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Echoes of the Past in Michter's New Sour Mash

Jack Bettridge
Posted: March 29, 2013

The first question about the Michter's Original Sour Mash Whiskey that is reaching distribution in most major U.S. markets may be: What exactly is it?

The latest whiskey from Michter's, a brand which now traces it roots to 1752 Pennsylvania and is now being produced in Kentucky, does not follow the company's recent trend of bottling Bourbons and ryes, but is rather a recreation of a style made at its former distillery that was shuttered in 1989. At the time it was Michter's most popular offering. (In the late 1990s, Michter's American Whiskey Co. of Bardstown, Kentucky, a division of Chatham Imports, bought the trademark.)

The new/old brand, which first returned to limited distribution in December, is a whiskey that smacks of both rye and Bourbon, but speaks of neither mash bill in its title. That reflects both the fence-sitting formulation of the whiskey as it was first made and the reluctance of the present makers to reveal the conditions of how it is now reconstituted.

Joseph Magliocco, who now heads Michter's and worked for its distributor when the whiskey was still being made in Pennsylvania, says that before the company went bankrupt in 1989, Sour Mash was its best-selling bottling. The designation "sour mash whiskey" seems to have been a default label as it qualified as neither a Bourbon or a rye because of its mash bill. American regulations state that Bourbon most be composed of at least 51 percent corn and that rye whiskeys have at least 51 percent rye grain. Willie Pratt, the current Michter's master distiller, says that the mash bill then was 50 percent rye, 38 percent corn and 12 percent barley.

The whiskey was called sour mash after the classic method used to mash each new batch: small amounts of previously fermented mash is set back to ensure consistency. James Crow is credited with inventing the process around the late 1830s for making Bourbon. While the sour-mash method is used in making Michter's Original Sour Mash, it isn't a large distinction in that almost every American whiskey, Bourbon or rye, is now made this way. (The use of the term for Tennessee sour mash whiskeys, such as Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, further designates that it has been filtered through charcoal, though Magliocco states that the Michter's version was not treated that way.)

Michter's, which in its latest incarnation has acted as a negotiant of whiskeys purchased elsewhere and married in very small batches (10 barrels or less), steadfastly refrains from announcing the origins or mash bills of its products. But Magliocco does allow that “it has a lot of rye in it.” While the recently released Original Sour Mash is something of a tribute to the former product, which disappeared for some 22 years, it isn't an attempt to reproduce it exactly, he says. Rather, it was inspired by the old Sour Mash, but with the intention of improving on it.

With a collection of vintage Sour Mash bottles to sample from, they set to work creating something with a little more body and little less acidity. The result is an interesting whiskey that straddles the line between Bourbon and rye. “If it was like everything else,” say Magliocco, “we wouldn’t have released it.”

In the meantime, Michter’s is also going full force with its conversion into a distiller of whiskey as well as a buyer. It now has two small pot stills operating in its Louisville distillery, and Pratt has been working with Vendome, a copper still manufacturer, to design a column still. He has drawn both on his 45 years experience working at Brown-Forman, maker of Old Forester Bourbon and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, and from meticulous records that Vendome has kept of the stills it made for the former Pennsylvania distiller. The new still will not be a recreation of the original, according to Magliocco, however. “We’re trying to take the best of the past and improve on it.”

Pratt, who says he spent his whole career in whiskey production “and I love it,” added that it was “exciting to use my knowledge of a column still.” The plan is for a still especially constructed for whiskeys intended to be barreled at 103 proof, far lower than the industry standard, which is closer to 120.

(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume, $44 for a 750 ml bottle)

APPEARANCE: Honey hue with copper or amber around the edge. Beads up in medium-width slow beads.

NOSE: Very candied aromas, fruity with orange and apricot, but at the same time chewy—caramel, nougat—with some floral notes in attendance.

PALATE: While the official take (Michter’s own) on the sensation is that it starts out as sweet and Bourbon-like and turns to spicy rye notes, we tasted the same things, but in the opposite direction. Begins with a lot of mouth tingle, sort of like menthol lozenge that greets you with a big spicy presence and then becomes candy-like with sparkles of fruit (cherry and orange) and honey. A touch of water reveals even more fruit.

FINISH: Becomes more savory as it starts to tale off with incidental sweet-fruit explosions.

NOTE: Quite a good mixer, both in cocktails and highballs.

CIGAR PAIRING: Gurkha 125th Anniversary Robusto (5 inches by 52 ring, $8.39, 90 points, Feb. 12 Cigar Insider) Nearly perfect in appearance, this robusto produces a solid ash as it burns. It’s starts out strong and aromatic with red and black pepper notes that take on a graham cracker sweetness. A cedary note meets the whiskey and turns savory, while the cigar's wheaty sweetness (read: graham cracker) blossoms. The Michter's becomes more rounded and hearty with the Gurkha.

Villiger Colorado Churchill (7 by 50, $10, 89 points, Feb. 2013 Cigar Aficionado) This dark Churchill smacks of rich wood with notes of dried cherries and a touch of pipe tobacco flavor. The Villiger picks up a little more body from the Michter’s, while the cherry flavors are slightly enhanced. The cigar doesn't give much back to the whiskey, however. A near neutral pairing.

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