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.


Bourbon Joe said...

The end of the original Michters is indeed sad. I can report that there is absolutely nothing left at the site of the once vibrant Michters. So sad.

Sam Komlenic said...

Thanks for bringing this topic to the table, Chuck.

The oldest building on the property, the wood frame Bomberger distillery, was intact as of very recently, along with one small adjacent brick building, though that may have changed since my last visit in the fall. The Barrys, now owners of the site, intended to preserve the Bomberger building, as they had it repainted and re-roofed after the rest of the buildings had been dismantled.

Michter's whiskey was available throughout the Pennsylvania State Store system until shortly after the closing of the plant. I bought the last two bottles from my local in the spring of 1990.

My last visit while it was operating was in November of 1989. That was the day I met master distiller Dick Stoll, who, along with another employee, was dumping barrels in a nearly empty warehouse. It was obvious the end was near.

I returned in May of 1990 to find a piece of paper taped to the window of the Jug House door: "Closed until further notice."

I have since reconnected with Dick and the current owners of the Bomberger brand, who intend to start a craft distillery in Lebanon County with Stoll at the helm, and trust me, at 81 he's got a lot of wind left in his sails.

The day that happens will be a beautiful day in the history of American distilling.

Sam Komlenic said...

P.S. Dick was responsible for distilling the A. H. Hirsch bourbon in what I believe was his second year as master distiller after Charles Everett Beam's stroke.

A man that most folks have never heard of until recently distilled the most notorious and highly-regarded bourbon to have hit the market, and it was accomplished not in Kentucky, but in Pennsylvania.

I was honored to see him sign four bottles of it for some fans at a whiskey dinner in Lititz two weekends ago.

Jim Wolfe said...

Amen, Sam

Sam Komlenic said...

The other comment of note here is that the abandoned whiskey was forgotten for years until empty Michter's decanters started showing up along local roads.

Kids snooping around the place had gained entry and discovered full decanters which they liberated, enjoyed, and chucked out their car windows.

The feds were alerted and only then realized what had been left behind by the final owner, Acquari Holdings, whose address of record in distillery documents led them to a bogus location in New York City with no business of any kind in sight.

You couldn't make this stuff up. Read the book!