Michter's Distillery

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Unread postby gillmang » Wed Oct 04, 2006 6:52 am

That IS interesting. I've heard of the first brand but not the second and third.

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Unread postby EllenJ » Thu Nov 23, 2006 12:50 am

cowdery wrote:Here is some interesting information. The Michter's bourbon used for A. H. Hirsch was used for some other bottlings put out by Gordon Hue of Cork and Bottle in the early 1990s. They include Boone’s Knoll, Colonel Randolph and Old Gromes.

Julian, or his father, bottled Boone's Knoll
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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Nov 23, 2006 2:23 am

Julian bottled all of them. I don't doubt that some of the brand names had been used before.
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Unread postby samkom » Wed Feb 21, 2007 11:23 am

Hi everybody! This is my first post to Bourbon Enthusiast, so let me provide an introduction. My name is Sam Komlenic, and I am a friend of John and Linda Lipman, who encouraged me to participate here. I am currently the copy editor for Malt Advocate magazine. I grew up in Westmoreland County, PA, which includes both Jacob’s Creek and the Youghiogheny River, major tributaries of the Monongahela, and major arteries of very early and very late Pennsylvania rye whiskey distilling. My dad worked for the Jones Brewing Company of Smithton, PA, home of Stoney’s Beer, much of my life. Smithton is just a few miles down the Yough from Broad Ford, the home of Old Overholt. The nearest village to my home was Ruffs Dale, the location of the Dillinger Distillery aforementioned here, hence my fascination with that plant. I am also the only whiskey enthusiast I know of who actually toured Michter’s Distillery. Both of these reasons are why I’m chiming in at this juncture.

I refer to myself as the “last of the Pennsylvania Rye drinkers.” I am now 50 years old, and back in the late 70s, at the Longhorn Saloon in Smithton, we had both Old Overholt and Sam Thompson available. Both were distilled in PA, though Overholt was then bottled in Cincinnati. I preferred the Sam Thompson to the Overholt, and that opinion has been validated since in tastings of those same products with the Lipmans. They have an example of that Overholt, and I have a bottle of the Sam Thompson, an extraordinary whiskey. I still like the Sam better. I feel that I represent the very end of the drinkers who chose (or even had the ability to choose) rye whiskey distilled in its home state. Being a rye aficionado at that time, I also tried Wild Turkey Rye once it became available here in the early 80s. I was intrigued that the back label stated “Distilled in Pennsylvania.” I still have that bottle as well, thankfully.

My first visit to Michter’s, and the only time I took the tour, was in March of 1979. I was on my way home from Philadelphia, and passed a billboard along the turnpike touting Michter’s and encouraging me to visit. Talk about the power of suggestion! I made my way to Schaefferstown, and as I turned on the road down to the distillery, I passed a farmer in bib overalls carrying a bottle of whiskey, purchased at the Jug House, back home with him. I wish I had brought a camera from that point on! I parked in the visitor’s lot, near a groomed pond (where they offered donkey rides for kids!) across the road from the Visitor’s Center/Jug House. I believe the wells that supplied the distillery were also on this side of the road. When you crossed the road and entered the door, you were in the gift shop in the left part of the building, with the Jug House to the right, nearest the distillery. The tour cost a dollar, and a young lady named Lori Gassert was our guide. To the best of my recollection, we were taken into the main distillery first. This was unquestionably a tour of an active plant. Fermenters were filled with mash, and I believe the column still was in operation that day. I did not become familiar with the operation of distilleries in general until after this, my first experience with such a place, but I can tell you that I do not recall any traditional pot stills in that distillery, anywhere, until we were taken into the Bomberger building, which then contained the notorious (and gorgeous) bicentennial “barrel-a-day” distillery, which was not in operation that day.

After the tour, we were led back into the Jug House, where we looked over a vast array of decanters and bottles available for purchase. This was supposedly the only retail store at any American distillery at the time. Once I made my selection (a quart of Michter’s in the 1978 full color jug), Lori took my picture on a bench beneath a large photo of the Bomberger Distillery. The photo arrived a few weeks later in the mail, attached to a display card with “Michter’s” printed on the front. I have that photo to this day, and the back of the card has a hand written note from Lori, thanking me for visiting.

