Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery and Experience Review

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In February this year I was fortunate enough to take the trip of a lifetime to the home of bourbon, Kentucky. During my short visit I tried to hit as many distilleries as I could but Michter’s Fort Nelson was top of the list. Here is my as-detailed-as-possible account of my experience for those, who like me, live outside the US and are massive Michter’s fans!

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Writing a blog post about the newly opened Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery without talking about the history of the building and the massive undertaking to get it opened up to the public would be doing it a great disservice. As such, let’s take a quick look at the historical significance of the Fort Nelson building and the challenges that Michter’s faced to bring it to the condition it is in today.

The Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery sits in the historic Fort Nelson building located at 801 West Main Street, on what was the original Whiskey Row and is now Louisville’s Museum Row. The four story building was completed in 1890 and formed part of the defensive Fort Nelson built by early settlers of Louisville in the early 1780s. Everything down to the architecture has historic significance with a combination of masonry and cast-iron construction used on the façade of the building.

Nicknamed M1, the Fort Nelson building was purchased in early 2012 with plans to renovate the building and be the first brand to re-establish a functioning distillery in Downtown Louisville. However, despite being one of the few buildings in Louisville to survive the 1890 Louisville cyclone, and the Great Floods of 1913 and 1937, Fort Nelson was in pretty dire shape structurally. Several architectural issues along with the fact that it’s a Certified Historic Structure delayed the renovations significantly. For example, works were stalled and the portion of West 8th Street buttressing the building was closed as workers had to rectify a massive structural issue with the east wall of the building. Over time the building had shifted dangerously to the point where the brick at the top middle of the east wall was leaning approximately 20” out of place. Due to the danger of potential collapse, Michter’s wasn’t willing to allow any workers inside of the building until the structural issue was remediated and so they decided to build a temporary steel support system costing an estimated $350,000. With this support system in place work could then begin on what was essentially an empty shell (the floors and roof had all collapsed over time and had filled the basement with debris). In working with The National Parks Service to preserve as much of the historic structure as possible, Michter’s compiled a report of the building’s condition and it was agreed that an interior steel framework (consisting of over 400,000 pounds of steel) was to be built to connect and support the brick walls and the new floors. Michter’s also managed to preserve the original wood window frames of the building and the exterior cast iron façade elements to maintain Fort Nelson’s unique character. Other challenges faced by Michter’s included getting a 128 year old building compliant with fire codes, having the area re-zoned to become an operating commercial distillery, and squeezing a functional distillery and tour into a narrow building measuring 31 feet wide by 142 ft long.


 

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Michter’s offer two tours at the Fort Nelson Distillery:

The ‘Discovery Tour’
where visitors get a guided tour of the facility, a chance to taste 5 Michter’s expressions (including a Fort Nelson exclusive), experience a cocktail demonstration at The Bar at Fort Nelson upstairs, and get a cocktail sampler, costing around $20

and

The ‘Whiskey Experience with The Michter’s Masters Tour’
where visitors get a tour with both Michter’s Master of Maturation and Michter’s Master Distiller, a chance to taste Michter’s super-premium offerings, the opportunity to fill their own bottle of Michter’s Fort Nelson Reserve Barrel Strength Rye with a personalized label and an entry of their bottling into the distillery’s ledger, followed by a reception at The Bar at Fort Nelson with a special cocktail featuring Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon and costing around $1200 (a bargain considering what some bars are charging for Celebration Sour Mash by the ounce!)

The tours start in the gift shop where visitors are greeted by a welcome plaque and a short video detailing both the history of the Fort Nelson building, and the lengths Michter’s went to renovate it as a functional distillery.

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The tour then moves towards the back of the gift shop where another short video explains the 3-phase process Michter’s went through to get where they are today (i.e. distilling their own whiskies in their own distillery), and their costs-be-damned approach to making their whiskey. Visitors also have the 6 key principles to making Michter’s whiskey explained to them before passing into the distillery section of the building.

