bid to have the Hall of
Fame built there for baseball's centennial celebration, but the story is honored as if true,
regardless. Doubleday, a Union Army general who should better have been
known as the man who returned Confederate fire on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861,
thus beginning the Civil War, never claimed to have invented
baseball, nor was he even particularly interested in the sport. Nevertheless,
Cooperstown remains the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Birthplace of
Baseball™, in much the same way that Bardstown, Kentucky (or the county of
Bourbon) is recognized as the home of bourbon whiskey.
Cooperstown was also the home of author
James Fennimore Cooper, whose father, a wealthy landowner, judge and congressman, founded it.
James, one of America’s first great authors and perhaps one of its best, wrote
several novels, including The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and
The Last of the Mohicans, which have presented us with much of our concepts
about the people, frontiersmen and natives, who once lived there. In those books
he often referred to Glimmerglass Lake, which was, in fact, Lake Otsego
in that area.
Lake Otsego is also the source of the Susquehanna River, which trickles out of
Otsego's lower end and, picking up runs, creeks, and smaller rivers
along the way, continues trickling until, in Pennsylvania between Scranton and
Wilkes-Barre, it joins up with the Lackawanna
River and begins
to carve up some serious scenery on its way to the Chesapeake Bay in
Maryland. Throughout most of central and eastern Pennsylvania it has formed the
great Susquehanna Valley. There is a temptation to add, “…sculpted from the very
rock of the Appalachian Mountains”, but that is not only untrue, it also understates the river's deserved reputation. For the Susquehanna River (along
with Lake Otsego and the other Finger Lakes) is way older than the
Appalachian Mountains. In fact, the valley was formed by the mountains rising around the river, which simply continued to go about its business as
if geological forces were of no significance.
Another river beginning in New York, the Delaware,
coast as Delaware Bay, about twenty-five miles east of the Chesapeake. Along the
way it connects Philadelphia to the sea.
doesn’t take more than a quick glance at a map to see the relationship between
the whiskey producers of Eastern Pennsylvania (which include those in Maryland, New
Jersey, and Southern New York) and the marketplaces of Baltimore and
Philadelphia. Within this area, we believe, lies the birthplace of American
It’s no coincidence that it’s also the
birthplace of America. The Eastern Pennsylvania/Maryland area has a rich heritage of whiskey-distilling, as does
every place where pioneers settled.
also developed a rich heritage of COMMERCIAL whiskey production, with distinct
regional characteristics and, beginning with one of the best-known of these, we
will explore places where a few of these distilleries once stood. For they are
all gone now. Not a single commercial producer of aged whiskey exists east of
the Appalachians today.
So, what kind of whiskey did these folks
make? Well, mostly the whiskey produced was sold locally, and it was probably
unaged spirits, distilled from corn and rye. Old Isaiah Morgan, of Jackson
County, West Virginia, whose primary business was as a dealer and shipper of
hay, may have produced just such a whiskey. Today, a very similar-tasting product
is available as Isaiah Morgan Rye Whiskey, which is available in West
Virginia state-licensed liquor stores and also onsite at the distillery in the
Kirkwood Winery, just outside of Summersville, West Virginia. You can learn more about Isaiah Morgan (which is
true, unaged rye whiskey bottled at a reasonable 80 proof) and their equally impressive Southern Moon
"corn liquor" by
Of course, in the 18th and
early 19th centuries most farm-produced whiskey was for personal
consumption or traded locally. And that was certainly true in Pennsylvania as
well. Another example you can visit along with us in
these pages is the small distillery that Israel Shreve built to augment George
Washington’s grist mill in Perryopolis in 1790.
But nearly forty years before even that, all
the way back in 1753, John Shenk (another Swiss Mennonite farmer) built a
similar home-farm distillery near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, in
Lebanon County. Sometime during the four generations of Shenks who operated it,
the distillery became a commercial venture. Perhaps its success was aided by the Revolutionary War.
Advertising claims made much later imply that the distillery provided whiskey
for George Washington’s troops, and although we haven’t been able to find any
corroborating evidence of that, it’s certainly not impossible – after all,
someone did, and this distillery was already nearly twenty-five years
old in 1776. At any rate, it appears to have been a commercial operation by the
late 1850’s, when John Shenk’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer sold it to another
Pennsylvania Deutsch Mennonite (and family member),
Abraham S. Bomberger. Abe’s family continued to operate the distillery until it
was forced to close in 1919 by national prohibition. Like many local
distilleries, there was a retail outlet on the site. And according to the
Bomberger family's recollection, the day before the distillery closed
(presumably for eternity) cars, horses, and wagons were lined up for 2½ miles to make their final purchases.
