To paraphrase and adapt an old saying to the world of American spirits: “Some whiskeys are like sausages: it’s better for everyone if you don’t see them getting made.”
By this, I mean that Michter’s as a whole falls into that category of being an NDP—a (gasp!) non-distiller product. Which means that the whiskey that comes in a bottle that looks like the above didn’t actually get made at any distiller named “Michters.” They just bought the whiskey from somewhere else, rebranded it, and sold it to you.
To some, that’s almost the equivalent of whiskey usury: you’ve lined the pockets of someone who didn’t make this whiskey. “Where’s the craftsmanship?” some might bellow. “Where’s the work?” Or, by extension, “What am I paying for?” To answer that question quite simply, and to circle back to my original statement: you’re paying for a great rye.
I think I’m giving Michter’s a pass on the NDP thing mainly because it avoids the cardinal sin I have with most “Straight Rye” whiskeys: it actually tastes like a rye. Given that Michter’s is mum about where this stuff comes from, there’s not much insight by way of a true mashbill, but at least to my palate it tastes a lot closer to Lot 40 (a 100% rye) than it does with something like Wild Turkey 101 (a “high rye” bourbon) or a “barely legal” straight rye.
What does that mean, really? Well, I’d say Michter’s Rye demonstrates a depth of character I really love in a good rye. Or, in layman’s terms: taste to burn. The initial sip is filled with caraway seed, anise, bubble gum, and brown bread. On the development, there’s lots of umami flavors I attribute to the intersection of the rye and corn, such as bacon and mushroom.
Later sips bring out ample sweetness. Licorice mingles with baking chocolate, and maple trades places with mint candy and vanilla. All the while, there are hints of all of those flavors in the glass, and the finish is long, sumptuous, and calls you back for more. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot going on here. The curious will be rewarded. People looking for something “good” can simply sip and let the flavors wash over them. It’s as comfortable and indulgent as taking a twenty-minute hot shower.
Circling back to the mystery in question: I can make peace with the fact that I don’t know who made this or how old it is. I’ve bought enough whiskeys that have sounded great on paper and had excellent pedigrees but have been underwhelming when I actually taste them. This stuff? Total opposite. The spirit nerd in me wants to knock this down a few pegs for the lack of transparency, but in my heart of hearts I can’t handwave away the fact that this is delicious stuff, through and through, and that it uses just enough corn to add sweet flavors that compliment the inherent complexity of rye.
So even though Michter’s didn’t make this, the company or brand certainly is responsible for bringing it to market. Many of us are fine with financially rewarding interior decorators and financial advisers for simply knowing stuff that makes our lives better, even if they don’t actually make the proverbial sausages. Why should it be any different in the spirit industry?
So with all that said, here’s my earnest advice: Don’t think too hard about it all. In terms of the Michter’s Rye, I think die-hard spirit geeks run a very real risk of talking themselves out of a great experience.