Saturday, February 14, 2015
The End Came for Michter's 25 Years Ago Today
Today is the 25th anniversary of the final closing of the Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania.
That's the day the bank called and ordered Master Distiller Dick Stoll to shut it down, send everyone home, and turn off the lights on his way out. The owners, with a big unpaid tax bill hanging over their heads, had simply walked away.
Despite its ignominious end, the distillery had a very long history. In 1753, a Swiss Mennonite named Johann Shenk built a small distillery on his farm near Schaefferstown in what became Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. At Shenk’s death the distillery passed to his daughter and son-in-law, John Kratzer. It remained in the Kratzer family until 1861 when Abraham Bomberger purchased it. He was family too, married to Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer, Johann Shenk’s great granddaughter.
For most of the pre-prohibition period, it was known as Bomberger's.
Because ownership passed through the daughters several surnames were involved, but it was always owned by descendants of Johann Shenk until it was bought by Ephraim Sechrist in 1920, after it had closed down due to Prohibition. Ownership by the same family had run for 167 years, itself a remarkable achievement. By comparison, the Beams of Kentucky only owned their distillery for about 125 years.
Although the distillery came back after Prohibition, it struggled to stay open. More than once it changed hands because the previous owners went bankrupt. In the 1970s it took the name Michter's and began to promote itself more as a tourist attraction than a working distillery. It did fairly well during the bicentennial year of 1976, then went back to struggling. By the end, the company's products had no distribution beyond the distillery gift shop.
On Valentine's Day 1990, everything was abandoned. The county sold the whiskey in the warehouses for back taxes. It was probably redistilled into ethanol. Although several attempts were made to revive it, all of the buildings gradually fell into ruin and most were demolished. There is little at the site today, not even a historical marker. While the town of Schaefferstown seems proud of its local history in general, it never considered the distillery an important part of that history.
Because all of the assets of Michter's were abandoned, that included the name and its use as a trademark. The name sat untouched for several years after the demise, when anyone could have claimed it for not much more than the modest registration fee.
Eventually a New York liquor importer and producer called Chatham Imports recognized the value, and claimed and registered the name. They acquired some whiskey from one or more Kentucky distilleries and revived the Michter's brand name with some success. Operating as Michter's, they have built a new whiskey production facility in Shively, a suburb of Louisville. They have been bottling there for about a year and will begin to distill whiskey from scratch this year. The distillery equipment is installed and in the process of being broken-in.
It is safe to say that Chatham has done better with the Michter's name than Michter's ever did.
Most of the above comes from a book I wrote called The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste, about the A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon made at the Schaefferstown distillery in 1974.