Thursday, October 25, 2007

What the Heck Is This Stuff?

The other day, while browsing the Bourbon aisle at Spec's, I saw a bottle of Michter's US 1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey. The back label reads thusly:
We are proud to offer you our unblended Small Batch American Whiskey. In the Michter's tradition hailing from one of America's first distillers, this whiskey is made from highest quality American grains and matured to the peak of perfection in bourbon-soaked white oak barrels. It is further mellowed by our signature filtration.

Hmmm. This is an interesting beast. What the heck is it?

Well, first note what the label doesn't say: the word "straight" doesn't appear anywhere. In order to be called straight, a whiskey has to be made from a mash consisting of at least 51% of one grain, be distilled to no more than 160 proof, enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof, be aged in charred new white oak barrels for not less than 2 years (with the age of the whiskey stated if it's less than 4 years), and bottled at no less than 80 proof. The only American whiskey that qualifies as straight that doesn't state it on the label is Tennessee Whiskey, and that's because Tennessee Whiskey distillers view the description "Tennessee Whiskey" as being more restrictive and prestigious than straight Bourbon whiskey, which is what Tennesse Whiskey could qualify as. This ain't Tennessee Whiskey; and that being the case, it's unthinkable that it wouldn't have the word "straight" on the label if it was in fact straight whiskey.

The word "unblended" is also instructive. Blended American whiskey contains at least some grain neutral spirits, that is, grain-derived spirits distilled to at least 190 proof. Since this is unblended, it doesn't contain any grain neutral spirits. Finally, look at the back label description. It's aged in "bourbon-soaked white oak barrels". That means that the barrels are used, which means that the whiskey cannot qualify as straight.

The Michter name is another one of the famous ones in American whiskey. The first distillery on the site of the Michter distillery in Pennsylvania first started producing whiskey in 1753, and it might have supplied whiskey to Washington's Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Alas, it is defunct: it closed in 1989, and the only remaining Michter-distilled whiskey on the market are those bearing the name of AH Hirsch. There's a 16 and a 20 year old bottling, both distilled in 1974 and moved into stainless steel tanks to stop the aging process. Both are extremely expensive. I've tried the 16 year old, and I didn't like it very much. It reminded me of pine resin. In any event, the Michter name is now owned by a distributer, and the whiskey now being sold bearing the Michter name is bought in bulk and bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.

I confess that I'm interested in what this whiskey tastes like. Aging in used Bourbon barrels is not done for quality American whiskeys, but that doesn't mean that it can't produce a quality product. After all, used Bourbon barrels are what almost all Scotch is aged in, and there is a lot of quality Scotch. This could be an interesting experiment, or it could be a bunch of crap that is aged in used barrels because it isn't worth new barrels. If this cost less than $39 a fifth, I might be tempted to find out.

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