Making American whiskey great again

  • Food
  • Monday, 21 Jan 2019

Michter‘s is among a number of new brands of American whiskies that are currently available in Malaysia.

While American whiskey is not completely alien to this part of the world, it is only recently that Malaysian bars and consumers have started really taking note of the category, with an influx of brands as well as expressions into the country.

One of these brands is Michter’s, which traces its origins all the way back to the very beginning of whiskey-making in the United States.

The whiskey company which ultimately became known as Michter’s was originally founded in 1753 by John Shenk, a farmer in Pennsylvania. The original Shenk’s produced whiskey from rye grain, a local crop at the Pennsylvania Blue Mountain Valley where the distillery was located.

It was then purchased by a man named Abraham Bomberger in the mid-1800s, and renamed Bomberger’s, before the alcohol-banning Prohibition in 1919 forced the distillery to shut down.

After Prohibition was repealed, the distillery went through a number of owners before it found itself in the hands of Lou Forman in the 1950s, who created the modern Michter’s brand name by combining parts of his sons’ names – Michael and Peter.

Unfortunately, in 1989 the entire American whiskey industry went through a massive downturn, and Michter’s then-owners declared bankruptcy and abandoned the business completely, leaving the distillery in Pennsylvania in disrepair.

Michter‘s is among a number of new brands of American whiskies that are currently available in Malaysia.
Michter‘s is among a number of new brands of American whiskies that are currently available in Malaysia.

It was only later, in the 1990s, that Joseph J. Magliocco and his consultant and mentor Richard “Dick” Newman teamed up to resurrect Michter’s in Kentucky, thus reviving this legendary whiskey brand.

Today, the distillery is managed by master distiller Pam Heilmann, who assumed the role in 2016, and set about creating a house style for Michter’s. “We want a rich, bold, flavourful whiskey, we want a great mouthfeel,” Heilmann said in an interview with Distiller in 2017.

During a recent visit, Michter’s Asia Pacific brand ambassador John Ng said that American whiskey is getting increasingly popular in recent years, especially in Asia.

Michters Straight Bourbon.
Michter's Straight Bourbon.

“When I started this job around 2016, no one really appreciated it. I would be in front talking about it but no one would be listening – they were just interested in drinking,” he said. “But from late 2017, I started to see a shift, with more people interested in the category.”

It also helped that Whisky Bible writer Jim Murray named an American whiskey as his Whiskey Of The Year for three years running – the 2019 winner was William Larue Weller Bourbon. Ng reckons that Murray’s recognistion has definitely helped to raise the profile ofAmerican whiskey, and at the very least, get people talking about it.

Ng also thinks that the category will grow bigger in the future, especially in Malaysia, where it is imported by premium spirits distributors Wholly Spirits.

“I think the drinkers here are open minded enough to accept the category. In China, they still think American whiskey is supposed to be cheap and harsh!” he said.

According to him, the biggest misconception about American whiskey usually comes from those who are more used to drinking Scotch.

“One of the most common questions I get is ‘Do you use bourbon barrels?’. I have to explain that without bourbon makers like us, there would be no bourbon barrel to be used in Scotch in the first place!” he said with a laugh. “I also get asked whether bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. Actually, Kentucky is just the biggest area that produces bourbon – other areas can produce bourbon as long as they follow the rules and regulations.”

Michter’s currently has four expressions in its core US1 range – Kentucky Straight Rye, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, American Whiskey and Sour Mash.

Michter’s Kentucky Straight Rye (42.4% ABV)

Michter’s takes its rye whiskey very seriously, thanks to its legacy, which traces back to Shenk’s, which produced mainly rye whiskey. Made with 100% rye, the Michter’s Straight Rye has a surprisingly subtle but floral nose, but a lovely balance of sweetness and spiciness comes through on the palate and finish. “It’s soft and balanced, and is great in a cocktail or on its own,” Ng said.

Michter’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon (45.7% ABV)

One of Michter’s signature products, the Straight Bourbon is one of the most approchable yet complex I’ve had – rich, full bodied, and full of caramel, stone fruits and vanilla notes and even a hint of honey on the tip of the tongue.

“There is a good amount of rye in it because you can get the spiciness of the rye,” said Ng. “It’s great on its own and also in cocktails – even in an Old Fashioned, you can still pick out the bourbon’s flavours easily.”

Michter’s takes the term “small batch” on the label very seriously here – each run is batched in a holding tank sized to fit a maximum of 20 full barrels,

“Only the top 20 barrels go into the batch, which helps with increasing the quality of the product,” Ng said. “The spirit goes into the barrel at 51.5% ABV, which is the lowest in the entire US. After ageing, it’s about 54-58%, so we don’t actually need a lot of water when we bottle it down to 45%. That means most of what you get (in the bottle) is real whiskey from the barrel.”

Michter’s Sour Mash (43% ABV)

Although it is essentially a combination of the bourbon and straight rye, the Michter’s Sour Mash is not a blended whiskey, as the “blending” of the bourbon and rye comes in the sour mash process of the production, in which some previously fermented mash is used as the starter for the new mash to be fermented, much like making sourdough bread.

Michter’s Sour Mash is produced with a unique grain selection of nearly 50% corn, with rye making up the rest, and a small amount of barley. “The barley acts more like a ‘seasoning’ to add a little more flavour to it,” Ng said.

“You get more influences from the bourbon through the body, but more influence from the rye on the palate,” he said. Having tasted the bourbon first, I could get the influence of that spirit on the nose, but on the palate, the rye comes through to provide an extra layer of complex sweet, spicy notes.

Michter’s American Whiskey (41.7% ABV)

“This one is super complicated to understand,” Ng declares as we move on to this expression. “It is like two whiskies blended together. The first one is a regular bourbon spirit. And the second is a new make spirit that is aged in our own used bourbon barrels,” Ng explained.

“It gives the spirit a little more subtleness, and less heavy body and lighter spirit. But we didn’t want it too mild or it would taste like scotch!”

The expression is called “unblended” whiskey, because there is already a category called “blended American whiskey”, which is a blend of bourbon and neutral grain spirit. But because Michter’s is blending two whiskies together, with no neutral spirit involved, they could only call it unblended.

Michael Cheang wants to make American whiskey great again ... in Malaysia. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page or follow him on Instagram.

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