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A friend of mine was doing a tasting at Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery (internally known as “M1”) this week when the guide dropped an unusual fact about the 2023 Shenk’s Homestead Whiskey and 2023 Bomberger’s Declaration Bourbon: they both contain malted rye in their mash bills. He messaged me what he learned and I couldn’t believe it. I quickly scoured for information to prove him wrong. Instead, it was me who was wrong to doubt it.
To answer the first question – no, Bomberger’s and Shenk’s have never had malted rye in their mash bills. This is the first year that it is used. Information on why they decided to switch things up is hard to come by at the moment – perhaps more will be said about it in the future.
A quick look at the Michter’s website also confirms the inclusion of malted rye. I often forget that producer’s are often open with new changes in their products and post the information up on their websites. I think my cynicism with how the bourbon industry operates automatically puts me on guard that any changes I hear about are automatically false and designed to draw attention to the brand. Anyway, here’s the excerpt of the description for the 2023 release of Bomberger’s :
This 2023 release continues the Bomberger’s tradition of offering bold and beautiful 108 proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon with a rich and layered complexity due to a portion of the bourbon being aged in Chinquapin (Quercus muehlenbergii) oak. The Chinquapin oak utilized for the aging was naturally air dried and seasoned for three years before being toasted and charred to the exacting specifications of our Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson. In addition, some malted rye was used in the production of this bourbon. This is a bold and rich whiskey featuring its signature fruit and spice coupled with rich molasses and a complex, lingering finish that gives you something to savor.
Here’s an excerpt of the description for the 2023 Shenk’s:
…Shenk’s is a Kentucky Sour Mash Whiskey made with a substantial amount of rye. The unique character of this 2023 offering results from its being produced with malted rye in the recipe. Additionally, for its maturation we utilized two different and quite special barrel profiles: a portion of it was aged in 18-month naturally air-dried and seasoned wood with our signature toast and char profile and a portion of it was aged in special toasted French oak barrels that were made from 24-month air-dried wood sourced from the Vosges region of France.
A quick theory about the makeup of Shenk’s Homestead Sour Mash Whiskey
Throughout the years, I’ve heard things about the inner workings in the industry that are never printed and almost always told verbally (so they can’t be traced back to any one person). One of those things involves the composition of Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey and Shenk’s Homestead Sour Mash Whiskey. Many people might believe that Michter’s has a specific mash bill that they use for these two products.
But “Sour Mash” isn’t a term typically used to describe mash bills. It’s describing a process. In whiskey, you either have a Sweet Mash or a Sour Mash. But through backchannels, I’ve heard that Michter’s Sour Mash whiskies aren’t the result of a specific mash bill, but rather a blend of their standard rye whiskey (estimated to be around 53% rye, 33% corn and 14% malted barley) and their standard bourbon recipe (estimated to be around 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley).
Why would Michter’s want to blend together two separate whiskies? I think it has to do with the lineage of Michter’s old pot still recipe that they used when they were based out of Pennsylvania. The old “Michter’s Pot Still Sour Mash Whiskey” could never legally be called a bourbon (or a rye whiskey for that matter) because no single grain was 51% or more. The recipe was said to be 50% corn, 38% rye and 12% malted barley. The original Pennsylvania Michter’s just used the term sour mash whiskey to describe the product in the bottle and called it a day.
Making a third mash bill would be an unnecessary expense, so it’s my assumption that Michter’s “Sour Mash” designation is used for their blend of bourbon and rye whiskey. If they wanted to replicate the old 50/38/12 recipe without making that exact mash bill, the math says all they’d have to do is blend together 2 barrels of rye whiskey for every 1 barrel of bourbon. But even if they didn’t care about matching the old ratio, adding rye whiskey with bourbon would mean it could legally no longer be called either.
The differences between Bomberger’s Declaration Bourbon and Michter’s standard bourbon
The differences between Bomberger’s and Michter’s bourbon is much more straightforward. In the past, both started out as Michter’s standard bourbon recipe. But some of that bourbon gets put into Chinquapin Oak barrels that saw twice the air-drying time (aka seasoning) – 36 months compared to 18. When it’s time to batch up the bourbon, Michter’s gets batched with like barrels and Bomberger’s uses a mix of the Chinquapin Oak barrels and standard Michter’s bourbon.
Chinquapin Oak is known for its ability to impart far more tannins into the bourbon. This results in deeper, richer flavors. I like to think of it as the American version of French Oak. Bomberger’s is made in small batches that have historically seen a blend of regular Michter’s bourbon and bourbon aged in Chinquapin Oak. The ratio is adjusted each year – usually by increasing the number of Chinquapin Oak barrels used in the blend.
What makes the 2023’s different?
I’m speculating here, but it looks like Michter’s has taken their standard bourbon recipe and substituted the regular rye for malted rye (which is around 11%). I don’t think they are permanently doing that, but they probably ran this altered mash bill on their column still for a day or two to fill these barrels. The distillate was probably put into the standard bourbon barrels which are made with the 18 month air-dried staves. I suppose they could have put it into French Oak barrels (for Shenks) and Chinquapin Oak barrels (for Bombergers), but why risk an experimental mash on your most expensive and rare barrels? If the final product turned out bad, you wouldn’t be out that extra money.
Anyway, after maturation was complete, the barrels of bourbon that contained malted rye were dumped into the batches along with Chinquapin Oak matured barrels to make Bomberger’s and with the French Oak matured barrels and rye whiskey barrels to make Shenk’s. This is all still speculation, but seems to be the easiest way to integrate a new experiment like this.
The future of Michter’s and malted rye
I firmly believe that Michter’s is making some of the best rye whiskey today. With that being said, I hope they don’t try to mess up the good thing they have going on by making their rye whiskey with malted rye. The same could be said for their bourbon. I’ve not generally been a fan of malted rye in many other distilleries products out there because I find that it takes out the spice I love and replaces it with notes of chocolate and coffee grounds. And while those may be thought of as good profile notes for a whiskey, it takes away a lot of the other flavors that regular rye brings to the table.
Now that we know Michter’s is experimenting with something totally new – something they haven’t done since 2018 when they released the revamped Bomberger’s and Shenk’s labels – does this hint to a larger release some day? My guess is yes. I have always been curious if they’d make a whiskey in the future that mimicked the old style of Pennsylvania rye that they were know for – or maybe even a wheated bourbon. But bourbon with a malted rye component is probably a safer bet.
Michter’s lineup has gotten a bit stale recently and this might just be the ticket to breathing in some new life. While I never grow tired of their Toasted Barrel Rye or Bourbon, I hope that the 2023 Bomberger’s and Shenk’s releases point to a future of creative releases coupled with their industry-leading quality control. What else do they have up their sleeve?
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