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also the home of author James Fennimore Cooper, whose
father, a wealthy landowner, judge and congressman, founded
it. James, one of America’s first great authors and perhaps
one of its best, wrote several novels, including The
The Deerslayer, and The Last of the Mohicans,
which have presented us with much of our concepts about the
people, frontiersmen and natives, who once lived there. In
those books he often referred to Glimmerglass Lake,
which was, in fact, Lake Otsego in that area.
Another river beginning in New York, the Delaware, reaches the coast as Delaware Bay, about twenty-five miles east of the Chesapeake. Along the way it connects Philadelphia to the sea. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at a map to see the relationship between the whiskey producers of Eastern Pennsylvania (which include those in Maryland, New Jersey, and Southern New York) and the marketplaces of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Within this area, we believe, lies the birthplace of American whiskey.
It’s no coincidence that it’s also the birthplace of America. The Eastern Pennsylvania/Maryland area has a rich heritage of whiskey-distilling, as does every place where pioneers settled. It also developed a rich heritage of COMMERCIAL whiskey production, with distinct regional characteristics and, beginning with one of the best-known of these, we will explore places where a few of these distilleries once stood. For they are all gone now. Not a single commercial producer of aged whiskey exists east of the Appalachians today.
So, what kind of whiskey did these folks make? Well, mostly the whiskey produced was sold locally, and it was probably unaged spirits, distilled from corn and rye. Old Isaiah Morgan, of Jackson County, West Virginia, whose primary business was as a dealer and shipper of hay, may have produced just such a whiskey. Today, distiller Rodney Facemire sells a very similar product that he produces at his Kirkwood Winery in Summersville, in the southern part of the state. So do many, many others of course, but Rodney’s has the distinction of being legal and available at West Virginia liquor stores. You can learn more about Isaiah Morgan (which is true rye whiskey) and Rodney’s equally impressive Southern Moon corn liquor by clicking HERE.
Facemire’s products are sold commercially today, through West Virginia-licensed liquor stores, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries most farm-produced whiskey was for personal consumption or traded locally. Another example you can visit along with us in these pages is the small distillery that Israel Shreve built to augment George Washington’s grist mill in Perryopolis in 1790.
But nearly forty years before even that, all the way back in 1753, John Shenk (another Swiss Mennonite farmer) built a similar home-farm distillery near Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, in Lebanon County. Sometime during the four generations of Shenk's who operated it, the distillery became a commercial venture. Perhaps its success was aided by the Revolutionary War. Advertising claims made much later imply that the distillery provided whiskey for George Washington’s troops, and although we haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence of that, it’s certainly not impossible – after all, someone did, and this distillery was already nearly twenty-five years old in 1776. At any rate, it appears to have been a commercial operation by the late 1850’s, when John Shenk’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth Shenk Kratzer sold it to another Pennsylvania Deutsch Mennonite (and family member), Abraham S. Bomberger. Abe’s family continued to operate the distillery until it was forced to close in 1919 by national prohibition. Like many local distilleries, there was a retail outlet on the site. And according to the Bomberger family's recollection, the day before the distillery closed (presumably for eternity) cars, horses, and wagons were lined up for 2½ miles to make their final purchases.
The family sold the distillery while Prohibition was still in effect. That part of the story seems pretty straightforward. Fourteen years after the 18th amendment was ratified, however, it became the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed. And just what happened with the little distillery in Schaefferstown after that is a multi-layered puzzle nearly as hard to figure out as who really did invent baseball.
Presented here is just a taste. The following owes much to the two really excellent web pages that Abe Bomberger’s own great-granddaughter, Yvonne Bomberger Fowler, has created describing the distillery and its history, including photos and copies of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, and so forth. Yvonne’s pages are http://web.tampabay.rr.com/ybfowler/distilry.htm and http://us.geocities.com/ybfowler/legacy.htm, and to another website which is the promotional site for A. H. Hirsch Reserve, a very limited-edition, highly-acclaimed bourbon whiskey that enjoys a unique and intimate relationship with the Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown. We'll learn more of A. H. Hirsh Reserve and its distributor, Henry Preiss Imports, Inc. a little later. The Preiss/Hirsch site (http://www.hirschbourbon.com), also presents the Michter's Story -- although theirs is not exactly the same story.
And we do mean ruins. A tangle of collapsed buildings, crumbling back into the earth, the little distillery near Schaefferstown is overgrown with weeds, and also with conflicting and partially-remembered stories every bit as twisting and tangled as the weeds.
For starters, we do know this much…
The Bomberger's had sold the distillery shortly after Prohibition went into effect. When it ended in 1933 a company named "Pennco" purchased the distillery and then operated it for the next forty-five years until they sold it in 1978 to the people who called it Michter's.
