It’s not every day that you get to hang out with a master distiller at a cocktail party, but my first night in Louisville, I found myself talking with Willie Pratt, master distiller at Michter’s. Willie has a Southern charm and a gentle presence. I was struck by how appreciative and happy he seems about the work he does. It’s nice when people love to make bourbon as much as I love to drink it.
The event was a dinner at Proof on Main with time before to chat with Willie and other whiskey-loving guests.
The first thing he told me was that his mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked in the coal mines, so he’s not from a whiskey family, but it didn’t take him long to find his way into the industry. He worked for Brown-Forman for decades and came out of retirement to work for Michter’s because he would be able to make whiskey the way he wanted – helping to set up production from the stills on up.
(Michter’s has been contract distilling their whiskey from elsewhere while setting up their distillery and beginning production). Because the distillery is family-owned – and what Willie called middle class, meaning not a small craft distillery and not a huge corporation – he says he is able to do what it takes to get the product he wants.
Which led to his nickname Dr. No, since he won’t bottle the whiskey until he thinks it’s ready, even if that means leaving it in the barrel past the age statement. In one case, he held off for more than 13 years for a batch of what would be labeled 10-year. How does he know when to give the ok? He said a blend of practice and checking in regularly with the barrels.
“You just know when it is ready,” he said.
I was curious whether master distillers hang out together. I imagine a poker game every week with the pay-out being the best bourbon from their distilleries. But Willie said it’s more like they run into each other at whiskey events. And since they don’t want to talk shop and give away secrets, they often talk about whether the bourbon craze will continue. Willie is of the opinion that it will. Cheers to that.
He did share one trick and that’s lowering the proof as it goes into the barrel. Bourbon is allowed to be barreled at up to 125 proof, and the proof rises as it ages and water evaporates out of the barrel. Water is added to most whiskey before bottling to bring it closer to 80 or 90 proof. Willie prefers to put the whiskey into the barrel at around 103 proof. After time and evaporation, it comes out around 108-110 proof, so less water has to be added before bottling. He said this leads to a better flavor, although less profits.
Dinner itself was a delicious 3-course meal paired with tasty cocktails. But the best part was tasting whiskey with the guy that essentially chose the barrels. My favorite Michter’s that we tried was the (at least) 10-year bourbon.
“ I think I like it,” Willie said with a satisfied smile.