When talking about whiskey in the United States, the South—specifically Kentucky and Tennessee—comes to mind. However, it was Pennsylvania that led the nation in whiskey distillation in the 1800s with 3,000 fully-functioning distilleries across the state. Unfortunately, the industry was hard hit by Prohibition. All Pennsylvania distilleries closed their doors in 1919 and never reopened. Well…all but one.
Situated in rural Schaefferstown, Lebanon County, (20 miles east of Hershey) lies a national landmark that, before it stopped operation in 1990, was the oldest distillery in the United States. Michter’s Distillery, known as Bomberger’s for decades, was famous for its rye whiskey, using the same recipe for generations.
According to Linda Moore in the Gettysburg Times, America’s first distillery began in 1753. Brothers John and Michael Shenk established the distillery to help increase profit from their crops, such as corn, rye, and barley. Revolutionary War soldiers were supplied with this whiskey to help them get through the brutal winters, and it is speculated that George Washington himself may have stopped at Shenk’s to buy whiskey for his troops on his way to Valley Forge. Word spread and other farmers wanted the Shenks to distill their surplus crops as well, which in turn helped expand their product and their name.
Abe Bomberger bought the distillery in 1861, formally giving it the name “Bomberger’s Distillery.” Bomberger’s Distillery lasted until Prohibition in 1919. Prohibition ended in 1933, and the property bounced from several owners who kept the business afloat until 1975, when it was sold to a few local businessmen: Stanley Katz, Phil Davis, Dale Yocum, and Abe Grosky; Lou Forman, a previous owner of the property, was named President of the Distillery.
Given free rein, Forman renamed the distillery “Michter’s,” combining the names of his two sons Michael and Peter, while also giving it a “dutchy” sound—fitting for the historic area of the distillery.
With tradition in mind, Forman and the owners used the same pot-still sour mash recipe as the original founders, Michael and John Shenk. According to their own newspaper, Jug House Journal, written by part owner Marty Yocum, their first year was quite successful. Yocum wrote, “We welcomed over 40,000 visitors from 32 states and many different foreign countries, as far away as Australia.”
To maintain crowd attendance and sales, Lou Forman and the crew turned the distillery into a tourist attraction. The company also had something going for them that no other distillery in the nation had. The Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law that allowed “distilleries of historical significance” to sell their own whiskey if the sites were established at least 100 years before January 1, 1975. Since Michter’s was the only distillery in Pennsylvania that fulfilled this criterion, it was allowed to operate as both a functioning distillery and tourist hotspot.
A tour was set up for visitors to see the process of whiskey-making as well as some of the historical character of the property. According to Laura Mansnerus of Inquirer Magazine, the tour began in the original Bomberger warehouse, where current whiskey was aging, but housed original beams from 1753 when the Shenks began the business. The tour then passed through the different phases of the distilling process, ending the tour in the jug house.
Michter’s also sold their whiskey in style. According to their Jug House Journal, Michter’s was one of the first distilleries to use earthenware ceramic decanters, mimicking the original type of jug that would have been used by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Along with the jug decanters, they also sold limited edition ceramic decanters replicating national symbols such as the Liberty Bell or the Conestoga wagon. These decanters were advertised in their Jug House Journal and sold out for several years.
Under the Michter’s name, the distillery was named a national historic landmark in early 1980.
With the new owners, the old traditions, and the tourist attraction thriving, where did it all go wrong for Michter’s Distillery?
According to Ethan Smith, a Pennsylvania whiskey historian, there wasn’t too much that Michter’s could have done that would have helped them stay open for much longer. The issue? Smith says, “America lost its love affair with whiskey.” Whiskey was being outsold by lighter liquors such as vodka, and small town whiskey distilleries were no longer viable. Moreover, liquor store whiskey shelves were filled with the mass-produced Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey, leaving little room for local products like the old Schaefferstown whiskey.
Smith also comments that the men running Michter’s never really looked too far into the future with their plans, but rather lived for the “here and now,” worrying about their current pay checks and bank accounts rather than what the future held for the company.
As reported by Smith, Michter’s filed for bankruptcy in May of 1983. Soon after, Pennsylvania Sourmash distillers took over operations at the Michter’s site, while the bank held the bond on the whiskey. Production ceased in 1989. The company’s bond was never paid, so ownership landed in the hands of the federal government. After realizing payment would never come, in 1993 the government seized the whiskey from the distillery and destroyed it.
Although new owners bought the property in 2011, there are no signs of re-opening America’s oldest distillery. The buildings were abandoned for so long that only a few of them will be able to remain standing.
Even though Schaefferstown’s famous distillery hasn’t produced whiskey for over 20 years, Michter’s whiskey is still sold in stores today. How, you may ask? According to the Michter’s official website, after the Schaefferstown distillery went bankrupt, Joseph J. Magiocco and Richard Newman “undertook [a project] to resurrect the brand in Kentucky.”
The new owners still use the rye method that was popular among Pennsylvania distilleries before Prohibition. Their website states that “Michter’s, as the saying goes, was ‘the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution,’ and it continues to warm today’s resurgent American whiskey revolution.” Although the story ended in 1990 for the Michter’s in Schaefferstown, the preservation of the name and its legacy still live on to this day. Yes, the whiskey industry lives on in the South, but let us remember where it all started.