Michter's- An Essential History

Long before Kentucky Bourbon became America's native spirit, it was Pennsylvania and Maryland Rye. I was born and raised in the "Old Line State" but never heard one mention of Maryland's rich whiskey history. Little did I know that Baltimore's discerning drinkers once gave life to distilleries like Majestic, the makers of Pikesville Rye, and Frank L. Wight Distilling Co., the makers of Sherwood Pure Rye. I never knew that there were thousands and thousands of commercial distilleries between the two states. And here is why...

By the 1960's, every single commercial distillery in Maryland and Pennsylvania had closed. The original Wight Distillery is now a Procter & Gamble plant. The once famous Mount Vernon Distillery is now a vacant lot beneath a bridge near M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.  The Sherwood Distillery, which carried the Sherwood Rye label through WWII, is now a
 pizza restaurant where the bartender admits he's not sure he's tasted rye whiskey before...
Paradiso Ristorante, Westminster, MD 
The tragedy is that American whiskey was invented by Maryland and Pennsylvania distillers. Yet, there have been zero distilleries operating east of the Appalachian Mountains for the last several decades.

The good news is that the Kentucky bourbon boom has driven new interest in rye whiskey. Rye sales are up 600% since 2009. While only one rye whiskey is currently being distilled in Maryland, a total of 40 new distilleries have recently opened in Maryland (18) and Pennsylvania (22) by my count, so it's coming.

In addition, Heaven Hill just released a "Maryland-style" rye that they're calling Pikesville Rye. Leopold Bros. in Denver, CO produces a "Maryland-style" rye, which has been well received. Allagash brewer Ned Wight, the great-great-great grandson of early Maryland distiller John Jacob Wight, has opened an operation in Maine and is making Gunpowder Rye Whiskey, a Maryland-style rye.
There are countless East Coast rye whiskey stories worth telling. The most intriguing story of all, though, belongs to Michter's.

Founding to Prohibition

In 1753, brothers John [a.k.a Johann] and Michael Shenk, Swiss Mennonites, built a small distillery on their farm near Schaefferstown, PA. Swiss Mennonite farmers, who followed William Penn to the new world, are credited with having produced [some of] the first colonial whiskey in Pennsylvania in 1683 using a small pot still. There is a legendary myth that Gen. George Washington purchased some of the Shenks' rye whiskey to fortify continental troops during Revolutionary War winters
[though there is no evidence to substantiate the marketing claim that Michter's "warmed the Revolution"].

1980 Michter's brochure. Photo credit: Yvonne Bomberger.
When John Shenk died in 1827, he left the distillery to his daughter and son-in-law, John Kratzer. A year before John Kratzer's death in 1861, Abraham Bomberger purchased it. Bomberger was no stranger to the family, having married Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer (John Shenk’s great granddaughter) prior to the acquisition.

From the first shots of the Civil War to the last of WWI, the distillery was known as "Bomberger's," but Prohibition forced its closure in 1919. As Chuck Cowdery pointed out in his book, The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste
, ownership by the same family ran for 167 years. By comparison, the Beams only owned their Kentucky distillery for about 125 years.

Repeal to Abandonment

Following the end of Prohibition, the Bomberger distillery re-opened and was bought and sold several times. In the 1930's, it became Penndale. In 1942, it was apparently purchased by Philadelphia area liquor broker Louis Forman, who may have been involved with Penndale. Forman was drafted into military service that same year and was forced to sell, but his involvement with the distillery would continue for many decades.

In the early 50's, it became Kirk's Pure Rye Distillery. Sometime around 1955, the distillery was sold to Pennco Distillers (which may have been a branch of one of Forman's other companies). Pennco had an industrial focus, making whiskey for several of its own brands and producing whiskey under contract for other companies. It was during this time that Lou Forman created the brand "Michter's" in honor of his sons MICHael and peTER.

Pennco "board meeting." Lou Forman invented the name "Michter's in the 50's.  In this photo, you can clearly see the name Michter's in the advertisement, top left. The name of the distillery was not changed to Michter's until 1975. Photo credit: Ethan Smith.
With Pennco's demise in 1975, a group of local businessmen purchased the distillery. They promptly named Lou Forman President of the Distillery. As president, Lou changed the name of the distillery to Michter's. 

