The Whiskey Revolutionary
Two decades ago Joe Magliocco revived Michter’s, a defunct rye and bourbon brand that traces its roots back to George Washington. along the way, he changed the industry.
When Pam Heilmann completed one of her first distillations of Michter’s American Whiskey in 2015, the incoming master distiller proudly came to Joe Magliocco, Michter’s owner, with the technical results: From the hundreds of bushels of grain, she was able to produce an extra barrel of whiskey, the equivalent of about 200 bottles. That kind of efficiency mattered in her previous job running distilling operations at Jim Beam’s Booker Noe plant (which makes Knob Creek and Booker’s bourbons, among others). Magliocco, however, was interested in only one thing.
“I said, ‘Pam, that’s really nice,’ ” Magliocco recalls, “‘but how the hell’s the whiskey taste?’ ”
Such straight shooting is a hallmark of the 60-year-old New Yorker, but the focus on quality over quantity is one of the reasons he brought Michter’s back from the dead in the first place. In the mid-’90s, when consumption of American whiskey was at a nadir, Magliocco was looking to add a premium rye to his portfolio at Chatham Imports in Manhattan—ideally with a brand the market had forgotten.
His instinct proved prescient. “I think Joe is one of the main drivers of resurrecting rye brands,” says Eric Gregory, head of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “Everybody has a rye now.”
Magliocco set his sights on Michter’s, whose roots date to 1753, when the distillery—then called Shenk’s, and later Bomberger’s, after new owner Abraham Bomberger—was founded in Pennsylvania. Like many spirits brands, Michter’s had an irresistible origin myth: According to legend, George Washington bought enough whiskey at the distillery to get his troops through winter at Valley Forge. (During the 1980s, Michter’s slogan proudly proclaimed it “the whiskey that warmed the American Revolution.”)
Prohibition shuttered operations in 1919, and the brand struggled until the 1950s, when Lou Forman gave it a new life and new moniker: Michter’s, after his sons Michael and Peter. In 1989, however, after a prolonged downturn for the whiskey industry, Michter’s filed for bankruptcy.
Chapter 11 eventually transformed into chapter