In 2014, I had the opportunity to sample a bottle of Willett Family Estate bourbon while visiting a close friend. On the back of the bottle a tiny sticker read "Mike's Whiskeyhandel". The whiskey was absolutely delicious, motivating me to find a bottle of my own. A little Googling led me to an online whiskey shop out of Munich, Germany that listed the bottle for sale. I didn't see any options for international shipping to the US, but I figured I might be able to work around that restriction by stopping by in-person during an upcoming trip to Europe.
Emailing the address listed on the website put me in contact with Mike Werner, the owner of the shop. A few exchanges later and we had a plan to meet the morning after I arrived in Munich at Der Lampenschirm, a lamp store a short walk from Altstadt, the Munich city center.
Der Lampenschirm (The Lampshade), as seen from the street
When I arrived at Der Lampenschirm, I was confused about what a lamp store had to do with the whiskey shop that I had come to visit. Small parts of the storefront served as advertisements for Mike's Whiskeyhandel (literally Mike's Whiskey Trade), which reassured me that I was at least on the right track despite being surrounded by chandeliers, table lamps, and a wide assortment of lampshades. When I entered the front door, an older German woman at the front counter gave me what felt like a stiff greeting possibly due to my inability to speak any meaningful amount of German. Her demeanor brightened a bit after I mentioned that I'd come to see Mike, (whom I'd later learn was her husband). With limited English she indicated that he'd be arriving shortly and disappeared into a back office, leaving me to explore the empty lamp store on my own. Empty bourbon bottles tucked in various parts of the storefront and display cases felt like an afterthought and left me wondering where I might find the whiskey I had come for.
Minutes later, I turned my head to the jingling of the front door, noticing a thin mustachioed man making his way to the front. He spoke briefly with the woman at the counter, then turned and approached me. I felt uneasy about the impending interaction, not knowing at all what to expect from this lamp-shop-proprietor-cum-bourbon-afficianado. Would he be too busy or tell me that the bottle I came for was sold out? Instead, he gave me a slight smile, shook my hand, and invited me to follow him upstairs.
We walked up a small staircase by the front counter to another floor that unsurprisingly contained more lamps. Amongst the lighting paraphernalia there was a set of parlor doors, open but blocked off by a red velour rope. Above the door was a sign reading "American Whiskey Academy e.V", in Pablo Impallari's oft-critiqued Lobster font.
Mike Werner and his bar.
Mike pulled back the cord and gestured for me to enter the otherwise dark room. Following behind me, he turned on the lights to reveal an American flag, mounted Buffalo head, and a bar full of American whiskey. He took a seat behind the bar and began lighting a cigar, a collection of kitchy signs behind him. "Guns don't kill people, people with moustaches kill people" being my personal favorite. I took one look at the whiskey in the bar and I wondered if I hadn't just stepped into one of the best bourbon bars in Europe.
Cigar in hand, Mike sat patiently with a slight grin as he watched me browse through the bar's offerings. I made a remark about how impressive his bar's selection was, to which he instantly responded: “It's not a bar... it's an American Whiskey Academy”, his grin now turning into a true smile. I suspect this has something to do with the permitting process, which would make it trickier to operate a bar than a tasting room inside a lamp shop. Mike explained how he offers monthly whiskey tastings with food and live music to a small number of Munich locals looking to try American whiskey. Most of them are novices when it comes to bourbon, which could explain why they have yet to consume Mike's rarest bottles.
Chatting with Mike about whiskey, it didn't take long to get the impression that he wasn't dramatically different from the other foreign bourbon enthusiasts I've encountered over the years. Like many of them, Mike's interest in American whiskey evolved out of a love for the United States and American culture. He opened Der Lampenschirm in 1977, and during those early years traveled to trade shows around the world. He began spending time in the US, and quickly fell in love with whiskey, steaks, cigars, and Texas. His Cadillac Escalade with custom "Mike's Whiskeyhandel" detailing can often be found parked out front of the lamp shop.
Mike began importing whiskey in 2009, and opened his online whiskey shop a few years later. His whiskey inventory grew rapidly during those years, forcing him to convert various rooms of the lamp store into whiskey storage, the largest of which was destined to become the bar.
Mike's Whiskeyhandel. Just don't call it a bar.
As we talked, Mike began pulling bottles of his Willett Family Estate selection from the shelves and placing them on the bar in front of me. One was the bottle I had specifically come for, but I was unfamiliar with many of the others. He then placed empty glasses next to each one and began pouring. All told, we drank through seven different expressions of Willett early that day, and I left with some great bottles of my own.
Fast forward four years to 2018 when I arranged to meet Mike once again during a brief visit to Munich. Since my first visit in 2014, Mike received various foreign guests, most looking to try and purchase some of his last remaining bottles of Willett. They often leave empty-handed, as he sold the majority of his bottles years ago. After he stopped shipping bottles internationally in 2013, (during the brief window where he still had rare bottles in stock) he had customers who would fly into Munich solely to buy as many bottles as possible and return home the very same day. I would venture that most foreigners seeking out his whiskey shop in Munich from abroad harbor a hope that they'll be able to leave with one of his last bottles of rare Willett. Mike tells me that many of his recent visitors make offers in the thousands of dollars for these remaining bottles, a notion he dismisses as absurd.
Mike pouring me a bit of whiskey
My 2018 visit wasn't very different from my first visit years ago, the only difference being that I brought him a bottle of whiskey as a gift from the US. Like before, we went up to the bar, talked about whiskey and tasted some great bottles. It's experiences like this that I love – sitting down with other people who love whiskey, in any country I can find them. On my way out, I expressed my gratitude to Mike for spending a few hours with me sharing his whiskey and talking about bourbon.
Thanks for the whiskey, he responded with a smile.
If you find yourself in Munich and have the opportunity to visit Mike, my recommendation is this: Bring him a bottle of whiskey. A private barrel pick of something he's unlikely to find in Germany will do. It not only serves as a great icebreaker, but he and his family will love you for it. And if you're lucky, he'll show you his bar and offer you a chance to talk with him and perhaps try something special. And if you need a lamp, he's got you covered.
And if you need a lamp, he's got you covered.