Remembering Willie Pratt — the late master distiller emeritus at Michter’s

Remembering Willie Pratt — the late master distiller emeritus at Michter’s

Willie Pratt, master distiller emeritus at Michter’s, led an extraordinary life immersed in the Bourbon industry. Liza Weisstuch looks back on his life in whiskey

People | 06 Apr 2021 | Issue 174 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Talk to anyone who knew Willie Pratt and you’ll hear the same words used to describe him: dedicated, passionate, uncompromising (in a good way!), a perfectionist, a treasure trove of knowledge, a character. Pratt, distiller emeritus at Michter’s Distillery and a member of the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame, died in late December 2020 in Louisville. His health had been in decline for several years, but he never let it get in the way of his work and his love for the Bourbon industry. Andrea Wilson, Michter’s master of maturation, said that just days before he passed away, he sent her a several binders of complicated charts and graphs.

“He really was working up until the end. And he was doing what he loved to do. He was committed to it with a passion that I try to emulate in my own life,” said Wilson, who started at Michter’s in 2014. “I’ve been blessed throughout my whole career to have access to people like him, people with such incredible knowledge. It would have taken my whole career to learn everything he taught me.”

Born in 1942, Pratt grew up in Hazard, a small town in eastern Kentucky. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a coal miner. It was expected that Pratt would follow suit, but he heard the sirens of the big city calling, so he set off and arrived in Louisville when he was 20. According to his son, David, he got a job in the mailroom at Brown-Forman and, in classic whisky-industry fashion, worked his way up the ranks. His passion and commitment were evident in those early days. Brown-Forman noticed it and took a chance on him. They paid his way through school at the University of Kentucky and he took classes at night while he continued to work daytime shifts at the distillery.

Michter’s was Pratt’s ‘baby’, according to his son

The gamble paid off. Over the next 40-plus years, he held roles in production, researched aging conditions and studied barrels and coopering. He was part of a generation that ushered in a golden age of Bourbon. His contemporaries and friends included Heaven Hill’s Parker Beam, Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell and fellow Brown-Forman employee Lincoln Henderson. In 2007, Michter’s, which Joe Magliocco started to revive in the mid-1990s, was producing its spirit contractually, as its physical distilleries hadn’t been built yet. Pratt had just retired. Hearing that and knowing his vast experience and technical dexterity, Magliocco approached.

“When I heard he retired, I asked him if he’d like to come work for us part-time, but part-time became 24/7. He loved the industry, he loved the people,” said Magliocco, president of Michter’s. “I’m not trained in production like a distiller, but I have been fortunate to have the chance to listen to good people. Almost every time I had a conversation with Willie, I learned something new. He was a treasure trove of whiskey information. He just knew so much. Also, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it from looking at him, but he could operate a computer and do Excel spreadsheets like a young investment banker.”

Willie Pratt at his induction into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame

Pratt’s crowning achievements throughout his career – and there were many – were both technical and theoretical. The changes he saw in the industry throughout the decades informed the assured production decisions he made at Michter’s. Wilson notes that he was on the front line in the 1960s when the rule changing entry proof to 125 from 110 went into effect, a step that has a tremendous influence on the final spirit. In the early days of Michter’s, Pratt suggested barreling at 103 proof instead of the standard 80 proof. It would be much more costly, but in the face of colleagues’ hesitancy, he held his ground. He also insisted on releasing a product based exclusively on its flavour profile, not simply when it hit 10 or 12 years old and was eligible for that age statement. This waiting game can also prove costly but, when the products went to market, accolades and awards rolled in as a result of his refusal to release early, justifying his nickname: Dr No.

Pratt also championed heat-cycling, a process that involves heating up a warehouse so the ageing liquid reaches a determined temperature, then opening windows to naturally cool it to another predetermined point. Pratt identified probes that could be inserted through the bung to monitor temperature and log and store data. “Willie transformed all of that so we could see trends of temperature increases and when it stabilised and declined, so we could monitor the ageing process on all the floors of the warehouses,” Wilson explained. It allows for consistent ageing in the warehouses, which is important because Michter’s releases so many single barrel products.

He was one of the cool old guys from the generation that’s slowly disappearing. He’s one of
the originals...

While other distilleries have a favourite spot in the warehouse or a preferred floor, consistency was key for Pratt and he demonstrated that it was worth the massive time investment. “Last time we reviewed it, we were looking at over 70,000 datapoints. It’s intensive to look at all that temperature data, but it’s intrinsic to the ageing process,” Wilson marvelled.