The family sold the
distillery while Prohibition was still in effect.
That part of the story seems pretty straightforward. Fourteen years after the
18th amendment was ratified, however,
it became the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed.
just what happened with the little distillery in Schaefferstown after that is a
multi-layered puzzle nearly as hard to figure out as who really did invent
Presented here is just
The following owes much to the two really
excellent web pages that Abe Bomberger’s own great-granddaughter, Yvonne
Bomberger Fowler, has created describing the distillery and its history,
including photos and copies of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, and so forth.
Yvonne’s pages are
http://us.geocities.com/ybfowler/legacy.htm, and to another
website which is the promotional site for A. H. Hirsch Reserve, a very
limited-edition, highly-acclaimed bourbon whiskey that enjoys a unique and
intimate relationship with the Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown. We'll
learn more of A. H. Hirsh Reserve and its distributor, Henry Preiss Imports,
Inc. a little later.
The Preiss/Hirsch site (http://www.hirschbourbon.com),
also presents the Michter's Story -- although theirs is not exactly the same
Those sources are far more
comprehensive than this small article, so we’ll just be content to share our
photos and feelings as we explore the ruins.
And we do mean ruins. A tangle of collapsed
buildings, crumbling back into the earth, the little distillery near
Schaefferstown is overgrown with weeds, and also with conflicting and
partially-remembered stories every bit as twisting and tangled as the weeds.
For starters, we do know this much…
The Bombergers had sold the distillery
shortly after Prohibition went into effect. When it ended in 1933 a company named "Pennco" purchased
the distillery and then operated it for the next forty-five years until they sold it
in 1978 to the people who called it Michter's.
Well, then again, maybe we don’t even know
that for sure.
Yvonne Fowler said that, but according to information from the
Preiss Imports organization the distillery was purchased by Louis Forman
in 1942. That would be about thirty-five years shy of 1978, but then, who's
Fowler doesn't mention Louis Forman at all on either of her pages, but we have a ceramic jug, clearly marked Michter's, that dates
from 1942. It's also clearly marked "Louis Forman & Company Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania". But they’re identified only as the brand’s sole U. S. agents,
not as owners of the distillery. The jug is also somewhat ambiguous as to
whether the distillery even IS the old Bomberger place located just southwest of
Schaefferstown, since the address it shows links it to a location several miles
in the opposite direction.
No other Michter container or
publication mentions Sheridan. No Michter label
or advertisement actually states that the whiskey was
distilled at Schaefferstown, only that it was from somewhere in
only Pennco product that was bottled in bond (and therefore required by law
to state where it was distilled) was Penn Esquire (below right), which dates
from the same period and was, like Michter's, bottled in
Schaefferstown (the word "decanted" has no legal meaning). Penn Esquire was
distilled, however, by Continental Distilling, at the giant Publicker distillery
complex in Philadelphia. We find no reason to believe this local tourist product
wouldn't have been "decanted" from the same barrels.
And 1942 would also have been nine years after
prohibition ended. Did Pennco own the distillery for those nine years? Or maybe
Pennco was the operations branch of Louis Forman & Company.
But if that were the case, then just who WAS
operating the distillery during those nine years?
might wonder why that should be such a hard thing to learn, but there may have
been good reasons for it. Do you recall that we mentioned Yvonne Fowler's claim
that the Bomberger family
had sold the distillery (to someone) shortly after it closed, in compliance
with the Volstead Act? And then it was sold again (to someone, who?
Pennco? Forman?) right after
Repeal. Well, apparently there were these rumors, you see. Rumors that the distillery
might not have been, shall we say, completely silent all that time. The history
of Michter's as given on the Preiss/Hirsch website implies that the distillery
"may have" been started up "every so often" when no one was looking,
just to fill local needs. And since federal law makes knowingly dealing with a
felon a felony in itself at worst, and can negate the validity of titles, deeds,
and contracts at the very least, we've noticed that the entire distilling
industry, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and our own
proud state of Ohio, appears to have been universally affected by a sort of "amnesiac dysfunction" in
the recording of exact names during that time period.