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Once through the door, visitors are shown in further detail the process behind how Michter’s whiskey is made with further reference to the 6 core principles. First stop is the importance of the water used to make Michter’s whiskey and the role that the Kentucky Limestone Shelf plays in producing the quality mineral-rich water used in the art of Kentucky whiskey production.

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Next, visitors learn about the grains and milling method used. Michter’s uses only non-GMO US grains that are graded under USDA standards as US No.1 (the highest level of grain quality available in the US). These grains (corn, rye, and 6 row barley) are delivered to their production facility in Shively, Louisville, where they are then further tested in Michter’s lab and milled using Michter’s Cage Mill which was custom-designed and built by Stedman to ensure a consistent fine meal for production. Visitors are shown a model demonstration of the full-size mill in the Shively plant and the consistency of the grain meals once they’ve been fully ground. Michter’s also now own a 145-acre farm in Springfield, Kentucky where they are planting their own non-GMO grains that they plan to use in Fort Nelson to produce true farm-to-bottle whiskey.

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As the 550 gallon mash cooker, to which the water, grains, and yeast are added to produce the distiller’s beer is located in the basement of the Fort Nelson Distillery, fermentation and the role of yeast in the production of alcohol is the next stop on the tour. This critical step is explained whilst visitors can see active fermentations taking place in the three 550 gal cypress-wood fermenters that were originally used at Michter’s when the distillery was located in Schaefferstown, PA. In this step the beer that’s produced in the cooker downstairs is pumped back to the ground floor and filled into one of the three open-top cypress fermenters and the yeast is left to do its work for between 3 to 5 days.

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Following this step, when the mash is determined ready for distillation, it travels from the fermenter to the pot still distillation system which consists of a 550 gal beer still and 110 gal spirits still. This pot still system was built in 1976 by Vendome Copper and Brass Co., located in Louisville, and is also the pot still system originally used at Michter’s when the distillery was located in Schaefferstown, PA. Most often Michter’s distil one fermenter per day and new distillate is cut to Michter’s distinctive 51.5% ABV for barrel entry and then sent to be matured at a Michter’s warehouse. As this is a working distillery there’s also an in-house lab where all stages of the process are monitored and the distillate is tested as it comes off the still to ensure it meets Michter’s quality standards on both a chemical and an organoleptic level.

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Once the distillation is complete it travels to the next stop on the tour, barrelling. Visitors are shown and talked through the entire process of making a barrel to Michter’s high standards including the exclusive use of American White Oak that has been air-dried and exposed to the elements for a minimum of 18 months, the then toasting of the oak for an extended period to concentrate the wood sugars, before finally charring the inside of the barrel to a specified level. A visual display of how the colour of Michter’s whiskies are affected by the barrel at specific time points is also included to further illustrate the impact of using Michter’s barrels.

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The final step in the process, maturation, is then explained using the below barrel wall which doubles as a visual display of how many barrels make up a Michter’s Small Batch. At this stop visitors have Michter’s heat cycling process, their innovative barrel data collecting methods, and their approach to small batches described in detail.

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When visitors have finished their tour of the distillery they pass through another door to the tasting room located at the back of the building. Here guests get to both taste various Michter’s expressions, and learn the importance of using organoleptic methods to smell and taste the flavours and compounds found in Michter’s whiskies in a fun and informative series of tests and demonstrations.