Well, then again, maybe we don’t even know that for sure.
Yvonne Fowler said that, but according to information from the Preiss Imports organization the distillery was purchased by Louis Forman in 1942. That would be about thirty-five years shy of 1978, but then, who's counting?
Fowler doesn't mention Louis Forman at all on either of her pages, but we have a ceramic jug, clearly marked Michter's, that dates from 1942. It's also clearly marked "Louis Forman & Company Philadelphia, Pennsylvania". But they’re identified only as the brand’s sole U. S. agents, not as owners of the distillery. The jug is also somewhat ambiguous as to whether the distillery even IS the old Bomberger place located just southwest of Schaefferstown, since the address it shows links it to a location several miles in the opposite direction.
No other Michter container or publication mentions Sheridan. No Michter label or advertisement actually states that the whiskey was distilled at Schaefferstown, only that it was from somewhere in Pennsylvania. The only Pennco product that was bottled in bond (and therefore required by law to state where it was distilled) was Penn Esquire (below right), which dates from the same period and was, like Michter's, bottled in Schaefferstown (the word "decanted" has no legal meaning). Penn Esquire was distilled, however, by Continental Distilling, at the giant Publicker distillery complex in Philadelphia. We find no reason to believe this local tourist product wouldn't have been "decanted" from the same barrels.
And 1942 would also have been nine years after prohibition ended. Did Pennco own the distillery for those nine years? Or maybe Pennco was the operations branch of Louis Forman & Company.
But if that were the case, then just who WAS operating the distillery during those nine years?
Now you might wonder why that should be such a hard thing to learn, but there may have been good reasons for it. Do you recall that we mentioned Yvonne Fowler's claim that the Bomberger family had sold the distillery (to someone) shortly after it closed, in compliance with the Volstead Act? And then it was sold again (to someone, who? Pennco? Forman?) right after Repeal. Well, apparently there were these rumors, you see. Rumors that the distillery might not have been, shall we say, completely silent all that time. The history of Michter's as given on the Preiss/Hirsch website implies that the distillery "may have" been started up "every so often" when no one was looking, just to fill local needs. And since federal law makes knowingly dealing with a felon a felony in itself at worst, and can negate the validity of titles, deeds, and contracts at the very least, we've noticed that the entire distilling industry, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and our own proud state of Ohio, appears to have been universally affected by a sort of "amnesiac dysfunction" in the recording of exact names during that time period.
Curiously, despite Yvonne Fowler's assertion that Pennco was the legal and licensed operator of the distillery in Schaefferstown for nearly half a century, the organization isn't mentioned at all on the Preiss/Hirsch website.
And what happened to it after 1978? It's hard to research a name like Pennco; the name "Pennco" is so commonly used by Pennsylvania-based companies that searching on it is like searching for “Joe Smith” in the phone book.
(There was once a brand of bourbon called Virgin. Try running that through Google, Yahoo, AltaVista, Ask.Com, etc. a few times and see what kind of junk mail you end up with ).
There are no distillers of alcohol operating in the United States today under the name “Pennco”. We couldn't find any information to confirm that Pennco had anything to do with any distillery (nor even that it still existed) after 1978.
But it was certainly operating a distillery (or at least a bottling plant) in Schaefferstown before then. They marketed at least four brands under their own name . Union Town and Happy Hour were blended whiskies. Pennco's 86 was an eighty-six proof, six-year-old whiskey. That is the same description that would have applied to Michter's -- except that Pennco's 86 was a straight bourbon whiskey, which implied a somewhat higher quality (although such an implication may not always be supportable; Early Times would be a good example). Pennco also marketed a 7-year-old, 100-proof, bottled-in-bond straight bourbon whiskey labeled Penn Esquire.
It seems likely, from the label disclaimer required for the Bottled-in-Bond Penn Esquire, that Pennco was related to South Philadelphia’s Continental Distilling Corporation, a subsidiary of Publicker, as the whiskey bottled in Schaefferstown was actually distilled at their facility in Philadelphia (DSP-PA-1). Publicker produced many brands spanning the entire range of quality, from awful to excellent. The Schaefferstown site may have joined several others purchased by Publicker to produce whiskey for use in its brands. There doesn’t appear to have ever been a label containing both the name Pennco and Michter’s, but Michter's remains as the only name most people recognize in relation to this spirit.
