American Whiskey
Sept
ember 4, 2001:

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  
Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania 

       

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, nor even 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, reaches the coast as Delaware Bay, about twenty-five miles east of the Chesapeake. Along the way it connects Philadelphia to the sea. It 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 whiskey.

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. It 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 clicking HERE.

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. And 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 baseball.

Presented here is just a taste. 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://web.tampabay.rr.com/ybfowler/distilry.htm and 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 story.

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 counting? 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 Pennsylvania. The 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?

Now you 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 Preiss/Hirsch website.

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 .  

There 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 anything to 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. They 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 disclaimer required 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. This 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 software publisher) 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 separation. 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 Company. 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, respectively.

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 left. They 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. He 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

Much 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 Clermont, Kentucky. 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 Alabama.

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 impressions…

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 further. 

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 example since.

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 States.

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?

July 24, 2010:
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 wife, Elaine.

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. John 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 products from Dick and Ethan. With all that to taste, we are careful to sample only tiny amounts, of course. And 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; WE won't.


September
, 2010
:
... 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 away. In 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 time, the first being also on the subject of Michter's; that one was written by Sam Komlenic.

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.

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