Curiously, despite Yvonne Fowler's assertion
that Pennco was the legal and licensed operator of the distillery in
Schaefferstown for nearly half a century, the organization isn't mentioned at
all on the
And what happened to it after 1978?
It's hard to research a name like Pennco; the name "Pennco" is so
commonly used by Pennsylvania-based companies that searching on it
is like searching for “Joe Smith” in the phone book. There was once a brand of bourbon called Virgin. Try running
that through Google or Yahoo a few times and see
what kind of junk email you end up with
are no distillers of alcohol operating in the United States today under the name
“Pennco”. We couldn't find any information to confirm that Pennco had
do with any distillery (nor even that it still existed) after 1978.
But it was certainly operating a distillery
(or at least a bottling plant) in Schaefferstown before then.
marketed at least four brands under their own name . Union Town and Happy Hour
were blended whiskies. Pennco's 86 was an eighty-six proof, six-year-old
whiskey. That is the same description that would have applied to Michter's --
except that Pennco's 86 was a straight bourbon whiskey, which implied a somewhat
higher quality (although such an implication may not always be supportable;
Early Times would be a good example). Pennco also marketed a 7-year-old,
100-proof, bottled-in-bond straight bourbon whiskey labeled Penn Esquire.
It seems likely, from the label
for the Bottled-in-Bond Penn Esquire, that Pennco was related to South
Philadelphia’s Continental Distilling Corporation, a subsidiary of Publicker, as
the whiskey bottled in Schaefferstown was actually distilled at
their facility in Philadelphia (DSP-PA-1). Publicker produced many brands
spanning the entire range of quality, from awful to excellent. The
Schaefferstown site may have joined several others purchased by Publicker to
produce whiskey for use in its brands. There doesn’t appear to have ever been a
label containing both the name Pennco and Michter’s, but Michter's
remains as the
only name most people recognize in relation to this spirit.
And recognize it they most certainly do. Michter’s has
taken on an almost mythical status among American whiskey enthusiasts. Actually,
there’s nothing “almost” about it; like Stitzel-Weller, its alter-ego in the
bourbon world, Michter’s is generally assumed to be the ultimate American
whiskey, the Holy Grail for collectors.
is despite the fact that few, if any, of its most vocal advocates
have ever tasted the actual product, nor realize that the distillery itself wasn’t even
called Michter's prior to 1979.
Some of the legend is justifiable. A great
deal of the mystique about Michter’s quality
derives from the genuinely excellent bourbon whiskey marketed by Preiss Imports
that is (or at least once was) supposedly no less than a resurrection miracle.
More on that in a little bit, but for now what is important is that many
(probably most) devotees of Michter’s 16- and 20-year-old Pennsylvania Bourbon,
as bottled under the name A. H. Hirsch Reserve, are not aware that (1) the original
six-year-old Michter’s was nowhere near as fine a product – and they never sold an older version, and (2) neither Pennco, nor Michter’s Jug House, nor
Michter’s Distillery ever called that particular product “bourbon”, or “rye”; it was
labeled simply “pot-still whiskey”, which technically it was… but only to the
extent that every whiskey distilled in a four-story continuous column still (the
one housed by that tall section of the distillery with the jug-shaped water tank
on top of it) can
properly be called “pot-distilled” simply because it’s reprocessed through a “doubler”.
With few exceptions (Jack Daniel’s is the only one that comes to mind at the
moment, although there may be one or two others), all American whiskey (at least as made today) is
“doubled”. But it takes the imagination of a true marketer (or perhaps a
to describe such a product as “pot-distilled”.
Before Prohibition there could very well have been a retail store located at the
distillery, as that was not at all uncommon, and Yvonne Bomberger's tale
indicates that to have been the case at Bomberger's distillery as well. But
there is no record that such an outlet was part of Pennco's plan for the site,
nor is it likely that such a setup would have been permitted under
Pennsylvania's new state liquor control regulations.
If Michter's Jug House was independently licensed as a bottler, however, they
may have been able to get around that regulation, so long as they maintained
That might explain why the product's label avoids actually
stating that the whiskey in the bottle was distilled at a distillery owned by
Michter's Jug House.
