Drinkhacker Asks: Michter’s Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson and Master Distiller Dan McKee
Its been a while since we last had the opportunity to share an industry interview with you, but better late than never. Right?
The Drinkhacker crew has long been a fan of Michter’s Distillery. As such, we eagerly followed their agonizingly slow progress restoring the nearly un-restorable Fort Nelson building on downtown Louisville’s bustling Whiskey Row. That facility finally opened over the fall and now serves as a small-scale experimental distillery and visitor’s attraction. Actual production and maturation of Michter’s whiskeys continues to take place at their Shively campus just outside of town, and it was there that we went to visit both their Master of Maturation, Andrea Wilson, and their newest Master Distiller, Dan McKee, to talk about the new Fort Nelson site and all things Michter’s.
Drinkhacker: So how did you both get your starts in the whiskey business?
Andrea: I started with Michter’s in July of 2014, but I had a long career before that with Diageo running their North American distilling and maturing business and working on the operations side of whiskey strategy for them which included renovations to the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
Dan: I actually worked with our former Master Distiller, Pam Heilman, at Jim Beam for six years prior to coming over to Michter’s. I was a distillery operator at the Claremont Distillery and then supervisor at the Booker Noe Distillery.
Drinkhacker: What was it like coming over to Michter’s?
Andrea: We’ve all enjoyed a lot of freedom at Michter’s to focus on things that, even though they’re expensive, influence the quality of the product.
Dan: Jim Beam helped me learn the industry, but it was a brand new culture at Michter’s. We were building from the ground up. Any distiller would love to be part of a project starting from nothing and building it to what we have now.
Drinkhacker: The distillery officially came on line in 2015. What’s your production capacity?
Dan: In less than a year we were asked to double capacity, so we expanded, coming back on line again in August 2016.
Pam: In terms of actual numbers, our still is capable of 1.5 million proof gallons, but it’s currently operating at only 1 million. There’s another small expansion left. Michter’s actually acquired 145 acres in Springfield, Kentucky which will be used for a future expansion campus. We’re currently growing estate grown grains there with the first harvest this past September, and we’ll eventually move forward with additional crops of rye and barley. We’re planning to do things out there that we hope to use in our consumer experience at Fort Nelson downtown.
Drinkhacker: Speaking of Fort Nelson, that site was announced in 2011 but just opened this past fall. What took so long?
Pam: Fort Nelson has been a long project for the Michter’s family. Joe started saying that we were the first to announce that we were opening in Louisville, but we’d probably be the last to actually open. At this point, I think he’s still right. The building ended up being in much worse condition that anyone realized. It became a tremendous historical preservation project. We had to put a custom steel cage into the building and pin all of the brick to it to keep it standing. Then we replaced all of the flooring and so much else. An enormous amount of work went in to making it what it is today.
Drinkhacker: Sounds like quite the fixer-upper. Where does the name Fort Nelson come from?
Pam: The building is called Fort Nelson after the old fortification that existed on the river front there. It was a fortification literally against the frontier back when everything west of the river was still being settled. The building itself has stood since the late 1800s, and it’s a beautiful example of cast iron architecture.
Drinkhacker: How does that site compare to the Shively campus?
Pam: Fort Nelson houses the old pot stills from the original Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania, which is a barrel-a-day operation that we’re using for some exciting projects. It also includes a full educational experience, an aroma and tasting experience, bar program, and of course a gift shop. We’re excited to have it as our stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so that we can finally share the Michter’s story with visitors. The Shively facility will remain closed to the public as our primary production facility.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk a little about what goes on at Shively. This isn’t quite the same industrial set up that most distilleries have.
Pam: Well that’s because the Shively campus was an old GM autoparts manufacturer that closed in 2008. It was acquired by Michters in 2012 and retrofitted to be a distillery with processing and bottling. It also includes all of our grainery operations and an onsite barrel warehouse. There’s 78,000 square feet under one roof here. We have barrel warehousing throughout the state, but we plan to add warehousing on our land in Springfield, as well.
Drinkhacker: Since you only started distilling in 2015, Michter’s whiskey on the shelf today was distilled on contract, correct?
Pam: Right. To our specifications. We’ve worked closely with our contract distiller to ensure that the product is unique to Michter’s and that what we’re producing here at Shively is to the same specifications. When we do begin bottling our own make, Michter’s customers won’t notice a difference and that’s by design.
Drinkhacker: So what makes Michter’s unique in the wide world of American whiskey?
Pam: We spend a lot of time and money to ensure the highest quality in our products. For example, our Small Batch line only uses 20 barrels. “Small Batch” is an unregulated term, but we’re very proud of the discipline and attention to detail that it takes to produce at that small of a level on a regular basis. A lot of producers are using 500 or 1000 barrels in their “small” batches. For us, if we had an off note in one barrel, that’s 5% of the batch and enough to be noticed, so we have to have exceptional quality control.
Dan: Some of our equipment is unique in the industry, too. We use a cage mill, which is rare and different than typical hammer or roller mills because it creates a very high quality and consistent product. There’s no risk of frictional burn or parts that wear over time and cause inconsistency. It grinds on demand so the grist is always fresh.
Pam: We also go into the barrel at a very low proof, 103. And the wood we use for our barrels has been naturally air dried and seasoned for at least 18 months, which is very long in the industry. The barrels are also toasted before they are charred to create a rich char layer that provides more complexity.
Drinkhacker: We’ve heard that you have a pretty unique approach to chill filtration, as well. Tell us about that.
Dan: One of the really big things we do that sets us apart is chill filter every expression with a custom program designed for that style of whiskey.
Pam: That’s right. It’s not a one size fits all approach which is what you typically see. We’re defining the filter type, media, filtration time, and other factors for each expression. The reason for all of this added work is to really honor the spirit of the whiskey that took years to develop in the barrel. Our filtration programs highlight what we want the consumer to experience in each style of Michter’s whiskey.
Drinkhacker: You don’t typically hear about this kind of rigorous filtration. In fact, distilleries often brag about not chill-filtering, not the other way around. Is there anyone else in the industry using this kind of custom chill filtration that you know of?
Pam: Many producers do argue that filtration strips flavor and aroma, and I agree that that’s the case with using only one filtration protocol. But we’re not trying to strip things out, we’re accentuating and maximizing what the consumer wants. Plenty of producers do chill filter, but the use of a custom program like ours is unique in the industry.
Drinkhacker: Well, thank you both very much for taking the time to talk a little about what makes Michter’s whiskey unique. Your new Fort Nelson Distillery is definitely on the “Must Visit” list for our next trip to Kentucky!