I don’t recall where I was when first heard Willie Pratt speak but I do know he impressed me with what he was saying about aging whiskey. So much so that I asked him to be on a panel at one of my Bourbon Salons at Oxmoor. By the time the Salon was over, everyone in the room was impressed with what he had to say about barrels, aging whiskey and filtration. He is truly a wealth of experience, but how did he come to this stage?
Willie Pratt was born in 1942 in Hazard, Kentucky. A coal mining city in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky did not offer much opportunity to grow, so Willie, like so many others in the region, came to Louisville to seek employment at the age of twenty. He quickly found a position at Brown-Forman. To further his career he also enrolled in the University of Louisville, attending evening classes while working full time. His work ethic allowed him to advance in the company and eventually he joined Lincoln Henderson in the study of distillation, cooperage and aging condition. He spent over 40 years at Brown-Forman and during that time he learned his skills at aging a great whiskey.
Pratt retired from Brown-Forman at the age of 65 but like so many others in the whiskey industry, he missed the work and was open to get back into the distilling business. That opportunity came shortly after he retired when Chatham Imports purchased the Michter’s brand and started looking for someone to be their master distiller. His initial project was to examine the original Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey and see if he could reproduce it. Willie examined it using all of the modern analysis equipment as well as his own senses. When he was done he had come up with a formula for the whiskey. He admitted that it was not quite the same as the original, but he felt it was better. Having tasted both whiskey from the original distillery as well as the modern Michter’s Sour Mash, I think I agree with Pratt.
His next duty was to oversee the production of the whiskey he developed. Michter’s did not have a distillery but had signed a contract with another distillery to have the whiskeys they needed made for them. Pratt oversaw the production that called not only for their own mash bills and yeast, but also such details as a low 103 barrel entry proof. As these whiskeys aged. Willie Pratt monitored their progress. He believes in a lower entry proof and heated warehouse for additional cycles in the winter months. Even with these additional cycles, Pratt does not believe in a set period for aging. He believes that each barrel is different and needs to be allowed its proper time to mature. This is usually a longer time than management wishes so he earned the nickname “Dr. No.” from the sales force and others who wanted to put out bottles of whiskey before Willie thought they were ready. To give the management at Chatham Imports their proper due, they have always backed Willie in his decisions and put quality of product before profit.
Willie Pratt is also a master of filtration. He believes that all whiskey can benefit from filtration if done properly. He has done intensive experiments with filtration throughout his career. First at Brown-Forman and then at Michter’s. He believes that filtration, when done right improves the flavor of the whiskey in the bottle. He also believes that you can do too much filtration and remove too much flavor so it has to be done using a set plan. He has experimented with each of the Michter’s products until he came up with a specific filtration agenda for each product. Michter’s does not use a “one plan fits all” for their products. I am not sure that I buy that all whiskey benefits from filtration because I have had some excellent drinks straight from the barrel, but I do know that enjoy all of the Michter’s whiskeys so whatever they are doing it is working. I think of filtration as simply another part of the recipe for Michter’s Bourbon or rye.
Willie Pratt has recently retired and Michter’s has given Pam Heilmann his duties. Pam is the natural choice as she is a talented distiller who worked for many years at the Beam distilleries before being hired by Michter’s. Heilmann and Pratt worked together as Michter’s designed and built their own distillery in Shively, Kentucky. That distillery is the last project of Pratt’s career in the industry. Today he still comes in once a week to the distillery and yes he keeps his hands in projects, but it is as “Master Distiller Emeritus” now. He seems to be enjoying the free time spent with his family. Willie Pratt still does some appearances for Michter’s but they are fewer than ever as Pam Heilmann takes up more and more of the slack. Still I do hope that he continues to make appearances and to share with the world his wealth of knowledge and experience.
Photos Courtesy of Michter’s