So, with that in mind, we now leave the newly-revived old Bomberger distillery
as a supplier to Publicker and a marketer of the Pennco brand. We now enter a
world of pure speculation, one in which we need to remind you that statements
made (here or anywhere on this website) are strictly the opinion of the authors
and no claims are made as their authenticity. Like the Twilight Zone, it is a
journey which we begin by moving on up
the road about ten miles to the town of Sheridan...
... where there MAY once have been a licensed wholesaler known as Michter's Jug
House. Or perhaps Sheridan was the original location of Lou Forman's offices. Or
maybe the operation was associated with an entirely different distillery there. Whatever the connection, the fact is that the porcelain souvenir Pennsylvania
Dutch jugs from the early '40s that were the first containers labeled "Michter's" referred to
Sheridan, not Schaefferstown, as the location of "Michter's Jug House", where
the whiskey was "decanted and jugged" (not distilled, or it would have said so
-- well, maybe).
The jug does say the whiskey was distilled in the Blue Mountain
Valley, a location which includes both Sheridan and Schaefferstown (and at least a dozen
other communities), and it identifies the Louis Forman Company (of Philadelphia)
as its sole U. S. agents. There is no reference at all to Schaefferstown on that
jug, nor to
Pennco; and no reason to connect Michter's Jug House with the Bomberger
distillery as of 1942, when this particular jug was made.
Now, Yvonne Fowler's account has Pennco operating the old Bomberger distillery
all the way up to when they sold it "to Michter's" in 1978.
She doesn't mention
"Michter's Jug House" at all during that time, but that doesn't mean there
wasn't such an establishment located there. It simply may not have been
associated with the distillery, other than by location. Jugs from 1976 and 1978
state that they were "decanted and bottled" at Schaefferstown (although still
there is no mention of where the whiskey was distilled). Remember that during
this time Michter's was not the premium brand to which popular myth has now elevated it;
it was a 4- to 6-year-old, 86-proof non-straight basic American whiskey intended
to be sold as a souvenir to Pennsylvania Dutch Country sightseers in much the
same way that "Tennessee Lightnin'" (made in Virginia, by the way) is sold to
tourists in Gatlinburg. It could easily have been merely a tenant, sharing a
building on the grounds of the picturesque old distillery.
In the late 1970s, Publicker and Continental Distillers were falling on hard
times, and they began to unload some of their smaller operations. It may have
been around this time that the Michter's Jug House investors made the decision
to purchase the distillery itself and operate it as Michter's Distilling
Not a bad idea, considering that, with the closing of Continental it
would become Pennsylvania's only remaining whiskey operation. It was around this
time that regular (non-jug) bottlings of Michter's began to appear at
Pennsylvania state liquor stores as well as nationally and even internationally.
There is reason, however, to suspect the contents of those bottles
were not produced at Schaefferstown. For one thing, the labels, even the regular
non-jug labels, never had claimed that it was. They still stated only that the
whiskey was "decanted and bottled" there; nothing is said about where it was
distilled. For another, according to a Harrisburg Patriot-News story, the main
distilling equipment at the site had ceased being used around 1980, and during
its last decade the only functioning still was the tiny one-barrel-a-day demo
unit set up to show tourists how a distillery works.
It is conceivable that the main distillery was never used for producing
Michter's whiskey, as such, but rather as a source for Publicker whiskeys --
perhaps as generic "Distilled in Pennsylvania" rye or bourbon, or maybe as an
ingredient in their blended whiskies. If that were the case, then the product
distilled in 1974 (four years before Publicker sold the plant), which is what
Hirsch bought sixteen years later, may well have been a true bourbon whiskey;
and it may also have been the last whiskey actually distilled there.
So, what happened after 1978? Well,
here's what the papers say...
According to newspaper stories and Yvonne
Fowler’s information, Pennco sold the distillery to a group of eight local
(Lebanon County) businessmen. Although Fowler doesn’t mention this, these may have
been the owners of Michter's Jug House. Other sources have confirmed
that it was about this time that "Michter’s Distilling Company" first began to
appear on their labels.
A July 1979 Associated Press article in the
St. Petersburg (Florida) Times announces the purchase of the distillery by
Theodore D. Veru, of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Veru is identified as a former
executive with Schenley Distillers and the newspaper article indicates that he
has big marketing plans for the brand, including sales to Japan, Germany,
Italy, and Great Britain. We don't know exactly how long Ted Veru owned the
site; the only other reference we found for him was that he and his wife Georgia
each donated to the Bill Bradley for President campaign in 2000. Theodore Veru
of Fort Lee, N.J. was co-chairman of Lois/USA, a major marketing and advertising
firm at the time.
