By Kurt Maitland
Earlier this fall, I had the chance to visit Louisville and tour Michter’s Distillery’s* M2 operations in Shively. There I was fortunate enough to taste many of their current offerings, and to speak not only with Joseph J. Magliocco, the president of Michter’s, but also with Willie Pratt, their Master Distiller.
Willie Pratt has more than 40 years of experience in the whiskey business, having spent years working on the selection of grain and distillation. Prior to joining Michter’s, Willie worked at Brown-Forman (maker of Jack Daniels, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve) where he co-chaired a special committee that studied cooperage – the art of barrel construction – to identify optimal distillation and aging conditions for, among other things, whiskey taste, aroma, color and yields.
KM: What do you think are the best qualities of Michter’s current offerings, and what sets it apart from its contemporaries?
WP: One is our house style “rich, full-flavored, a little sweet, and smooth.” Also we are always trying different things – air dried wood experiments, toasting as well as charring barrels, chill filtration, barrel aging, etc. The barrel is 60% -70% of the quality of the product. We try 32 different filters for our whiskeys to determine the best way to filter that particular spirit.
KM: What do you look for when creating a new offering for a Michter’s?
WP: We look for it to have a specific quality: “this barrel stands out;” “it is an exceptional barrel and this would perfect for a special release;” “it’s great at 8 years – but let’s hold it for 20.” **
KM: What is your take on how the barreling and heat–cycling process helps make Michter’s the spirit that it is?
WP: 90% to 97% of whiskey in the US is made in Kentucky. Why Kentucky? The seasons and the water. There are more barrels of whiskey than people in Kentucky. The cycles cause the spirit to cycle through the red layer. The careful temp change of 13° (from 65° to 78°) via steam heat increases the amount of cycling through the red layer. This increases the “angel’s share” (the amount lost to evaporation as the whiskey ages in the barrel) as well as the cost but the additional cycling adds flavor. We feel that heat cycling is part of the process.
The industry standard for whiskey off the still is 140 proof which is reduced to 125 proof. We barrel at 103 proof – which was the standard for the industry in 1950s – 1970s – so that less water is needed to get our whiskey to label proof, which means there is 32% more aged product in our bottles. This requires more wood, more space to barrel, and it increases the costs but is part of our house style.
* Editor’s Note: Although some whiskey pundits dismissed Michter’s intentions to build a distillery as deceptive marketing, the company currently has two multi-million dollar facilities nearing completion in the Louisville area, and was welcomed as the 17th member of the Kentucky Disillers Association on December 12 of this year.
** Writer’s Note: This penchant for holding back the release of Michter’s whiskeys until he thinks it is right has earned him the nickname – “Doctor No” inside the company.