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Saturday, February 1, 2020

Michter's 20 Year Old Bourbon (Bottle 329 of 440, Batch 19H1439)

I have a long connection to Michter's. The original Michter's in Pennsylvania was the first distillery I ever visited, way back in late December of 1982. I've also visited both of the "new Michter's" distilleries in Kentucky, making me a member of a pretty small club of folks who've been to all three while they were operating. We should get a challenge coin made. Or maybe just a hat.

Anyway, I've lost any resentment toward the new Michter's and its driving force, Joe Magliocco. That's largely due to two things: the passion Joe and his team have for simply finding, blending, aging, distilling (and, importantly, filtering; more on that later) the very best whiskey possible; and, well, the whiskey they produce is simply phenomenal.

When the news came out that they were releasing another batch of 20 year old, I asked Joe if I could get a sample. Suggested retail is $700; I asked for 50 ml. Joe wasn't having that, and sent me a full bottle. So yes, I got a free bottle. I get a lot of those. I also am not a huge fan of really old, woody whiskey, so I was going to give this the treatment.

But I also told Joe that if I was going to review the whiskey, I wanted to talk to Andrea Wilson about it. Andrea is Michter's Master of Maturation, the person who oversees the aging process, does the blending, the person who takes the sourced barrels Michter's bought (prior to 2015) and what master distiller Dan McKee makes and turns it into whiskey. I did a presentation on American whiskey history and production with Andrea at the Smithsonian last October, and we worked well together. I was looking forward to talking whiskey with her again.

After getting healthy, we finally set a date and talked this past Wednesday: Andrea, Joe, and myself. I had a pour of the 20 year old handy, as did Andrea; Joe was chagrined to find there was no 20 year old available at his New York office!
(As is usually the case, I talked to Andrea and Joe on the phone and took down what they were saying as fast as I could...but some of this is direct quote, some of it is paraphrase. When I had problems, I asked them to repeat things. I did the best I could, but it is not a direct transcript.)

Is there anything you can tell me about where this came from? It's all Kentucky, and it's all at least 20 years old. Anything else? 

Joe Magliocco: We talk about the three phases*; obviously, this is Phase I whiskey, before we were cooking in someone else's kitchen. This is whiskey from a long time ago, when we were going around Kentucky buying things. We had to sign a confidentiality agreement. The environment in those days was much different. People were just happy to unload stuff.

The Phase I sourcing was me going around with Dick Newman*...and Steve Ziegel (Joe's long-time head of sales). Like me, Steve's not a production person, he just likes whiskey. We wanted to pick something we liked. This was in the late 1990s, and there was plenty of good stuff available. We didn't know we'd ever get to the point where we could produce by ourselves, but we wanted to pick a style we liked and could emulate. It's rich, a lot of flavor, and also interesting: a flavor experience, on the front, different on the palate, and different again in the finish. Steve said, we want it to warm, but not burn. This fit that bill.

(We talked here about how a 20 year old gets picked, and when they decide to do one.)

JM: A lot of people visit us and ask why do you have steel drums [for storing whiskey]? It's one of the things we do that makes our older stuff special. Andrea?

Andrea Wilson: We have a Quality Control system, and part of it is the drums, like mini-tanks. If we taste something, a barrel, that's at peak, and we don't think it's going to get better, we'll take it out and put it in the drums. (Transferring to stainless steel drums halts aging, preserving the whiskey.) We'll use that as a tool. Not every barrel goes through that process, but we use it so we have a uniform, delicious final product. Everything we're doing here is to produce the best American whiskey. We've had to look after these barrels for many years, and we're known for that, for not letting them get over-oaked. [This was news to me; I didn't realize Michter's was buying new make and aging it in their barrels. Makes sense, in retrospect.] 

JM: If Andrea feels that a barrel is good, and not going to get better, even if it's 19 years old, we'll take it out and that stops the clock. But we don't want these whiskeys to be wood bombs. When it gets to our older offerings, we don't really know what we'll have, because we don't know what's going to fit our protocol. Some years we don't offer 20 year old, we don't offer a 25 year old, because we don't have it every year. When people get a 20+ year old from Michter's, it's going to be really good, not just 20 years old and maybe it's good or not.

You have a barrel-by-barrel approach all through the process. 

JM: It was [former Michter's master distiller] Willie [Pratt]'s idea to maximize the size of the tanks to the contents of 24 barrels: maximum. Even our small batch products, like the US-1, they're very small batch. And if you have one bad barrel out of 15 or 20, it's going to taste terrible. If every barrel isn't just right, they can't use it. And if we have a bad one, it gets sent to a company that re-purposes it as fuel alcohol. We don't blend it off, or sell it as whiskey, it gets rejected.

How do you select the barrels to do a 20 year old? Who's involved, and when? Is it just you, Andrea?

AW: We have a tremendously skilled team. We don't make decisions in isolation. The collective experience of the team is leveraged to make those decisions. Joe always has focused on the importance of having a great team around you. That's a critical factor of the success of Michter's. We've tried to encourage a culture here. You don't leave things to chance, there's a control. We have people in our department who have the mentality of a chef. They test everything, they have a discipline and an artistry. We talk a lot about chefs here.  

The bottle you sent was #329 of 440, Batch 19H1439. What does all that tell me? 