Over the next ten years, I visited the distillery at least four, and perhaps five more times. I never took the tour again, though I recall it being offered at least one or two of those times. I was obsessed with the Jug House, as they sold decanters and bottle sizes I had never seen elsewhere. Over the years, I bought the 1.75 liter bottle, their largest, and the 200 ml, their smallest. I have both of those bottles, though I never kept a 750 ml, the only size then available through the PLCB. They also offered the 101 proof expression, which was hard to obtain elsewhere. My last visit while the distillery was open was on November 10, 1989. That day, I met distillery manager George Shattls, who told me of their 230th anniversary decanter, which had been issued six years earlier. I inquired about its availability, and he told me that he had some at home, and if I gave him $40 then and there, he would send one to me. He wrote out a receipt on his business card (yes, I still have it) and the decanter arrived a week or so later. This is how I am able to know exactly when my first and last visits were. I actually have dated evidence.

Also on this last visit, as I left the Jug House, I noticed an open door on the warehouse that was on the same side of the road, uphill from the distillery. I pulled up to the door, and stuck my head inside. There were two, maybe three men inside dumping barrels into a stainless steel trough choked with charcoal bits, and I walked in and began to converse with the workers. I was fascinated to see how whiskey was transferred to the bottling department, through an underground pipe from the warehouse, and I began to ask questions. “Isn’t there supposed to be a government man around when whiskey is being dumped?” A large fellow with a beard, wearing a blaze orange hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap replied “I’m the government man.” He went on to explain that the feds simply “deputized” a distillery employee to keep the official tally of what was being moved where.

I asked about the origin of the Wild Turkey Rye I had enjoyed, and he told me that it had been produced at Michter’s. He also confirmed that the Sam Thompson that, years earlier, was the reason for my love of rye whiskey, had also been made at Schaefferstown. It was a contract brand, and when the label folded, he had encouraged the company to pick it up and produce it again, to no avail. He felt that it could have been a successful brand for the distillery, and that it was an excellent whiskey. I did not inquire whether they had produced the Old Overholt, though based on what I have learned over the years, feel that they probably did. I asked about the strength of the whiskey being dumped, and was told that it was about 125 proof. “You wanna taste?” he asked. I about fell over, and accepted his offer. He walked toward the wall and picked up a dusty, empty whiskey bottle. He stuck the mouth of the bottle under the gurgling stream, rinsed it around, and dumped it on the dirt floor of the warehouse. He then caught a small portion of clean whiskey and offered me what I figure was the warehousemens’ usual way of getting a little themselves.

The aroma was astounding. Michter’s was always a whiskey that had “a lot of vapors” according to my brother, and the “vapors” were incredible at barrel strength. That whiskey, to this day, is the best I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, part of it was the surroundings, but that fresh bulk whiskey was intense, yet almost gentle, and filled my senses. The man continued to tell me that they had been exporting a lot of whiskey to the Asian market, particularly Japan. There had been a batch of 20 year old straight rye sent there recently, though under what label, I have no idea. What excess they had was sold from the Jug House, but it was long gone by that time. Keep an eye out, collectors! Of particular note: this warehouse was virtually devoid of barrels. It was nearly bare, with perhaps 20 percent of inventory remaining, maybe less. The distillery was closed scant months later, with many of those same barrels left behind

I returned, I’m almost certain, in May of the following year, 1980. The place was deserted, and a scribbled note was taped to the Visitor’s Center door pane: “Closed until further notice.” I drove away, in an empty pickup truck, past what I would later find out were warehouses still containing substantial quantities of whiskey, both bulk and packaged! Many of those decanters would show up later along Lebanon County roads, discarded by local teens, the first indication to anyone that whiskey was left behind in the rush by Acquari Holding Co. to lock the doors. I’ve never returned to Michter’s, preferring to remember it as a viable and compelling enterprise rather than a silent shell.