The March 27, 1989 issue of the Lebanon
Enterprise states that the distillery has “… fallen on hard times in recent
years. Sales have plummeted to 10,000 cases per year from 40,000 cases 10 years
ago. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1980 and was
taken over by a bank after it foreclosed. It is now owned by an unidentified
group of Philadelphia area investors.” That article, however, is the only
mention we’ve found that there was trouble as far back as 1980. Most other
references (including Yvonne Fowler’s on her other page) set the only bankruptcy
filing as happening in 1989.
In 1990, according to Preiss/Hirsch, Adolph Hirsch (no doubt knowing the distillery was about to go under)
purchased their stock of whiskey that had been made in 1974. This whiskey was
already sixteen years old at that time, and, as we've already seen, may have
been the last actually distilled at Schaefferstown. He bottled some of this as such, and
then sold the rest to the Hue family in Covington, Kentucky.
They had the amazing foresight to place the remainder in stainless steel tanks,
thus halting the aging process. Another portion was kept out and bottled in 1994 as a
20-year-old. The Hues have continued the stainless steel storage and
market the brand (still called A. H. Hirsch, by the way) through Henry Preiss Imports, who
also market other fine products under the A. H. Hirsch name. There have been two
or three subsequent (small) releases of the 16-year-old product. There is
probably no 20-year-old left except in the hands of collectors. It should be
emphasized here that the Hirsch bourbon is a truly outstanding whiskey, and
every bit worthy of the praise that is universally bestowed upon it. It should also be
noted that it is a very different and far older whiskey than anything labeled
Michter’s ever was. For one thing, Michter’s was never labeled “bourbon”.
Although only speculation, it is logical to assume one reason for that may
have been that the Michter’s mash bill (grain recipe) was probably closer to the
10% malted barley and equal amounts of corn and rye that we think was the most
common proportions prior to the “straight whiskey” laws. In order to be called
bourbon or rye today, a whiskey must contain at least 51% of corn or rye,
By the way, like Ted Veru, Adolph Hirsch was
also an ex-Schenley executive. We’ve found no record that the Schenley company
had any involvement with Pennco, but then we’ve found no records at all of who
Pennco’s customers were. We do know that Schenley had dealings with many
Pennsylvania distilleries, including Dillinger and another known as Pennsylvania
Distilling Company, of Logansport, Armstrong County. PDC, in turn, had a working
relationship with Publicker/Continental. Whether or not PDC was one
and the same as Pennco is not known, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that
Schenley and Pennco worked together.
Sometime around 1991 (no one seems to know
just when), everyone involved with the Michter’s distillery just simply upped and
didn't appear to have notified anyone.
They just vanished without a trace. Within a year or so deterioration, prowlers, and
burglars were causing a major public nuisance. In addition to the usual business
assets – production equipment and supplies, office machinery, records, etc. –
there was the small matter of inventory… some 300,000 gallons of whiskey, some
bottled and most stored in barrels. Les Stewart writes in the Lebanon Valley
Daily News that the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
converted the firm’s case from Chapter 11 (protection from creditors) to Chapter
7 (liquidation of assets) in June of 1992. By that time the property was already
known to have been abandoned.
According to Todd Meyer of the same
newspaper, the last-known owner of the distillery was Aquari Holding Company,
which does not appear to exist. Heidelberg Township police detectives trying to locate
company personnel found nothing but a string of non-existent or bogus addresses.
In 1994, after negotiating such issues as
property and school taxes owed from as far back as 1988, Brooklyn lawyer John
Michael Spanakos purchased the Atlantic Financial Savings Association lien on
the property and filed a mortgage foreclosure to obtain the title.
expected to be able to refurbish the decaying structures and equipment and to be
able to return it to full production within six to seven months.
It didn’t happen. In January of 1996 the
distillery was again sold, this time to Gene Wilson, an attorney from Louisa,
Kentucky, who auctioned off the office furniture and production equipment in May
of that year and set forth to reopen the site. Wilson did not expect to produce
whiskey on a large scale, but was pursuing the idea of setting up a
one-barrel-a-day tourist attraction. He told Mark Heckathorn of the Harrisburg
Patriot-News that modern environmental regulations and the lack of available
adjoining land rendered it impossible to operate a commercial distillery there. Because
of the development of the area there is no longer enough surrounding farmland
available to provide room for the additional settling ponds for wastes and other
environmental regulations, and Wilson's attempts at purchasing adjacent farmland
brought no offers to sell.