And recognize it they most certainly do. Michter’s has taken on an almost mythical status among American whiskey enthusiasts. Actually, there’s nothing “almost” about it; like Stitzel-Weller, its alter-ego in the bourbon world, Michter’s is generally assumed to be the ultimate American whiskey, the Holy Grail for collectors. This is despite the fact that few, if any, of its most vocal advocates have ever tasted the actual product, nor realize that the distillery itself wasn’t even called Michter's prior to 1979.
Some of the legend is justifiable. A great deal of the mystique about Michter’s quality derives from the genuinely excellent bourbon whiskey marketed by Preiss Imports that is (or at least once was) supposedly no less than a resurrection miracle. More on that in a little bit, but for now what is important is that many (probably most) devotees of Michter’s 16- and 20-year-old Pennsylvania Bourbon, as bottled under the name A. H. Hirsch Reserve, are not aware that (1) the original six-year-old Michter’s was nowhere near as fine a product – and they never sold an older version, and (2) neither Pennco, nor Michter’s Jug House, nor Michter’s Distillery ever called that particular product “bourbon”, or “rye”; it was labeled simply “pot-still whiskey”, which technically it was… but only to the extent that every whiskey distilled in a four-story continuous column still (the one housed by that tall section of the distillery with the jug-shaped water tank on top of it) can properly be called “pot-distilled” simply because it’s reprocessed through a “doubler”. With few exceptions (Jack Daniel’s is the only one that comes to mind at the moment, although there may be one or two others), all American whiskey (at least as made today) is “doubled”. But it takes the imagination of a true marketer (or perhaps a software publisher) to describe such a product as “pot-distilled”.
Before Prohibition there could very well have been a retail
store located at the distillery, as that was not at all
uncommon, and Yvonne Bomberger's tale indicates that to have
been the case at Bomberger's distillery as well. But there
is no record that such an outlet was part of Pennco's plan
for the site, nor is it likely that such a setup would have
been permitted under Pennsylvania's new state liquor control
So, what happened after 1978? Well, here's what the papers say...
According to newspaper stories and Yvonne Fowler’s information, Pennco sold the distillery to a group of eight local (Lebanon County) businessmen. Although Fowler doesn’t mention this, these may have been the owners of Michter's Jug House. Other sources have confirmed that it was about this time that "Michter’s Distilling Company" first began to appear on their labels.
A July 1979 Associated Press article in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times announces the purchase of the distillery by Theodore D. Veru, of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Veru is identified as a former executive with Schenley Distillers and the newspaper article indicates that he has big marketing plans for the brand, including sales to Japan, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain. We don't know exactly how long Ted Veru owned the site; the only other reference we found for him was that he and his wife Georgia each donated to the Bill Bradley for President campaign in 2000. Theodore Veru of Fort Lee, N.J. was co-chairman of Lois/USA, a major marketing and advertising firm at the time.
The March 27, 1989 issue of the Lebanon Enterprise states that the distillery has “… fallen on hard times in recent years. Sales have plummeted to 10,000 cases per year from 40,000 cases 10 years ago. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1980 and was taken over by a bank after it foreclosed. It is now owned by an unidentified group of Philadelphia area investors.” That article, however, is the only mention we’ve found that there was trouble as far back as 1980. Most other references (including Yvonne Fowler’s on her other page) set the only bankruptcy filing as happening in 1989.
In 1990, according to Preiss/Hirsch, Adolph Hirsch (no doubt knowing the distillery was about to go under) purchased their stock of whiskey that had been made in 1974. This whiskey was already sixteen years old at that time, and, as we've already seen, may have been the last actually distilled at Schaefferstown. He bottled some of this as such, and then sold the rest to the Hue family in Covington, Kentucky. They had the amazing foresight to place the remainder in stainless steel tanks, thus halting the aging process. Another portion was kept out and bottled in 1994 as a 20-year-old. The Hues have continued the stainless steel storage and market the brand (still called A. H. Hirsch, by the way) through Henry Preiss Imports, who also market other fine products under the A. H. Hirsch name. There have been two or three subsequent (small) releases of the 16-year-old product. There is probably no 20-year-old left except in the hands of collectors. It should be emphasized here that the Hirsch bourbon is a truly outstanding whiskey, and every bit worthy of the praise that is universally bestowed upon it. It should also be noted that it is a very different and far older whiskey than anything labeled Michter’s ever was. For one thing, Michter’s was never labeled “bourbon”. Although only speculation, it is logical to assume one reason for that may have been that the Michter’s mash bill (grain recipe) was probably closer to the 10% malted barley and equal amounts of corn and rye that we think was the most common proportions prior to the “straight whiskey” laws. In order to be called bourbon or rye today, a whiskey must contain at least 51% of corn or rye, respectively.