Random thoughts round out the rest of this missive: I can confirm the multi-year shutdown in the early 1980’s. I wonder about the proportions of the purported grain bill in Michter’s: 50 percent corn, 38 percent rye, 12 percent barley malt. It seems sooooo convenient that it’s only one percent corn removed from bourbon. Why would a contract distillery want to eliminate any future flexibility on the bulk market by a factor of one percent? If you’re going to ignore the potential for any sale later as bourbon, why not take the corn down another five or ten percent, not just one? It seems too convenient for me, and I just have this gut feeling that Michter’s may indeed have been a rye-heavy, bourbon-qualified product that chose not to use that tag on its flagship brand, then fudged the disclosed “recipe” by one percent just for the hell of it.

I once won that same squarish 1960s-era Michter’s bottle referenced earlier in this thread, full and intact on an online auction, but it was never delivered, claimed by the seller (a Schaefferstown-area antique dealer) to have been lost prior to shipment. Yeah, right!

I have a few old PLCB price lists which shed some light on brands available in 1957, 1962, and 1963. In 1957, Michter’s is not on the list, though the Holiday brand from Louis Forman is available both as a bottled in bond rye and as a blend of straight whiskeys. Pennco is represented that year with Old Vandergrift bourbon (an Armstrong County name previously associated with Logansport) and Pennco Rye. All of the above brands have disappeared by 1962, though Michter’s Pot Still is now listed in a category simply titled “Whiskies,” which includes Jack Daniel’s, a brand also not evident in the 1957 list. Both are quite pricey for the time, Jack at $7.49 the fifth, and Michter’s at $7.26. These listings and prices remain for 1963. Michter’s was always priced nearly identically to JD, even when they folded. I recall both being priced identically, between ten and eleven dollars when the end came for Michter’s. Michter’s also enjoyed distribution beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. I bought a quart jug in Georgia about 1980 or 81, so where else might it have been available?

I believe the number 42 which is referenced on early Michter’s jugs to be irrelevant. Those in bottle collecting circles know that sometimes the numbers on the bottom are significant, sometimes not. I have seen the exact code from the Michter’s jug repeated on other brands of ,stoneware jugs dating from the 1960s. I am convinced it is some sort of non-date related manufacturing code. Why on earth would someone attempt to start a new brand in 1942, the depths of WWII, when distilling for profit was nearly nonexistent and materials were appropriated almost exclusively for the war effort? I would be hard pressed to be convinced otherwise on this one. By the way, I have a very extensive collection of Michter’s jugs, of which there were four series, and I’d be happy to share any further information on those with you all.

I have evidence that this distillery was also known as Penndale, at least during WWII, for what that may be worth. There has also been mention made of trains at Michter’s. I believe that there is no rail access to the distillery at Schaefferstown. Someone also asked about the grain bill for standard rye whiskeys. According to Jim Murray in his Complete Book of Whisky, Wild Turkey Rye contains 54-55 percent rye, Heaven Hill’s contains 52 percent, Jim Beam has 51 percent, and Old Overholt is described as “the big boy,” with 61 percent rye grain.

My next missive will be on the Dillinger Distillery at Ruffs Dale, PA, perhaps one of the most significant and least rememered of the Pennsylvania rye distilleries. More to follow. Thanks for your consideration!
samkom
 

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Feb 21, 2007 12:54 pm

Sam, hello, and many thanks for this. Great notes and memories.

I wonder if George Shattls is still living.

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Unread postby samkom » Wed Feb 21, 2007 1:00 pm

Sorry, but George died a couple of years ago. He was distillery manager for many years, both with Pennco and Michter's. I think John has a scan of a Pennco business card with his name on it.

Also, as much as I respect John and his offbeat (yet often accurate) theories, an extra ten to thirteen years in the barrel would significantly change Michter's (or any) whiskey, potentially into a product with the regard of Hirsch!
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Unread postby cowdery » Wed Feb 21, 2007 2:45 pm

Thanks, Sam. A great contribution.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Wed Feb 21, 2007 3:33 pm

Dang! It's good to see you here, SuperSam!

I can't find any Pennco business cards, but then I consider it a minor miracle if I can find anything I've saved anyway. I do have a scan of a Michter's Bottle Collectors' Club newsletter with Ted Veru's signature.