Wilson said he paid $160,000 for the
property, sight unseen, just to get the small pot-still demonstration setup that
was still available. Capable of processing only ten bushels (one barrel output)
per day, it had been constructed in 1976 by Tom Sherman of Louisville's Vendome
Copper Company as part of the bi-centennial celebrations
more than just a pot-still, it included a miniature mash tub, fermenters,
condensers, and everything necessary for a complete miniature distillery. It was
installed exclusively to show tourists the whiskey-making process. However, it
had also been the only functioning still on the 22-acre site since the main
distilling equipment was shut down in 1980.
"After I bought [the distillery],
I brought Dave Beam up with all sincerity of starting it back up," Wilson told the
Patriot-News. David Beam had retired as distiller at the Jim Beam distillery in
Another member of the ubiquitous Beam
family, Charles Everett Beam had been hired by Louis Forman in 1950 to help
start up their operations after World War II, and he had remained there as
master distiller for many years after that.
In addition to the equipment, someone --
perhaps Gene, or maybe whoever Gene sold the property to -- had the sense to
sell the one thing Michter's owned that had real value... the name "Michter's"
itself. Not only did the brand get sold, it got sold to an organization that has
proceeded to capitalize on it. The four varieties of whiskey that Chatham
Imports market under the Michter's name are all worthy, and then some. There are
two single-barrel rye whiskies, one a normal four-year-old, the other ten years,
a bourbon (also a ten-year-old single barrel), and most interesting of all, a
product labeled, "Unblended American Whiskey", which has a decidedly maple
flavor, similar to some, uh... not completely licensed whiskey we've tasted from
It's good to know that this fine old name
will continue on despite the demise of the distillery that probably didn't
produce that whiskey in the first place. It can now join the likes of J. W. Dant, Old
Fitzgerald, Old Overholt, Pikesville, Yellowstone, Henry McKenna, J.T.S. Brown,
Dowling Deluxe, Old Grand Dad, and McCormick as whiskeys that have only their
name in common with the products they once were. It is a better-tasting whiskey
than most of those, and also better than Michter's really ever was, too.
In 1976, in recognition of its significance
as both Pennsylvania’s only remaining operating distillery and perhaps the only
legitimate claimant for the title of America’s oldest (more or less)
continuously-operating distillery, Michter's was placed on the list of National
Historic places. In June of 1980, the Department of the Interior further escalated that
honor by designating Michter’s a National Historic Landmark, which took it from
the "this is a nice example of a very old building" category into the rarified
world of places like Independence Hall and Gettysburg. And yet, by the mid-‘90s
the lovely bronze plaque could be seen peeking through the underbrush that
overgrew the crumbling ruins. In 1997 the designation was officially rescinded.
Back in 2006 our friend and dedicated
amateur Pennsylvania whiskey historian, Sam Komlenic of Pennsylvania State
University, wrote to us about his experiences at Michter’s during its most
glorious times and also after its fall from grace. The following are his
It's hard to believe
it's slowly creeping up on 20 years since I poked my head into that unlocked
warehouse door at Schaefferstown in late 1989 and watched barrels being dumped
into a stainless trough filled with charcoal and Pennsylvania sour mash. The
sensation of the barrel proof nectar the workers offered me still lingers in my
sinuses. The ricks were conspicuously empty, even to the casual visitor, and I
wondered even then how long they would last. Scant months, as it turned out.
This was the same visit where I was told that they had, in the recent past,
bottled up a supply of 20 year old straight rye and sent it to Japan. The
excess had been sold out of the Jug House prior to my visit.
The first of my
perhaps five trips to Michter's, in 1979, was the only one where I actually took
their tour. They charged you a dollar for the tour, but at the end, took a
picture of you with the whiskey you had (hopefully) purchased, then sent you the
photo in a card signed by your tour guide via U.S. mail. I still have mine. I
don't remember much about the tour, which did not include any warehouses, and
wish I knew then what I know now about distilling, not to mention wanting to
have had a camera!
