Michter’s Asia Pacific Sales Director, Ethan Chai, delivered a master class on Mac Thi Buoi in Ho Chi Minh City sharing in a detailed yet entertaining style about how and why Michter’s always goes the extra mile to make the highest quality American whiskey. This dinner, hosted by Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar heralded the end of a long wait, as Michter’s American Whiskey is now officially available in Vietnam.
What makes Michter’s American Whiskey so good?
The basic formula for making great whisky = (ingredients, knowledge & equipment) + maturation.
Michter’s Master Distiller, Dan McKee, has access to the finest ingredients and the best equipment and Andrea Wilson, their Master of Maturation, uses the best possible barrels and aging techniques to achieve their goal of making the best American whiskey. There are essentially six different production points that contribute most to producing great whiskey which Michter’s pays great attention to. Indeed, with their “cost be dammed”, production-focused approach, Michter’s overdeliver at each production stage. Let’s consider these six production points in a little more detail.
Seasoned American White Oak
Michter’s uses the most expensive and highest quality oak to make their barrels which are stored and air-dried for up to five years to ensure that the flavors imparted into the whisky from the oak are as pure as possible.
Toasting the Barrels Before Charring and 103 Barrel Entry Proof
The practice of using flames to char barrels is a key element of making American whiskey and this is what produces that maple syrup-style aroma and sweet taste profile. Michter’s always toasts their barrels first because this helps the sugars in the liquid to further caramelize and infuse a deeper flavor and color profile to the whiskey.
This is a rather technical factor but it essentially means that the starting alcohol strength (ABV) of their whisky as it is entered into the barrels for aging is 51.5% compared to an industry standard of 62.5%. This is important because 51.5% is a more optimal ABV for the sugars in the charred and toasted oak to be infused into the whisky. However, this approach means that each barrel will produce fewer bottles of whisky compared to the industry standard and so Michter’s must use more barrels which are themselves expensive.
Heat Cycling for Extra Character
This would be the equivalent of residents in Vietnam leaving their air-conditioning constantly switched on. Michter’s continually “cycle” through a range of temperatures in their warehouses to make the whiskey in the barrels expand and contract to ensure that the liquid can extract more flavor from the sugar caramelized into the barrels. But incurs extra cost because more whiskey is lost or evaporated, a process is known as Angel’s Share, at almost double that of other American whiskies.
After whiskey has been aged and is finally ready to be bottled it is standard practice to “filter” it from the barrel to remove any cloudiness or residues from the liquid. Michter’s essentially uses a “chill filter” rather than the cheaper, more standard “carbon filter” approach because it enables the whiskey to maintain more flavor and aroma.
A Truly Small Batch Approach
Small batch is actually a confusing term for consumers because it has no specific or legal definition. Indeed, some respected American whiskey producers label their whiskeys as small-batch even though they are producing hundreds or even thousands of barrels. A small batch for Michter’s means twenty barrels producing a much more distinct, rich, complex, and flavorful profile versus a more generic profile of some other whiskies.
A Rich History
Michter’s began life as Shenks, America’s first whiskey company in Pennsylvania received a visit from George Washington who purchased a quota of whiskey in 1778 to sustain his men through the midst of the American War of Independence. A turbulent existence followed as ownership of the distillery changed hands several times through to the 1950s when then-owner Lou Forman originated the name Michter’s by combining the names of his two sons, Michael and Peter. Harsher times befell the company and in 1989 Michter’s was declared bankrupt with its Pennsylvania distillery being shuttered and lost to history.
Thankfully, the brand was restarted by Joseph J. Maglioco the current President of Michter’s who assembled a new team to move production to Kentucky, the state with the best resources for whisky in the USA as well as being home to some of the world’s finest distillers. Today Michter’s main production facility is located at an 85,000 sq ft distillery in Shively, a section of Louisville, which is the most famous area for whiskey production in Kentucky. Michter’s has also patiently renovated an old distillery, Fort Nelson in downtown Louisville, thoughtfully restoring the site for production while also housing a bespoke visitors center and the charismatic Bar at Fort Nelson which is frequented by leading industry professionals through its Fort Nelson Fellows program.
An iconic logo
The focal point of their Shively Distillery is their iconic 14 meters high and 100% copper still a system that features so prominently on the labels of Michter’s bottles. This highly specified equipment was custom designed for Michter’s in Kentucky by Vendome Copper & Brass Brass Works Inc, the leading fabricator of processing equipment for the whiskey industry. Copper stills are the most effective system for removing all impurities from the distilled spirit but are of course very expensive to procure. Given Michter’s laser focus on production quality, it feels highly relevant that their Shively copper still should be the central theme of their branding.
Ethan commenced our evening by welcoming guests with a delightful Michter’s Mulberry Sour cocktail and invited us to take our seats around the rectangular family-style dining table on the second floor of Stoker on 44 Mac Thi Buoi. Guests sank into their comfortable, king-size leather dining chairs and listened intently as Ethan presented the key elements of Michter’s story as I have outlined above. He then tasted the following small-batch whiskies with us and explained the reasons behind the unique flavor profiles of each:
US *1 American Whiskey
From whiskey-soaked American white oak barrels, showing deep butterscotch and vanilla notes with hints of caramel and dried fruit with a ripened fruit finish.
US *1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon
From fire-charred, new American white oak barrels displaying rich caramel with balanced vanilla, and nectarine fruit notes with a smoky finish.
US *1 Kentucky Straight Rye
From fire-charred, new American white oak barrels displaying spicy and peppery notes with hints of citrus, vanilla, and butterscotch. This is a favorite amongst bartenders for cocktails.
US *1 Sour Mash
From fire-charred, new American white oak barrels showing spicy burnt sugar notes, sweet smoky fruit with candied cherries, and a honeyed, vanilla finish. The perfect whiskey for sipping neat.
Ethan also delighted guests with 2 extremely rare and expensive whiskies starting with the Barrel Strength Rye which was first released in 2017 and exhibits extra spicy, burnt sugar / crème Brulee notes with delicate chocolate overtones. This whiskey was a perfect pairing with Chef George’s Rib Eye steak accompanied by dollops of creamy mac & cheese, mushrooms, and BBQ broccolini. I certainly felt the warmth of Ethan’s “Kentucky Hug” when enjoying this combination as the fiery whisky danced off the tongue before combining perfectly with the proteins of the beef melding into a magical mouth feel with a long and velvety aftertaste.
Ethan crowned a magical evening by toasting guests with a bold, black liveried 10 Year Bourbon release, weighing in at 47.2% ABV exhibiting dark toffee and caramel notes with maple syrup and vanilla and considered by many connoisseurs to be amongst the greatest American whiskeys.
One of Vietnam’s most admired gastronomists, Chef Peter Cuong Franklin owner of Anan Saigon, was in attendance at the dinner offering his seal of approval for a brand that has been ranked as the #1 Top Trending American Whiskey Drinks International for the last 4 years having also been named “Most Admired American Whiskey” by Drinks International in 2021. Michter’s was also described as “phenomenal” by the Wall Street Journal and “spectacular, powerful yet smooth” by world-famous liquor critic Robert Parker.
Now that Michter's have signed an exclusive deal with Boutique Brands Collective to distribute their whiskies in Vietnam, expect to see the iconic Shively still logo on the shelves of some of our most illustrious cocktail bars very soon.