Here's a photo from a PR story in the Aug. 15, 1985 Lebanon Daily News showing George Shattls, along with a couple of Bomberger descendents.
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Unread postby samkom » Wed Feb 21, 2007 4:45 pm

John...though I do not collect Michter's decanters per se, only the jugs, I recently acquired (or perhaps Acquaried?) one of the Bomberger decanters, and it is absolutely stunning, accurately proportioned, and very heavy, much like myself. Despite Michter's association with Hall China for their 1753 jug line, this decanter is made by a company called Lincoln China. Since I'm the only guy anyone seems to know who actually spent time in that building, I felt the need to have one.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Feb 21, 2007 8:27 pm

Sam,
Welcome aboard and an excellent first post. I am looking forward to your perspective on many of the questions asked and discussed here. I am looking forward to a chance to drink a few ryes and bourbons with you.
Mike Veach
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Unread postby EllenJ » Thu Feb 22, 2007 12:00 am

samkom wrote:... ..absolutely stunning, accurately proportioned, and very heavy, much like myself...

Well, for at least the first two, fella, I think we'd best get the lovely Amy's opinion about that
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Unread postby samkom » Thu Feb 22, 2007 2:27 pm

OK, guys, here's Round 2, and the distillery closest to my heart...

Samuel Dillinger emigrated to Westmoreland County from Bucks County in eastern Pennsylvania. (The last name is pronounced with a hard 'G,'
DILLing-grrr, not DILLon-jerr) It seems as though nearly every Swiss Mennonite farmer-distiller (Overholt, Beam, etc.) came through Bucks County as they headed west. Sam was taught the distilling trade as a young man by Martin Stauffer, who had a distillery along the banks of nearby Jacob’s Creek in Fayette County. Although Sam did not set up his own distillery until 1850, the year 1834 has been used extensively as the year of origin for the Dillinger enterprise, so that may have been the year that he went to work for Stauffer. The Dillingers, Stauffers and Overholts not only shared this region and their craft, but were all related by marriage, as well.

Samuel erected a frame gristmill at West Bethany (known now as Old Bethany), less than a mile from present day Ruffs Dale, and added a distillery to the building in 1850. This structure burned to the ground in 1881, and the enterprise was rebuilt the following year at Bethany Station, now Ruffs Dale, as S. Dillinger & Sons. The complex initially consisted of a brick still house (containing pot stills only), grain elevator, a boiler house, and two connected warehouses, both with cut stone foundations, earthen floors, thick brick walls, and slate roofs. These same warehouses stand today as the oldest buildings on the property. As business increased, additional and more modern warehouses were erected until storage capacity reached 55,000 bbl. Also on the property were pens filled with cattle to consume the spent grain.

Sometime soon after Prohibition was enacted, ownership changed from the Dillinger family to the Rosenbloom family, who had been successful liquor dealers in Braddock, PA, and this, on its own small scale, was sort of like the Bronfman's and Rosenstiel's acquisition of silent distilleries and brands across the country. The Rosenblooms, I believe, were responsible for the rebuilding of Ruffsdale Distilling Co. (its new name) into a modern, yet amazingly traditional and versatile distillery, potentially unlike any other post-Prohibition distillery in the U.S. This occurred in stages toward the end of Prohibition and the early years of Repeal.

First, a three part multi-story industrial brick building was erected behind the 1882 distillery, and housed two separate and distinct distilleries joined by a common grain handling area. One was a modern continuous distillery with a massive fermenting house, mash tub, pressure cooker, and yeast propagation equipment. Distilling equipment included a beer still, rectifying column, and pot still doubler. The second was a building custom made for traditional, coal-fired copper pot stills, and was its own self-contained distillery with separate and smaller fermenting house, mash tub, and wash back tank. The primary (wash) still had a capacity of 4032 gallons and was 13 feet at its widest, while the secondary (spirit) still held 3784 gallons and measured 12 feet across. Each stood about 16 feet tall from the floor, measured to the top of their horizontal lyne arms, with a few additional feet of base extending down into the fireboxes. The spirit was condensed in shell-and-tube condensers and stored in separate low and high wine tanks dedicated to this particular section of the distillery. These two distilleries were indeed interconnected to further increase their flexibility, but I am positive that they primarily operated independently from each other.