By the way, like Ted Veru, Adolph Hirsch was also an ex-Schenley executive. We’ve found no record that the Schenley company had any involvement with Pennco, but then we’ve found no records at all of who Pennco’s customers were. We do know that Schenley had dealings with many Pennsylvania distilleries, including Dillinger and another known as Pennsylvania Distilling Company, of Logansport, Armstrong County. PDC, in turn, had a working relationship with Publicker/Continental. Whether or not PDC was one and the same as Pennco is not known, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Schenley and Pennco worked together.
Sometime around 1991 (no one seems to know just when), everyone involved with the Michter’s distillery just simply upped and left. They didn't appear to have notified anyone. They just vanished without a trace. Within a year or so deterioration, prowlers, and burglars were causing a major public nuisance. In addition to the usual business assets – production equipment and supplies, office machinery, records, etc. – there was the small matter of inventory… some 300,000 gallons of whiskey, some bottled and most stored in barrels. Les Stewart writes in the Lebanon Valley Daily News that the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania converted the firm’s case from Chapter 11 (protection from creditors) to Chapter 7 (liquidation of assets) in June of 1992. By that time the property was already known to have been abandoned.
According to Todd Meyer of the same newspaper, the last-known owner of the distillery was Aquari Holding Company, which does not appear to exist. Heidelberg Township police detectives trying to locate company personnel found nothing but a string of non-existent or bogus addresses.
In 1994, after negotiating such issues as property and school taxes owed from as far back as 1988, Brooklyn lawyer John Michael Spanakos purchased the Atlantic Financial Savings Association lien on the property and filed a mortgage foreclosure to obtain the title. He expected to be able to refurbish the decaying structures and equipment and to be able to return it to full production within six to seven months.
It didn’t happen. In January of 1996 the distillery was again sold, this time to Gene Wilson, an attorney from Louisa, Kentucky, who auctioned off the office furniture and production equipment in May of that year and set forth to reopen the site. Wilson did not expect to produce whiskey on a large scale, but was pursuing the idea of setting up a one-barrel-a-day tourist attraction. He told Mark Heckathorn of the Harrisburg Patriot-News that modern environmental regulations and the lack of available adjoining land rendered it impossible to operate a commercial distillery there. Because of the development of the area there is no longer enough surrounding farmland available to provide room for the additional settling ponds for wastes and other environmental regulations, and Wilson's attempts at purchasing adjacent farmland brought no offers to sell.
Wilson said he paid $160,000 for the property, sight unseen, just to get the small pot-still demonstration setup that was still available. Capable of processing only ten bushels (one barrel output) per day, it had been constructed in 1976 by Tom Sherman of Louisville's Vendome Copper Company as part of the bi-centennial celebrations.
Much more than just a pot-still, it included a miniature mash tub, fermenters, condensers, and everything necessary for a complete miniature distillery. It was installed exclusively to show tourists the whiskey-making process. However, it had also been the only functioning still on the 22-acre site since the main distilling equipment was shut down in 1980.
"After I bought [the distillery], I brought Dave Beam up with all sincerity of starting it back up," Wilson told the Patriot-News. David Beam had retired as distiller at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. Another member of the ubiquitous Beam family, Charles Everett Beam had been hired by Louis Forman in 1950 to help start up their operations after World War II, and he had remained there as master distiller for many years after that.
In addition to the equipment, someone -- perhaps Gene, or maybe whoever Gene sold the property to -- had the sense to sell the one thing Michter's owned that had real value... the name "Michter's" itself. Not only did the brand get sold, it got sold to an organization that has proceeded to capitalize on it. The four varieties of whiskey that Chatham Imports market under the Michter's name are all worthy, and then some. There are two single-barrel rye whiskies, one a normal four-year-old, the other ten years, a bourbon (also a ten-year-old single barrel), and most interesting of all, a product labeled, "Unblended American Whiskey", which has a decidedly maple flavor, similar to some, uh... not completely licensed whiskey we've tasted from Alabama.
It's good to know that this fine old name will continue on despite the demise of the distillery that probably didn't produce that whiskey in the first place. It can now join the likes of J. W. Dant, Old Fitzgerald, Old Overholt, Pikesville, Yellowstone, Henry McKenna, J.T.S. Brown, Dowling Deluxe, Old Grand Dad, and McCormick as whiskeys that have only their name in common with the products they once were. It is a better-tasting whiskey than most of those, and also better than Michter's really ever was, too.