I do remember that
the operation, overall, was pretty small. The "one barrel a day" pot still
was in a separate area from the rest of the distilling operation, and I can't
for the life of me remember a larger pot anywhere in the distillery. They
offered mule rides across the road from the distillery, where the parking lot
was. They also told you how many bottle equivalents could be held by the
display jug on the roof, which concealed the water tower. The Jug House
(in the old Bomberger distillery building, a very old, attractive, and
well-maintained structure) was accessed through the souvenir shop and visitor's
center, and was very quaint, even country store-like, with sales displays and
shelves filled with their many (and ubiquitous) decanters and jugs.
Between the two areas was a small historical display of artifacts uncovered
during an earlier expansion proving the lineage of distilling at the site
extended back over more than a century than had been realized before that.
They had previously quoted a start-up date in the late 1800's. This
material gave them more than a century head start. I often wonder what
happened to those artifacts once the plant was abandoned. It all deserved
to be held by the local historical society, and perhaps I should investigate
George Shattls, the general manager at that time, showed me their
230th (!) anniversary decanter, which had been issued a few years earlier.
I asked about availability, and he offered to send me one if I paid him there.
In these pre-eBay days, I was suspicious of ever getting the decanter, but it
actually arrived shortly thereafter. I have only ever seen one other
My last visit was in May of 1990. For a few years, I stopped at
least once per year on my way to a breweriana show in Philadelphia which was
held in May and November (hence the date of my last visit). A piece of 8½ x 11
notebook paper was taped to the inside of the visitor's center door, "Closed
until further notice."
In the span of six months, I had gone from my best distillery experience ever to
mourning the loss of this historic enterprise. Legal distilling in Pennsylvania
had ended. I don't know why my usual instincts didn't kick in. Maybe it was
because I had too much reverence for the place that I didn't poke around, didn't
walk around back, didn't jiggle a door handle or try a window. I was driving a
full size Dodge pickup truck that would easily have hauled 50 cases or 4
barrels. It's probably just as well. Otherwise, I might not be relating the
story as I know it to have occurred. Michter's was MY distillery, more than
anyone else's. I have discussed this with John Hansell, publisher of Malt
Advocate. A native of Lebanon County, even he never made a single visit to
Michter's, a situation he still discusses with regret. I feel privileged to
have had such a personal connection to what has become one of the most
significant and longest-lived distilleries ever to operate in these United
I just realized that
I have written all there is to know about my personal experience with what was
once America's Oldest Distillery. My home state was home to both this and
America's Oldest Brewery.
Oh, that it were
still the same!
Oh, and by the way -- according to Tom Heitz of
the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, Alexander Cartwright,
not Abner Doubleday, invented the game of baseball, adapting it from the English
sport of Rounders in 1845. As fine, upstanding Americans who value our
traditions, however, we shall continue recognizing
Abner Doubleday as the Father of Baseball. Nor shall we allow our beliefs to be swayed
for one single moment by the fact that the very same Baseball Hall of
Fame has a copy of the Delhi (N.Y.) Gazette with a public notice concerning an
upcoming game of baseball, to be played on July 13, by organized teams of nine men.
So who really cares that the newspaper
article was published twenty years earlier, in 1825?
But Wait!! There's More!!!
In 2010 our understanding of Michter's and its history was
again significantly upgraded. Early in that year, Ethan Smith, of nearby
Manheim, Pennsylvania, invited several interested people to join him for a
meeting at the ruins of the old distillery. Ethan is a young man, with what can
only be called a total obsession with this distillery, its products, and its
history. He has worked tirelessly with Dwight Hostetter, the present owner of
the property, to help preserve what is left. Hostetter himself has (or did have,
before he met Ethan) no particular interest in the property as a distillery; he
is a woodworker and bought the ruins to set up his workshop in the large
bottling building and to make use of the old lumber available. That's probably
still his major aim, but Ethan's enthusiasm (perhaps reinforced somewhat by this
visit and our interest) may have added a new dimension to his ownership.
The original plan was for the meeting to have been on February 14th,
commemorating the 20th anniversary of the day the distillery officially closed in 1990. In addition, Ethan had arranged for Dick Stoll, Michter's/Pennco's
master distiller for 19 years, to talk with us. Sadly, a string of misfortunes
-- including further building damage and deterioration resulting from two
massive snow storms -- have caused the meeting to be cancelled.