When this part of the complex was completed, there was now a dual-purpose distillery standing behind the old distillery and grain elevator. The old distillery was then dismantled, and those very pot stills may have been the ones which now occupied the new fireboxes. A modern grain elevator and mill was then erected where the old distillery had been. Finally, the old grain elevator was removed, and a new office annex took its place. At this time, probably the mid 30’s, we had a completely new facility which combined the best of both old and new distilling technology. The only question is, “Why?”

Why did the Rosenblooms feel compelled to recreate a pot distillery when they were building a completely new plant? Had ANYONE else in the U.S. made accommodations for both primary and secondary distilling in pots in ANY distillery purpose-built after prohibition? John has speculated that perhaps they wanted to be as flexible as possible to fully encompass the demands of contract distilling, but they didn’t seem to do much of that until later on. Did they believe that good rye HAD to be made in pot stills? A clue: In a 1938 Pennsylvania State Store price list, Thos. Moore Possum Hollow (the flagship brand chosen by the Rosenblooms to replace Dillinger after Prohibition) costs $2.25 per quart. The next most expensive rye listed is Overholt’s Old Farm at $1.79, and the cheapest is Planter’s Club from Continental at $1.28, nearly half the cost of the ‘Ruffsdale’ (read ‘pot distilled’) rye whiskey. The average bottle of rye in that list costs about $1.50, so Thos. Moore cost 50% more than the average rye on the shelf, quite a premium!

I have the Federal Registry of Stills from Dillinger (which changed its name yet again, to Dillinger Distilleries, Inc. around 1940) dated December 15, 1947 which lists two copper pot stills of the exact gallonage noted on blueprints as being registered “for use” and the purpose as “Distilling Whiskey or Spirits.” A notation has also been made that the primary still is capable of “4 charges in 24 hrs. 10% beer” and the secondary still’s capability as “2 charges in 24 hrs. 25% of Primary Distillate.” Sounds like a working operation to me!

The reams of detailed blueprints I own are dated 1946 and show the entire operation as being intact at that time. One technical blueprint is a close-up of the bottoms of the pot stills dated 10/2/46 and titled "Furnaces for 2 Scotch Liquor Copper Pot Stills Arranged for Iron Fireman Spreader-Type Stokers." The print shows the setup for automatic coal stokers for firing both the primary and secondary pot stills. The stills are shown perched on the same fireboxes which exist today and are shown in the picture previously posted by John.

According to warehouseman Art Smith, who worked there in the 50s, distilling may have ceased at Ruffs Dale around 1949, as that is the oldest site-distilled barrel he can recall being stored there. Seagram acquired the property (and later the Broad Ford Overholt site) in the 50s and used its warehouses to store (and perhaps bottle) whiskey from various other distilleries until the early 60s, doing business as the Huntingdon Creek Corporation. Art remembers the distilling operation being restarted temporarily while he worked there. The workers were told that this was necessary to retain their distilling permits, but Art and the others felt that Seagram was trying to replicate the Dillinger flavor that had by then become a part of Seagram blends.

Another random observation: Chuck, you seem adamant that making American whiskey demands that the grain solids be dealt with at the still. I respectfully suggest that most all American distilling was done at one time with no regard for those solids, as a clean wash virtually eliminates the need to do so. The advent of continuous distillation is what eliminated the need to separate the wash from the spent grain, and probably changed our expectations of what American whiskey should be. The pot stills at Ruffs Dale seem to have had no ‘rummagers’ (the device that agitates the wash to prevent solids from sticking to the direct-heated bottom of a pot still), which means that they were content to distill from wash only in this particular part of the operation, much like the many generations before them. I am fortunate to have a friend who has been moonshining for years, and she does it in a converted copper wash boiler using a virtually clear wash made from local rye. No solids. Man, it’s quite the stuff, too! Well, does all of this create any speculation? Let me guess……

