The year was 2007 and I was a student beginning my Masters degree at Oxford Brookes University. More importantly, I’d just spent my first summer behind the stick in my first, of what would become many, cocktail bartender roles. That meant I’d been subject to a crash course in whisky, gin, vodka, rum and how to mix them. The team I worked with had become very close and, even though I was the new guy, I felt right at home almost immediately. When we weren’t working together we were drinking together. When we drank we did our best to drink well.
My Journey in Bourbon and why I Love Michter’s Whiskey
I can’t remember how I was introduced to Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, but I do remember that you could pick up a bottle for £28.99 in a corner shop on the Cowley Road. We were big fans of Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark but Old Rip Van Winkle felt like a cut above, so we drank it as often as we could. This often took place at around four in the morning while we played Pro Evolution Soccer on my PS3. Other times we mixed it with sugar and bitters to make Old Fashioned cocktails.
The next time I came across this whiskey was in 2009 after I’d made the move abroad to France. I was working in a relatively prestigious cocktail bar now and two chaps from the Buffalo Trace Distillery (who own the brand) came in to see us and donate a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve for the bartenders to “have a play with”.
At this point in my life I felt like I was at peak fascination with American whiskey and this brand in particular always seemed to captivate. I’d drop the name in any bourbon related conversation I found myself in, often to nods and sounds of approval from other bartenders.
Then, quietly and without me really noticing it, the bottles of Van Winkle started to dry up. I stopped noticing it on back bars and in whisky shops. I didn’t think anything of it.
I returned to the UK in 2015 and took over the running of a new cocktail bar in Oxford. Memories started flooding back to me about spirits I used to love but hadn’t tasted in years. The first on the list was a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10. By this point it had been five years since I’d tasted the liquid. I had a hunt on the usual websites. They’d had bottles available, but now there was a big “SOLD OUT” sign next to the product.
Finally, I made my way onto Amazon for one last throw of the dice and there it was! A bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old available to purchase for the princely sum of £1,500.00 plus a delivery charge of £4.99 just to rub some salt into the wound. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand what had happened.
What had happened was that the Van Winkle brand had made its way into the zeitgeist of whiskey aficionados across the globe. As a result demand, and therefore price, had rapidly increased right under my very nose. There were to be no more students consuming it at four in the morning on the Cowley Road. Luckily for me, it was about this time that I began to develop a real taste for Scotch whisky.
A learning Curve
I couldn’t tell you the reasons why the Van Winkle whiskies were so wonderful. All we knew was that we felt really cool when we were drinking them. We now live in an age where whiskey journalists hype up certain products and whiskey collectors follow suit by buying them up. The price inflates and we arrive at a point where the whiskey is so expensive, only a few people actually dare to drink the stuff.
The logical conclusion to this is that the quality of liquid in the glass often comes nowhere near to matching the price tag on the shelf. What’s worse is that this trend can often trickle down to more pocket friendly products. This is a problem because, all of a sudden, we might just find ourselves presiding over a spirits category with barriers to entry that effectively shut the door on the next generation of whiskey lovers.
Which brings me onto Michter’s. Hovering at a price point just north of £60, the Michter’s Straight Rye and Bourbon expressions are hardly pocket change and still represent a level of investment for the budding whiskey buyer.
Having said that, in terms of quality to price ratio, there’s some real value to be had. When we sat down in June for our American Whiskey in the Cellar tasting, the Michter’s expressions were, on average, around £25 cheaper than the bulk of whiskies on offer. Despite this, a large percentage of the audience that evening picked either the Michter’s Rye or Bourbon as their favourite bottle of the night.
Michter’s are very vocal about the amount work they put into their whiskey and they make no secret of the instances where they’ve managed to persuade the accountant to throw caution to the wind. For example when they spend sixty months air-drying the oak for their barrels when it would be much cheaper to kiln dry. They also toast the inside of their casks before the mandatory charring. Both of these they do because they feel it enhances the properties of the wood and reduces tannin levels in the final liquid.
Before they fill the barrels Michter’s dilute the liquid to a much lower proof than seen elsewhere in the industry. This is followed, at the end of the maturation period, by a much lower level of dilution directly prior to bottling. As a business strategy this isn’t particularly smart practice. It means that you end up with a much lower yield from the liquid as it leaves the barrels. They do it because it means the effects of maturation come across much more powerfully in the liquid without being inhibited by dilution.
Barrels are heat cycled at the maturation stage to coax a greater percentage of angels share from the casks. In Kentucky this means more water leaving the barrel and a more powerful whiskey in the final product. When it comes to the final blend, batching tanks are limited to 4000ltrs (about 20 barrels worth) making it impossible to “blend out” any casks that might not cut the mustard.
The whole thing is overseen by Michter’s Master of Maturation and total badass Andrea Wilson. After growing up listening to stories of her ex-bootlegger grandfather, Andrea worked her way up from working in the warehouse to taking on the role as Diageo’s Director of Distillation and Maturation for North America. She made the switch the Michter’s in 2014 and now takes full control of all things maturation related at the distillery.
At that same tasting back in June, we also sampled two whiskies, both of exceptional quality and both much more expensive than Michter’s. During my research on each of the two brands neither company was willing to give up very much information about how the whiskey got made. One bottle we tasted even keeps the name of the distillery where the liquid is produced a strict secret.
While there’s clearly an element of blowing one’s own trumpet when it comes to their whiskey production, I can’t help but get excited about what people like Andrea are doing and fully commit jumping on board the Michter’s bus. Mostly because when you see what these people are doing, there’s a real sense of appreciation as to the quality of the liquid in your glass and how exactly it got in there.
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