Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Savoring Michter's Original Sour Mash Whiskey:

George Washington, our first President, was a lover of whiskey. His passion for whiskey was so great that by 1798, he became the country's largest distiller, making 11,000 gallons of whiskey at Mount Vernon. During the Revolutionary War, in the frigid winter at Valley Forge, Washington bought Michter's rye whiskey for his men. Michter's would later say they were “the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution.”

The history of Michter’s extends back to the mid-eighteenth century, when John Shenk, a Swiss Mennonite farmer, settled in Pennsylvania. In 1753, he constructed a small distillery to produce rye whiskey and it soon became very popular, including with Washington. Prohibition forced Michter’s to close though it would reopen once repeal arrived. Unfortunately, Michter's faced bankruptcy in 1989 and that could have been the end of its history as its stills and whiskey stocks were sold.

However, in the 1990s, Joseph J. Magliocco and Richard Newman sought to bring back Michter's, to raise it again to his previous glories. One of their major changes was to relocate from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, and they had a new distillery constructed. They eventually brought on Master Distiller Willie Pratt, who has over forty years of distilling experience, to produce Michter's whiskey. The distillery now concentrates on single-barrel rye, single-barrel bourbon, very small batch bourbon, and unblended American whiskey.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Michter's most popular product was their Original Sour Mash Whiskey. When bankruptcy struck, production was stopped though it has only recently, in December 2012, been resurrected.  In a process some liken to making sourdough bread, sour mash whiskey uses a portion of previously fermented mash as a starter for a new mash. Commonly, the previously fermented mash constitutes 10-20% of the new mash. This is done to make the fermentation process quicker as well as create a rounder and smoother whiskey. And it does not give it a sour taste in the least.

Michter’s Original Sour Mash also uses a proprietary mashbill made from a special selection of grains. It is aged in charred, new American white oak barrels and produced in small batches. It is bottled at 86 proof and seems priced at $45-$55. I have never previously tasted any of the Michter's products, though have heard very positive reviews from my friend and whiskey writer, Fred Minnick. I received a media sample of their Sour Mash and brought it with me to my local poker game, to share it with several other whiskey lovers. How would it fare?

It fared quite well, with a number of people refilling their glasses on multiple occasions. Though several other whiskeys were available to them, they chose to keep drinking the Michter's Original Sour Mash. I too was impressed with this Sour Mash. Up front, there was an interesting and complex melange of flavors, including vanilla, orange peel, caramel and chocolate notes (reminiscent of a less sweet bourbon) while the finish came with more subtle spice notes, bringing to mind a pleasant rye. Smooth and easy drinking, there was no bite on the finish. I drank it neat though others drank it with ice.

This is a whiskey I would keep in my home bar, and which would impress my whiskey loving guests. It also motivates me to seek out more of Michter's products, from their bourbons to their ryes. I give the Michter's Original Sour Mash whiskey a strong recommendation.

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