From Nothing to Fort Nelson: Inside Michter’s Decades-Long Resurgence

A brand born from 'America's Oldest Distillery' is investing in its future

In the 266 years since Michter’s was founded in Pennsylvania, the brand (first known as Shenk’s and then Bomberger’s) has battled prohibition, closure and abandonment. But since its resurrection in the 1990s (and its relocation to Kentucky), the brand has hired the first woman Master Distiller in the Kentucky Distiller Association’s history, invested millions of dollars into some of the industry’s top talent and technology, and rescued a historic building (located on what’s now referred to as “Whiskey Row“) in downtown Louisville.

Their preexisting, primary production facility—a distillery in Shively, Kentucky—houses 11,000 pounds of custom, Vendome-crafted copper. Care for the process within is meticulous. For example, two employees were overseeing the barrel warehouse during our visit, with duties ranging from moving barrels to regulating the ambient temperature in the facility. Also working that day were a pair of the brand’s five full-time chemical engineers—Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson included.

“This could be an office park building in Long Island,” Joseph Magliocco, the brand’s President, says of the Shively distillery as we taste our way through their entire portfolio—all which was made in this building. “It’s a clean building. It’s not a fancy building, but the equipment in this building is Porsche-, Maserati-like equipment. When it came to buying the equipment, my partners just said, ‘Buy the best equipment you can.'”

Working under Pam Heilmann, the brand’s aforementioned Master Distiller, Wilson has been able to take the sourced whiskeys Michter’s acquired in their earliest days and turn them (with the help of the immaculate equipment) into some of the finest rye and bourbon on the market. Not to mention the fact that their newer releases—the ones they’re making, barreling and fine-tuning themselves—are award-winning and incredibly sought after.

It’d be easy for the distillery to use their famed heritage as a crutch (it’s said that George Washington fancied their product way back when) but instead they concentrate on making the absolute best product possible. “I don’t really think about it in terms of age—age is sort of secondary,” says Wilson. “It’s the profile of the spirit: how does it taste? How does it feel in your mouth? What’s the color? What’s the complexity? All of those things come first, and then it’s sort of, ‘What age is this?'”

This kind of unassuming excellence is a commonality for the brand; the building that they occupy on Whiskey Row—which opened this past week—was acquired in 2011. More than $8 million and years later, Michter’s opened the Fort Nelson distillery at 801 W Main Street—just blocks from Evan Williams’ outpost (which opened first and became the first operating distillery in downtown Louisville since pre-Prohibition).

It took reinforcing the entire building—including its collapsing, street-facing wall—with hundreds of thousands of pounds of steel and a patented patching technology to get the location up to code. It would’ve been significantly cheaper, and faster, to abandon the build, keep the facade and open with a newly renovated interior. But Magliocco held true to the brand’s mission.

The Michter’s team acquired the brand’s original still, which dates back to 1976, from the original Michter’s location in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. They also took three of the original, wooden fermenters and brought them back to working condition—and placed them proudly in the entrance of Fort Nelson.

Visitors can watch the equipment make Fort Nelson Reserve, a special straight rye whiskey distilled especially for the opening. And, later this year guests can fill their own bottle of it from a pair of barrels and adorn it with an exclusive label (their signature included).

Upstairs at the beautiful The Bar at Fort Nelson, tastings of Michter’s entire portfolio—ranging from the US 1 Sour Mash ($12) to the Celebration 2016 release ($1,200)—complement a long list of impressive and original cocktails; including “AM to PM,” a mix of Michter’s straight bourbon, Torino vermouth, Fante’s Michter’s bourbon roasted coffee, Faretti’s chocolate biscotti, black walnut syrup and a smoky mezcal cream.

Michter’s expansion may seem slow and steady, much like their production process, but their rise from abandoned brand to top American spirit is no accident—and a bit of a relief. Whether it be the copper-coated bar upstairs or their soon-to-open Springfield farm, where they’re trying their hand at growing their own non-GMO ingredients, Michter’s has become unequivocally Kentucky.

“It’s all really fun, but I feel like we could be so worried about what’s going to happen,” Wilson says on the evening of Fort Nelson’s opening. She’s unabashedly confident about the whiskeys and bourbons she’s making and she knows growth is next for Michter’s. “But I’m not really worried about any of that. I’m worried about where we’re going to build more stills, where we’re going to build more warehouses, will we expand even more downtown? I think about a lot of other things.”

Images by Evan Malachosky