In July, however, a few of us regroup and arrange a much smaller
visit. This is just John (Linda is unable to go this time) with Sam
Komlenic, our independent distiller friend, Herman Mihalich, Ethan, of
course, along with his wife Gretchen, Dwight Hostetter, and Dick Stoll, with his
We all meet at the distillery and spend
the morning and early afternoon exploring the ruins. Of course the level of
decomposition is appalling, but that is to be expected. What wasn't
expected is how much is actually still here. The stainless steel fermenting vats
are intact, as are many of the mixing and holding tanks. But the real surprise
is that the large all-copper column still is still in place. What's more, it
seems to be in pretty good shape, especially considering that it hasn't been
fired up in nearly thirty years!
Elaine Stoll, by the way, is not only Dick's wife, she is also a fountain of
information and stories about Michter's in her own right, especially the Michter's that so many
tourists visited and loved. She was working here as a tour guide when she
and her future husband first met, and hers was the face by which thousands of
visitors remember the distillery (and for most, probably American whiskey in
general). Her brave and comedic, if futile, attempts to provide a "typical tour
presentation", while we stumble among the crumbling ruins that had once been a
state-of-the-art distilling site, have us all laughing.
And all the while we're climbing in and out of the
infrastructure, Dick Stoll is telling us stories about what it was like to be
working here, all the different products that Pennco produced in addition to
Michter's whiskey, and so forth.
After spending the day at the distillery site, we all join up
again in a suite at a hotel in nearby Lebanon to continue our stories and share
tastes of American whiskey from the past, the present, and even the future.
and Sam have brought samples of Pennsylvania rye to taste from before, during,
and just after Prohibition. And of course there are samples of Michter's
Dick and Ethan. With all that to taste, we are careful to sample only tiny
amounts, of course.
we have, as designated drivers, two members-in-excellent-standing of AWMPW (the
Association of the World's Most Patient Wives) standing by. They also provide
pizza for all.
And of course, the stories continue. Elaine later emails us to
say that she and Dick consider this to be the retirement celebration he deserved
but never got.
Dick tells us of how Michter's came to be and of working with
distiller Everett Beam. He tells us about the previous owner of the distillery,
a producer of Kirk's Pure Rye, and about Pennco's (and Michter's) relationship
to that brand and to Continental Distilling in Philadelphia. He clears up a lot
of unanswered questions about Michter's, about Ted Veru, about Louis Forman and
Charles Everett Beam, about the company's growth and success, and its inglorious
decline, about A. W. Hirsch, and Kirk's Rye, and Pennco, and Wild Turkey, and a few other very
well-known brands, such as...
Ahhh, but that would be another story. Maybe Dick Stoll will tell you;
... and Even More!!!
During the summer of 2010 Ethan Smith put together, from his
extensive (to say it mildly) research, what is probably the definitive
explanation of this iconic brand; how it came to be and how it came to pass
August he submitted it to John Hansell, editor and publisher of Malt Advocate
Magazine, and Hansell immediately included it as a "Guest Blog" on his personal
blogsite, "What Does John
Know?". It was only the second guest blog Hansell had ever published at that
the first being also on the subject of Michter's; that one was written by
Do I believe Ethan's conclusions are accurate? You bet I do.
Do they contradict much of what I've speculated above? Yes.
Does that mean we need to re-write what you've read here about Michter's, and
Pennco, and Bomberger, and Lou Forman, and Ted Veru, and all that? Nope. Of
course it would be easy to do that; that's the great thing about an internet web
page... unlike a printed book, it can be updated instantly to give the
impression that the author never wrote any of those erroneous statements. But
our purpose with this page -- as it is with all of our pages -- is to show the
fun of exploring the hazy paths leading to understanding American Whiskey. Even
if that understanding occasionally turns out to be not completely correct.
Sometimes it's only the fog of time that presents a challenge; sometimes it's
the result of misleading information. Most often one's conclusions are drawn
from a combination of facts and speculation. The end results might be right...
or they might not be. But the process of reaching those conclusions -- obtaining
information and then testing whether or not it logically fits with other
knowledge -- is applicable to so many endeavors. Whiskey brands are one of them,
of course. So is American history. I'm sure you can find others. And sometimes
even a wrong suggestion provides the very clue another explorer needs in order
to move the knowledge just a little bit further toward correct.
Looking for more about American Spirits?
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