Due to low demand for whiskey nationally in the 1970's and 80's, Forman focused his promotion of Michter's as a local tourist attraction. Visitors came to observe colonial era distillation processes and to sample/purchase whiskey in the famous jug shop. In 1976, Michter's enjoyed financial success and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Capacity during that time, however, was merely 50 gallons, or a single barrel a day. Michter's hobbled along until 1989
, when lien holders and various government entities threatened to take action for missed mortgage payments and approximately $180,000 in unpaid taxes. In response, the owners and workers completely abandoned the distillery on Valentine's Day 1990, leaving hand-hammered stills, equipment, documents, personal belongings, and about 40,000 barrels full of whiskey in the historic warehouses. Lebanon County officials seized the property but struggled to keep looters at bay. Cowdery surmised that some of the whiskey was redistilled into ethanol; much of it was stolen. Some was sold off. Michter's gradually fell into ruin and some of the buildings were demolished.

Photo credit: Rich Walter.
Present Day

Here is where things get interesting for the modern bourbon consumer. When the Michter's real property was abandoned, its intellectual property was too. After seven "dead" years, Chatham Imports, a New York liquor importer/producer, trademarked the Michter's name on March 21, 1997.  

Chatham's president, Joseph J. Magliocco, saw value in the history and teamed up with former Austin Nichols president Dick Newman to "start a little whiskey company." Magliocco had deep enough pockets and each man had the connections needed to build a "new" Michter's brand. Magliocco also had a personal connection to the old brand, having sold it in the mid-1970's while working for his father. He still proudly displays old, gold-plated Michter's King Tut decanters from the original distillery in his NYC office.

The new Michter's whiskey is sourced from Kentucky distilleries (e.g. Heaven Hill, Barton, Brown-Forman). The label proclaims that the contents were distilled "in small batches according to the Michter's pre-Revolutionary War quality standards dating back to 1753," which I think is bullshit considering that John Shenk's whiskey probably tasted like paint thinner, but puffery is part of whiskey history. Joe Magliocco is certainly entitled to market the hell out of Michter's whiskey and emphasize the fact that Michter's was (is?) America's oldest distillery.

The new Michter's has an impressive lineup of sourced whiskeys including several bourbons, several ryes, a barrel strength rye, and a sour mash whiskey known as "Celebration" which retails for nearly $4,000. Magliocco has even bottled whiskeys with a 50% corn mash bill (one kernel shy of being bourbon) because the old Michter's did the same. 


Between 2012 and 2014, Chatham also trademarked "Bomberger's Whiskey," "Bomberger's Distillery," and "Bomberger's Declaration." In 2014, Pennsylvanians Dick Stoll (the last master distiller at the original Michter's) and Erik Wolfe (a distant descendant of Abraham Bomberger) created a MGP bourbon/Finger Lakes Distillery rye blend and sold it as Bomberger's. Their primary intent was apparently to preserve Pennsylvania whiskey history. 

Stoll & Wolfe partnered with investment banker Marc L. Reber to fund the project, which didn't last long.

Photo from thewhiskeywash.com
The well-known trademark dispute was apparently instigated by Reber's attorney who wrote the first letter, asserting "common law trademark rights." After a series of letters, Reber went silent, according to Magliocco. On March 17, 2015, Chatham Imports filed a lawsuit against Reber and the company he helped create for trademark infringement and unfair competition.

In any event, the parties settled this summer and the defendants changed their label from Bomberger's to Stoll & Wolfe. As of today's date, the old distillery sits in ruin, a "rat's nest of liability."

I originally stated that Dick Stoll and Erik Wolfe settled the lawsuit with Chatham Imports because "litigation would be too costly."  I based my assertion on a July 2015 Litiz Record articleWhile I can't independently verify what Magliocco told me, he believes that Marc L. Reber has access to far more capital than Chatham ever would and that cost was not a factor in the settlement. [Reber is listed as an analyst at Foundation Asset Management].

You can read about my entire conversation with Magliocco here.


Chatham Imports recently spent millions on a new production facility in Shively, KY. Just last month, they barreled their first whiskey produced under master distiller Willie Pratt.

Interestingly, in February 2011, a craft distillery in Ohio called Tom's Foolery acquired the 1970's Michter's copper pot still that Lou Forman used to showcase old distillation methods in Schaefferstown. The still had been in the possession of David Beam who had it on display in Bardstown, KY. David Beam's grandfather, C. Everett Beam, had been the master distiller at Michter's until Dick Stoll took over in Michter's final year in PA.

In September 2015, Michter's bought it for their new operation on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. Read Chuck Cowdery's Whisky Advocate article about it here.