What do Rittenhouse, Pikesville, Old Overholt and Michter’s have in common? They’re all historic brands of rye whiskey that were once made by east coast distilleries that no longer exist. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The story of American rye whiskey, its birth, demise, rebirth and current revival was the subject of the sold-out “Rye Mania” seminar at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Led by Chatham Imports, owners and producers of Michter’s whiskies, and historian David Wondrich, we were given a history and tasting flight of the Michter’s whiskey line and few classic rye cocktails prepared by Wondrich.
In many ways, the story of Michter’s IS the story of American whiskey. Tracing its origins to a farm distillery near Shaefferstown, Pennsylvania built in 1753, until it closed its doors in 1989, Michter’s was likely the oldest running distillery in the United States and certainly the last in Pennsylvania. Before Prohibition, Michter’s (actually Bomberger’s at the time) was one of many distilleries in Eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, most of them distillers of rye whiskey. While Michter’s managed to survive Prohibition, most of the east coast distilleries did not, thus solidifying the end of rye and the ascent of bourbon as America’s whiskey.
Today, the Michter’s you see on the shelf at your local liquor store is not the same Michter’s from Shaefferstown. However, if you can find any bottles left and have deep pockets, the remaining whiskey barrels from the old Michter’s distillery were sold to Hirsch and are now bottled by Preiss under the A.H. Hirsch Reserve line. They released the last of the barrels a couple years ago at a retail price of about $1,500/bottle.
In the 90s, former Austin Nichols (Wild Turkey) CEO Dick Newman and Chatham Imports President Joe Magliocco bought the Michter’s brand and began to resurrect the historic rye with the help of former Brown Forman Master Distiller Willie Pratt at a distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. While they may not be distilling in Pennsylvania, Chatham is carrying on not only the historic brand and rye, but also the strong connection between Michter’s and Kentucky. The last Master Distiller at the old Shaefferstown plant was a Beam, Everett Beam, who was Master Distiller at Michter’s for 40 years. Indeed, his great-great-great grandfather Jake Beam, himself came to Kentucky via Pennsylvania.
It wouldn’t have been the Manhattan Cocktail Classic without a few cocktails and it wouldn’t have been a historic cocktail without rye. David Wondrich started us off with a refreshing White Dog Punch. A frontier drink from around 1810 before it was common practice to age whiskey, this was made with some of Michter’s unaged rye (not on the market), sugar, lemon juice, lemon peel and water. While this was easily the best white dog cocktail I have ever tasted, David was sure to remind us that the Michter’s spirit is likely a far superior distillate than the one the frontiersmen were whipping up in their punches.
David then took us to 1872, playing the role of classic barman Jerry Thomas and prepared us a Fancy Whiskey Cocktail, “fancy” indicating the glass and perhaps a fruit garnish but also the addition of orange curacao to the cocktail. Pick up a bottle of rye and make one at home.
Fancy Whiskey Cocktail
2 oz Michter’s Rye
½ tsp Grand Marnier
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 tsp simple syrup
Squeeze lemon peel; fill one-third with ice, and stir with a spoon. Strain in a fancy wine glass, twist a piece of lemon peel over the top, moisten the rim of the glass with it and throw it in.