AW: 19 is the year of the bottling, 2019. H is the month, August. And 1439 is a proprietary bottling code for us.

Is the code a tracking code?

JM: You could say that's what it is.

How many barrels went into this batch? 

JM: We don't talk about things like that. When you get stuff that's really old like this, you may get a barrel that's almost empty. I know from experience, you can have a barrel with very, very little left.

AW: That's why we evaluate every barrel individually to get the ones that are going to work well together. It's part of the artistry of blending. It's about creating a beautiful product. We talk about the art and science of what we do; this falls into artistry. It's like making perfume. You can have a lot of beautiful floral scents, but they won't necessarily come together to make something beautiful. It's about assembling a symphony of flavor.

What kind of bourbon do we have here? Wheat, rye, a combination? 

JM: We're not going into the mashbill. Some people will tell you every detail. Willy always felt that some things should be secrets. 

Andrea and I after wowing the Smithsonian.
AndreI know you're very particular about filtration.** What do we have here in those terms? And why? 

AW: They do get their own custom filtration. They're very old whiskeys, with a tremendous amount of complexity, but they're very delicate. So we use a looser grade of filter, and add very little water. It's a very careful set of decisions.

Is that why 57.1%? Is that barrel proof? 

AW: The complexity of the bonding of the flavors is much more... [long pause here]

What do you mean by bonding of the flavors? 

AW: When you are working with older whiskeys, the complexity of the chemical bonding of the whiskey is much tighter. When you add water, you risk breaking the bonds that took years to develop in the aging process, and it's something to be mindful of.  

How long is it going to be before we see a Phase III 20 year old? I hope I'm still allowed to drink by then!

JM: Let's think about this. 2035, right Andrea?

AW: That's right, we started distilling in 2015.

JM: You want to buy a few bottle futures?! [general laughter ensues]

Tasting --

I gotta say, the color is just gorgeous. 

AW: We had samples lined up on a table, and the was just stunning.

It smells sweet. Can a thing smell sweet? That's a taste, isn't it? 

AW: Sweet is a taste more than an aromatic, but there are scents that come forward from sugar, from butter, from cream, that make you smell sweetness.

It's lush, sweet, caramel, creamy on the palate. There's a berry brightness, too. Some nice nut aromas.  

AW: I don't get berries in bourbon. I get cherries. Everyone's different. Reminds me of being in Savannah and having pecans; roasted, candied pecans. 

Not a lot of heat for the proof. Soothing on the tongue. 

AW: It does have a really long finish, like a syrup experience, where it coats a bit.

I've really only had a few whiskeys at this proof that were this smooth, not hot. That's special. 

[That was all we had to say. I thanked them for their time, and got to work on this. And then today, I revisited the whiskey.]

Clearly an older whiskey with the spires of oak soaring through the nose, but the spires don't overshadow the hall packed with a full array of bourbon aromas below. This has maintained its youth well: roasted sweet corn, vanilla, that buttery creaminess, and okay, berry and cherry, and roasted nuts. That is a treasure chest full of delight, that nose.
The palate is easily recognized from the aroma, but to my surprise, there's actually some fresh grassy character there! How does that happen with a 20 year old? The finish rolls on after, a runaway freight car rolling down a seven-mile incline that just cannot be stopped, only receding into the distance.
This is going to be a hard bottle to save and savor. I want to have more later tonight, let alone tomorrow. Well done, Andrea; well done, Joe, Dick, and Steve. Well done, Phase II.

Oh, and by the way, my Dry(-ish) January is over. 

*Michter's is following a plan of whiskey production. Phase I, the earliest bottles they put out, were whiskeys that Joe, Dick Newman (former CEO of Austin, Nichols (which owned Wild Turkey) and the head of the Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, and Old Taylor brands when he was at the old National Distilling), and Steve Ziegler (Joe's head of sales) selected barrels for bottling. As Joe said, things were different then, and whiskey was easily found and purchased. 
Phase II involved Joe and his distillers going out to distillers with excess capacity and having them make distillate to their specifications (which they'd honed in those years of buying Phase I barrels). Again...back then there were places that were happy to make some money making spirit for someone else. 
Phase III came about when the market heated up, and it was clear that the line moving up labeled "Does it make sense to build our own distillery?" and the line moving down labeled "Does it still make sense to stake our future on buying spirit from others?" were going to cross pretty soon. So Joe and his brothers (silent partners) built a distillery just outside of Louisville (an historic distilling area, near Stitzel-Weller and Early Times), and since 2015, they've been making their own spirit...which is going to be ready fairly soon. No 20 year old Phase III for a while, though!

**Willy Pratt experimented with different types of filtration, and found that not only did they result in different flavor/aroma effects on the whiskey, but they affected whiskeys differently based on how old they were. It sounds like bullshit, frankly, but I've blind-tasted it at Michter's and it's pretty clear. 


Albert Brooks said...

Long gone are the days when they put out a 10 yo that was really close to 20 just so they had product to sell. Overall I've like most of their products, at least the ones I could afford. Can't blame them for riding the wave of supply and demand but I miss the days of $100 20 year olds.

Sam Komlenic said...

Heck, I miss the days of $10 10 year olds!

Michter's older whiskeys are in a class by themselves. The consistent sweetness, balance, and lack of astringency in their 20 and 25 year olds is impressive and, I feel, elevates their products above the competition.