In recent years, micro-distilleries producing hand-crafted whiskey have popped up across Pennsylvania, sparking a whiskey revival and generating renewed interest in one of the commonwealth’s oldest traditions.
This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure is a decanter of Michter’s whiskey produced circa 1980 at a former Lebanon County distillery that traces its roots back more than 200 years. Keystone Intern Caroline Briselli and Collections Advancement Project curator Maureen Lane selected this object because it represents the importance of whiskey in Pennsylvania’s history.
When John and Michael Shenk constructed a gristmill and distillery on the banks of Snitzel Creek – located in present-day Lebanon County – in 1753, the Swiss Mennonite farmers had no idea that they were building what would one day become one of the oldest commercial distilleries in the nation. At first, the Shenk family’s distillery served to supplement the family farm, and the whiskey it produced from excess fruits and grains was consumed locally. However, as the distillery passed from one Shenk descendant to another, the business expanded, and, by 1790, three pot stills were in operation, producing mainly rye whiskey destined for sale in Philadelphia. The distillery, which stayed in the family until 1919, was renamed Bomberger’s after 1861 and then became Michter’s in 1975.
Distilled spirits such as whiskey were a staple in American homes and were consumed in place of water, which was believed to be polluted. Whiskey was also considered to have various medicinal properties. Whiskey production was big business in Pennsylvania and even sparked a rebellion in the western region of the state when the newly formed national government attempted to levy a tax on the production of the alcohol in the 1790s.
The production of whiskey remained a significant Pennsylvania industry into the 19th century, with “Tench Coxe’s A Statement of the Arts and Manufactures of The United States of America for the Year 1810” reporting that 3,594 Pennsylvanian distilleries had produced 6.5 million gallons of distilled spirits valued at nearly $4 million that year.
Liquor was a major component of 19th century American culture, and, between 1810 and 1830, the average citizen over the age of 14 years old consumed 7.10 gallons of alcohol per year, as reported by Hyman, Zimmerman, Gurioli and Helrich in the “Journal of Studies on Alcohol.” By comparison, the average American in 1978 drank 2.82 gallons per year. In the 1830s, reformers launched a massive temperance movement that would eventually lead to the enactment of the 18th Amendment in 1920 prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol.
Local legend holds that the day before Prohibition was implemented, a 2 1/2-mile line of locals, laden with containers to hold the last legal drops of whiskey, gathered outside Bomberger’s distillery.
After Prohibition, the distillery passed through several owners until it was reorganized as Michter’s Distillery in 1975. Michter’s used the Bomberger whiskey formula to produce one barrel of whiskey per day until the company closed the distillery in 1989 after filing for bankruptcy.
Today, the site of distillery is a national historic landmark, and the Michter’s whiskey name lives on at a Kentucky distillery that purchased the brand name and logo.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.