Nation’s first whiskey distillery was in Lebanon County, but today not much remains of site that Washington may have visited

3 min read

With cooler temperatures approaching, it’s that time of year when Americans start turning to their first alcoholic love (historically-speaking): Whiskey.

Did you know that America’s first distillery was in Lebanon County? Located in Schaefferstown, alongside the Snitz Creek, Swiss Mennonite brothers John and Michael Shenk established the operation in 1753 to increase the value of their corn, rye, and barley before transporting it.

Other local farmers turned to the Shenk brothers to help them convert their harvest into more liquid assets, and we can assume that the clean Blue Mountain water of the Snitz Creek along with the high quality grain must have lead to at least a decent tasting whiskey, which had replaced foreign rum as the libation of choice.

Good enough, perhaps, for George Washington and his encamped troops at Valley Forge, as lore has it that the general secured whiskey for his men in Schaefferstown (perhaps he was even inspired with plans for the distillery he would later build at Mount Vernon). However, it must be said, this story is often repeated but never cited.

The company became Bomberger’s in 1861 when Abe Bomberger purchased the operation; it would remain that until 1975, even while passing through a few owners, at which point the company was bought again and renamed Michter’s, a combination of one of the owner’s sons names (Michael and Peter). Under the Michter’s banner, the site found a new niche as a tourist hotspot where one could see a functioning distillery and also purchase the whiskey (a right granted only to Michter’s through a special “historical significance” clause).

The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Read the nomination here [PDF]. Today only the Still House and a couple warehouses remain (Google Maps last visited the site in 2015.

For more on the corporate history of the distillery, read this excellent article by Henry Keiser of Lykens.

The legacy of the site has been continued through a new brand of Michter’s operated by Joe Magliocco and Dick Newman, who own the brand but not the land. Forbes has profiled them as a brand comeback story. (They are based in Kentucky, and Magliocco says that the success wouldn’t have been possible in Pennsylvania.) There is also Bombger’s Distillery Whiskies based in Lancaster County.

As Steve Snyder reported for the Lebanon Daily News at the time, John Barry of JJC Investments bought the site in 2011. Barry’s family also owns the adjacent Lebanon Farms Disposal site in Heideelberg Township. The site was bought for $250,000 from Dwight L. Hostetter of Cleona, who had purchased the land in 1999 for $185,000.

Blogger Jack Sullivan has compiled much of this history, including the images below.

Likely not a historic jug, these were manufactured for tourists to the Michter’s distillery in the 20th century.

Michter’s was really into novelty whiskey bottles. Pictures from eBay.

Blogger Ethan Smith also posted this undated aerial view of the site.

We have reached out to the Barry family regarding their current plans for the site, we’ll put any new information into a new post but feel free to drop us a tip at tips@leb.town if you know what’s going on.

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