Pratt’s eminence in Bourbon history was appreciated by everyone who worked with him. “He was one of the cool old guys from the generation that’s slowly disappearing. He’s one of the originals and he was always hands-on in distilleries,” said Rob Sherman, vice president of Vendome Copper and Brass Works, the Louisville company known for the custom stills it builds for distilleries far and wide. His great-grandfather, William Elmore Sherman, started the company in 1903.

“They were the ones down at the distillery in the middle of the night fixing stuff. He knew the old days and had really cool stories. And he knew the new days. Guys today only know the new days. He knew a lot more than I ever will.” Seven years ago, Pratt shared a formula for calculating what a barrel loses annually to evaporation. He wrote it on a Post-It note for Sherman. It’s still affixed to his computer in his office. ‘Per Willie’, it says.

Sherman, who worked with the Michter’s staff to design and build stills for both its main distillery in Shively and the smaller tourism-focused destination in Louisville, recounts the time when Michter’s was getting off the ground and he and Pratt drove more than five hours to upper Ohio in pursuit of Michter’s original stills, which by a fluke had been purchased by a small distiller with a scrappy operation. Pratt would stop at nothing to establish authenticity at the revitalised Michter’s, an historic brand with roots that stretch back to 1753, when the distillery first opened in Pennsylvania. It was named Shank’s at the time. Sherman met with Pratt once a week for almost a year as they tried to figure out how to get all the equipment into both distillery spaces. But regardless of what Pratt and Sherman were working on, they always made sure to talk about a shared favourite hobby whenever they met.

“Whenever I stopped in to see him, we talked about fishing. When he was at Michter’s, I always asked why he was working when he could be fishing,” Sherman said. “But he just loved what he did.” Everyone knew not to interfere with Pratt’s fishing habit. He had a place on Lake Okeechobee in South Florida that he’d visit frequently and his son David suspects there must have been some clause in his contract with Michter’s that allowed him time to make regular trips to Florida. He’s kidding, of course. Unless he isn’t. “Dad loved to fish, it was second only to the whisky,” said David. “Hunting and fishing, hunting and fishing, and fishing and hunting.”

Willie Pratt

He had another priority, too: family. Pratt is survived by his wife Patsy; his three children, David, Paula and Jason; three grandchildren, Katie, Shelby and Nolan; and two great-grandchildren, Avery and Owen. He also leaves his dog, Sophie. David fondly remembers hiding behind a door with his sister every day when his dad got home from work. They’d jump out to scare him and were met with a roll of Life Savers sweets every time. In 2007, when David’s son Kyle passed away from cancer at the age of 10, his father, who had been divorced from Patsy, David’s mother, got very involved with the family, remarried his ex-wife, and threw himself full-measure into fundraising and organising golf events to support the construction of a health resource centre in Louisville, which was dedicated in Kyle’s honour. Through all the twists and turns life took, though, his work was an anchor.

“I think my father took Michter’s as a project that he could put his own stamp on,” said David. “I think he thought of it as his own baby that he could raise and nurture. He was so passionate about bringing up Michter’s – more so than all his work at Brown-Forman.” But for all the seriousness Pratt brought to his work, his lighter, adventure-seeking side was well known to all. He drove a red Corvette convertible, flew a Cherokee four-seater light aircraft, and was an avid motorcyclist.

Willie in his Corvette

“Willie was a lot of fun. He had a very dry sense of humour. Sometimes I’d wonder, ‘Is he serious or is he kidding?’” said Pam Heilmann, Michter’s master distiller emerita. She was hired from Beam, where she was thoroughly versed in distilling, but treasures everything Pratt taught her about other areas of production and ageing, and describes working with him the ‘thrill of a lifetime’ – ‘thrill’ being an operative word. “I think Willie was a daredevil kind of person. I think he liked the adrenaline. I have a picture of me and Willie. We were in the distillery in one of those four-wheel vehicles like a golf cart. He was driving and it was starting to scare me. The picture is of me grabbing the steering wheel. I cherish that photo.”

Hearing people speak about Pratt, it’s apparent that mourning him is, in a way, mourning a part of the industry that has passed on. “Willie is one of those amazing people in our industry – what they learn over a 50-year period is priceless,” said Magliocco. “Those guys have seen almost every problem, made almost every mistake. They’re just an encyclopedic source of knowledge of Bourbon whiskey and whiskey making. And Willie was so generous with his time. He liked educating others, he liked bringing them along.”
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