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Once the organoleptic experience is complete guests are seated at the tasting table and are guided through a tasting of 5 Michter’s expressions, including a Fort Nelson Distillery exclusive – Michter’s US 1 Rye whiskey that was barreled at 125 proof (22 proof points higher than Michter’s barrelling proof). This unreleased expression is tasted side by side with the standard Michter’s US☆1 rye in order to demonstrate the final principle in making Michter’s whiskey, very low barrel entry proof. The Discovery Tour has visitors tasting through Michter’s US☆1 Single Barrel Rye entered into the barrel at 103 proof, Michter’s US☆1 Single Barrel Rye entered into the barrel at 125 proof, Michter’s US☆1 Bourbon, Michter’s US☆1 Sour Mash OR Michter’s US☆1 American Whiskey (based on availability), and finally Michter’s US☆1 Barrel Strength Rye. Those on the Whiskey Experience with the Michter’s Master taste Michter’s super-premium offerings including Michter’s 20 year old bourbon, 25 year old bourbon, 25 year old rye, and Celebration Sour Mash whiskey (yes really!).

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Once visitors have finished all aspects of their tour the final stop is the Bar at Fort Nelson. The baby of Michter’s Vice President Matt Magliocco, the Bar at Fort Nelson is no last-minute or  small distillery bar operation. Instead it’s the crowning achievement of the Fort Nelson Distillery and experience. The bar boasts a classic cocktails menu curated by the world’s foremost authority on the history of the cocktail and one of the founders of the modern craft cocktail movement, Dr. David Wondrich. Also on the menu are modern cocktails created by their own staff- who happen to be some of the best bartenders Michter’s could find in Louisville. The bar boasts glassware by UK producer John Jenkins, an advanced ice program, and the Fort Nelson Fellows program – a program designed to make the bar a hub of industry knowledge and experience for the local bar community through hosting educational seminars by leading industry professionals, and having guest bartenders from some of the world’s best and most highly-awarded cocktail bars.

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Depending on which tour visitors were on they will get a cocktail demonstration and either a free sampler cocktail on the Discovery Tour, or a special cocktail featuring Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon and reception on the Whiskey Experience with the Michter’s Masters Tour. Visitors are then free to spend as long as they want to indulge in more cocktails, marvel at the collection of vintage Michter’s decanters, or to take a picture by the ‘it’s all about the whiskey’ wall that’s all over social media since Fort Nelson has opened to the public.

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After visitors have had their tour and their cocktails the last thing between them and the door is the gift shop. Stocked up to the rafters with just about any cool Michter’s  merchandise imaginable (Michter’s craft coffee beans anyone?) the gift shop also has limited supplies of Michter’s age stated products for sale and even a distillery-exclusive Michter’s Bourbon or Rye that come with a fully customization label and presentation box.

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The gift shop is also where visitors can in the future purchase the chance to fill their own bottle of Michter’s US☆1 Fort Nelson Reserve Barrel Strength Rye straight from the barrel with a personalized label and an entry of their bottling into the distillery’s ledger.

 

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Overall

The Michter’s Fort Nelson Tour and Experience was hands down my favourite distillery tour whilst I was in Louisville. The compact nature of the building means that Michter’s had to meticulously plan every detail and they have have done an incredible job of combining the historic elements of the building and the brand with their modern production methods and layout of the building and tour. The whole experience is clean, modern, very well laid out, and the tour guides are very well versed in every aspect of Michter’s production process. The bar is also incredible and it’s clear that Michter’s really spared no expense in making the distillery, tour, and bar the amazing achievement that they are.

On the distillery side, Fort Nelson presents Michter’s with a unique opportunity to do smaller-scale runs of experimental mashbills using both new and their own-grown grain. With an expected capacity of producing between 5,000 to 10,000 9 liter cases annually, the focus will still be on the quality of the distillate rather than the volume produced but under the leadership of Master Distiller Pam Heilmann, Distiller Dan McKee, and Distillery Manager Matt Bell the future for Fort Nelson is looking bright.

Another fun detail about the building that’s unfortunately not part of the tour is that during the renovations a bricked up door was found in the foundation of the Fort Nelson building. Local history suggests that because the Fort Nelson building was on Whiskey Row it was used in the underground movement of whiskey barrels during prohibition, which is really cool.

Below are some of the pictures I took whilst on my tour at the Fort Nelson Distillery.

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