Epilogue: Samuel Dillinger’s grave is in the Alverton Mennonite cemetery, a few miles from Ruffs Dale. As a prominent member of the community, dedicated public servant, backwoods industrialist, and a man who held his faith close, he is remembered with a fantastic tombstone. His and his wife Sarah’s resting place is marked with an ornate 30 foot obelisk inscribed: “Erected to the memories of an honest man and constant friend, a devoted wife and loving mother.” It has become one of my favorite places to visit.
samkom
 

Unread postby samkom » Fri Mar 09, 2007 9:24 pm

Hi again! I want to thank everyone for the warm welcome to this site. I am in what I consider to be very good company here. Mike, I too look forward to our meeting and exchanging information, as well as hoisting a couple of good whiskeys. Gary and Chuck, I certainly appreciate the positive feedback and encouragement.

Mike, I have done a fair amount of very targeted research into PA's distilling past, but my farmer/distiller research goes no farther than local tax rolls back to the early 1800s, which list pertinent information such as: Henery Smith; two cows, one horse, one distillery (and sometimes a slave or two). No information so far that delves beyond this into distilling techniques. Recently, however, a friend of mine reported owning a hand written recipe for rye whiskey from Union County, PA from the 1830's which he has promised to copy for me. Interesting theory you have about the possibility of charred barrels heading north from KY, and I cannot discount it, primarily because John has made me mroe cynical toward convention over the years. More to come, hopefully.

Most of my research thus far comes from the internet, and Sanborn fire maps from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. I am fascinated by the stuff you report from the Stitzel-Weller archives and hope that you might keep an eye out for the Dillinger, Ruffsdale, or Huntingdon Creek names if you ever happen to run across anything.

I am curious as to why no one has chimed in about my description of the post-Prohibition Ruffs Dale distillery. Does anyone know of another 1930s-era distillery that used double pot distillation for any type of whiskey? Is this two-separate-yet-concurrently-operating distillery setup known to have existed anywhere else?

I just had a sip of 8 year old, Bottled In Bond Old Kentucky Tavern from Glenmore, bottled in 1960, and it kicks ass! I'm also headed to a Moonshiner's picnic tomorrow to partake of home-distilled rye, peach, plum, and pear spirits, along with treats like Michter's Whiskey cake (distillery recipe, made with the current Michter's 10 year old straight rye, John will vouch for the quality of the product) served with homemade Irish Whiskey ice cream, among other boozy delights.

That's all for a Friday evening. Have a great weekend, and I hope to hear from you soon! John, give Linda a big smooch for me!
samkom
 

Unread postby samkom » Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:42 pm

How about this: since I've totally eliminated any conversation here with my last two posts, I'll ask another question.

Is there any other American distillery at which the ancestral distillery stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its modern replacement so long as did Bomberger and Michter's? I have heard of many where the old distillery is in ruins nearby, but none where a distillery building (especially a wood frame structure) from the mid-1800s was maintained alongside the current distillery. Then to top it all off, they reinstalled a working copper pot system as the ultimate resurrection!

I have attached the picture of me at Michter's in 1979. No, that's not a groundhog pelt on my head, the hair is all mine. Much less threatening now!

Any feedback on any topic appreciated!
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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Mar 29, 2007 2:13 am

Several buildings at Maker's Mark date to the 1860s. At both Buffalo Trace and Barton there some very old buildings integrated into newer buildings. In other words, they just expanded existing buildings. I think the same thing is true at Wild Turkey.

These would all be about the same vintage as the Bomberger building, and some of the ones at Maker's are wood frame. The ones at Buffalo and Barton are masonry and I'm not quite sure about Turkey, but I think there are still some remnants of the old Ripey plant still there. There may be some old buildings or parts of buildings at Beam Frankfort (Forks of Elkhorn). I'm sure Daniel's has some. E. H. Taylor did a major renovation of what is now Woodford in the late 19th century and don't think anything there predates it. There might even be a structure or two on Brown-Forman's campus that dates to George Garvin Brown's day.

Michter's is unique only because of where it is. Were it in Kentucky, it would be pretty typical.

So, about that hair...
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