Ask Kentucky’s first female master distiller since prohibition what she’s doing in a man’s world and she’ll tell you she’s never known any other. New-York born Pamela Heilmann sold farm equipment in the late-1970s before moving into the steel industry, a job that ultimately took her to Kentucky.
She got into distilling in 1998, directing operations at Beam Global’s Booker Noe plant, the largest bourbon distillery in the world, before being invited in 2013 to develop a new plant for the former Pennsylvanian trademark Michter’s, whose new owners were moving to Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon and heart of the modern American whiskey business.
Along with that purchase came a huge amount of rare stock from the old distillery, which had closed in the 1980s, as happened to a lot of distilleries in that decade when whiskey fell deeply out of fashion in all its traditional markets.
Heilmann is one of only a handful of women distillers in the United States and mentors one of them herself: her master of maturation, Andrea Wilson, formerly worked for the British multinational liquor company Diageo and is a chemical engineer. The Scotch industry association says there are some women distillers and blenders but it doesn’t keep numbers. Among Australia’s nascent but booming industry, there are seven women distillers, with just two of those making whisky.
Michter’s has some serious provenance as a direct descendant of Shenk’s, believed to be America’s first distiller dating from 1752 (it became Michter’s in the mid-20th century after ownership changed hands a number of times). General George Washington dropped in to buy whiskey for his troops during a long, brutal winter of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), earning it the moniker “the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution”. Its appearance in an episode of the big money, high-stakes drama Billions, seen here on Stan over the past year, can only be a nod to its contemporary chutzpah.
On a recent visit to Australia, Heilmann described the house style as “rich, bold and flavourful”. She believes its present-day cult following in no small part derives from the new owners’ strategic “cost be damned” approach. It just wants to make the best whiskey possible to pay tribute to that heritage, she says. And it helps no doubt that since 2011 premium whiskey sales in the US have risen 127 per cent.
While the production term “small batch” has no legal status in America (it just means it has to be smaller than your largest batch), its presence on Michter’s labels means what it says: a 24-barrel batch is not unusual. Underscoring that exclusivity, James France of Vanguard Luxury Brands, which has been distributing Michter’s here since 2014, says he sought the brand for years but stock for export was scarce.
Heilmann says Michter’s does not have enough whiskey to supply every market to its full potential, even within the US. “But Australia has been wonderful and we are very happy to be here,” she says. “In 2014 we identified a few strategic export markets where we believed our whiskey might be well suited to local tastes, and Australia was at the top of our list. We feel strongly that it is important to at least introduce Michter’s to quality-focused consumers and bar professionals globally.”
Prior to that, the brand was available in only the US and Hong Kong, with limited supplies to Germany and Canada. “Funnily enough, when we did get into Australia, we discovered that quite a few of the most renowned cocktail bars were already stocking Michter’s,” Heilmann says with evident delight. “They had hand-carried it over from the States apparently.”
The distillery is renowned for rye, America’s first whiskey and a grain that is absolutely on trend with the current rage for cocktails, according to Ryan Gavin, national bar manager for Rockpool Bar & Grill, which has stocked Michter’s since its arrival here.
Gavin says the 2016 Celebration Sour Mash is “the ultimate expression of the range and the very last product from Michter’s former celebrated distiller Willie Pratt”.
Here it will cost you a sobering $485 a nip and, if that looks rich, Heilmann would want you to know that same nip is $US1700 ($2142) at Manhattan’s NoMad. Gavin says someone on the secondary market has already approached him with a bottle of the 2016 for sale, “and he wants $10,000 for it!”
There’s a sour mash, a Kentucky straight rye and straight bourbon in Michter’s US*1 line, along with a limited-release Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon, which is the straight bourbon finished in a custom-made barrel. Its short ageing in a second barrel, which is toasted not charred, results in a transformation into richer and smoother bourbon. Limited production 10-, 20- and 25-year-olds are rare, as are limited releases, which include that Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon and the Celebration Sour Mash.
Heilmann is something of an agnostic when it comes to tasting. She says we all taste differently according to our experience and our palate. She, for instance, cannot taste the banana or passionfruit others detect in whiskies in her line-up. And she tells a good story about her experience of a trade tasting here in Australia that inadvertently introduced her to the Golden Gaytime and stout.
She was introducing a favourite of hers, the US*1 American whiskey, a blend of bourbon and rye aged separately in new and used bourbon barrels and put back together after seven years. “Because of that used cooperage it’s got a little sweetness,” she says. “It’s our lowest proof, so it’s very approachable for a first-time bourbon drinker or for an after-dinner type whiskey. A lot of our young people at work put it in the freezer and they’ll use it over ice cream for desserts.
“I told some trade people here about this and a guy in the audience said, ‘Hey, I’m glad you said that because it tastes just like our Gaytime.’ Then I go, ‘What’s a Gaytime?’ and I am guessing it’s some kind of ice cream that’s a local favourite.
“I said I’ll have to try that and he said, ‘You can try it right now.’ So they poured me a beer called Golden Stout and told me to drink the American whiskey and then have the stout [rather like what Australians call ‘a whisky with a beer chaser’]. And, oh my God, it was just delicious; it was very, very good, and I’d never had Golden Stout before. I want to take it home to Kentucky because we don’t get that there.”
WHERE TO TRY MICHTER’S
- Brisbane Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall, Bowery, Statler & Waldorf
- Melbourne Black Pearl, Lily Black’s, Nieuw Amsterdam
- Adelaide Hains and Co, Udaberri
- Sydney Mjolner, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Baxter Inn, Stitch, Shady Pines
- Perth Long Chim, Heritage Brasserie, Mechanic’s Institute, Varnish on King
- At home Both Dan Murphy and Vintage Cellars carry some expressions of Michter’s Whisky.
COCKTAIL Betsy Ross #2*
- 40ml Michter’s US*1 American whiskey
- 20ml Dow’s LVB port
- 1 lemon peel
- 2 drops of Angostura bitters
- 1barsp sugar syrup
Stir and strain over big rock ice. Garnish with mint leaf.