In 1976, in recognition of its significance as both Pennsylvania’s only remaining operating distillery and perhaps the only legitimate claimant for the title of America’s oldest (more or less) continuously-operating distillery, Michter's was placed on the list of National Historic places. In June of 1980, the Department of the Interior further escalated that honor by designating Michter’s a National Historic Landmark, which took it from the "this is a nice example of a very old building" category into the rarified world of places like Independence Hall and Gettysburg. And yet, by the mid-‘90s the lovely bronze plaque could be seen peeking through the underbrush that overgrew the crumbling ruins. In 1997 the designation was officially rescinded.
Earlier this year, our friend and dedicated amateur Pennsylvania whiskey historian, Sam Komlenic of Pennsylvania State University, wrote to us about his experiences at Michter’s during its most glorious times and also after its fall from grace. The following are his impressions…
It's hard to believe it's slowly creeping up on 20 years since I poked my head into that unlocked warehouse door at Schaefferstown in late 1989 and watched barrels being dumped into a stainless trough filled with charcoal and Pennsylvania sour mash. The sensation of the barrel proof nectar the workers offered me still lingers in my sinuses. The ricks were conspicuously empty, even to the casual visitor, and I wondered even then how long they would last. Scant months, as it turned out. This was the same visit where I was told that they had, in the recent past, bottled up a supply of 20 year old straight rye and sent it to Japan. The excess had been sold out of the Jug House prior to my visit.
The first of my perhaps five trips to Michter's, in 1979, was the only one where I actually took their tour. They charged you a dollar for the tour, but at the end, took a picture of you with the whiskey you had (hopefully) purchased, then sent you the photo in a card signed by your tour guide via U.S. mail. I still have mine. I don't remember much about the tour, which did not include any warehouses, and wish I knew then what I know now about distilling, not to mention wanting to have had a camera!
I do remember that the operation, overall, was pretty small. The "one barrel a day" pot still was in a separate area from the rest of the distilling operation, and I can't for the life of me remember a larger pot anywhere in the distillery. They offered mule rides across the road from the distillery, where the parking lot was. They also told you how many bottle equivalents could be held by the display jug on the roof, which concealed the water tower. The Jug House (in the old Bomberger distillery building, a very old, attractive, and well-maintained structure) was accessed through the souvenir shop and visitor's center, and was very quaint, even country store-like, with sales displays and shelves filled with their many (and ubiquitous) decanters and jugs. Between the two areas was a small historical display of artifacts uncovered during an earlier expansion proving the lineage of distilling at the site extended back over more than a century than had been realized before that. They had previously quoted a start-up date in the late 1800's. This material gave them more than a century head start. I often wonder what happened to those artifacts once the plant was abandoned. It all deserved to be held by the local historical society, and perhaps I should investigate further.
George Shattls, the general manager at that time, showed me their 230th (!) anniversary decanter, which had been issued a few years earlier. I asked about availability, and he offered to send me one if I paid him there. In these pre-eBay days, I was suspicious of ever getting the decanter, but it actually arrived shortly thereafter. I have only ever seen one other example since.
My last visit was in May of 1990. For a few years, I stopped at least once per year on my way to a breweriana show in Philadelphia which was held in May and November (hence the date of my last visit). A piece of 8½ x 11 notebook paper was taped to the inside of the visitor's center door, "Closed until further notice." In the span of six months, I had gone from my best distillery experience ever to mourning the loss of this historic enterprise. Legal distilling in Pennsylvania had ended. I don't know why my usual instincts didn't kick in. Maybe it was because I had too much reverence for the place that I didn't poke around, didn't walk around back, didn't jiggle a door handle or try a window. I was driving a full size Dodge pickup truck that would easily have hauled 50 cases or 4 barrels. It's probably just as well. Otherwise, I might not be relating the story as I know it to have occurred. Michter's was MY distillery, more than anyone else's. I have discussed this with John Hansell, publisher of Malt Advocate. A native of Lebanon County, even he never made a single visit to Michter's, a situation he still discusses with regret. I feel privileged to have had such a personal connection to what has become one of the most significant and longest-lived distilleries ever to operate in these United States.
I just realized that I have written all there is to know about my personal experience with what was once America's Oldest Distillery. My home state was home to both this and America's Oldest Brewery.
Oh, that it were still the same!
Oh by the way -- according to Tom Heitz of the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, Alexander Cartwright, not Abner Doubleday, invented the game of baseball, adapting it from the English sport of Rounders in 1845. As fine, upstanding Americans who value our traditions, however, we shall continue recognizing Abner Doubleday as the Father of Baseball. Nor will we be swayed by the fact that the Baseball Hall of Fame has a copy of the Delhi (N.Y.) Gazette with a public notice concerning an upcoming game of baseball, played by organized teams of nine men. So who cares that the newspaper was published on July 13, 1825?
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