Back to Pennsylvania!
Having previously looked at the Mingo Creek Distilling Company from the West side of the Keystone State, today we’ll be crossing the Allegheny Mountains to consider another rye-focused craft distiller. All the way over in Bristol (north of Philadelphia) sits Mountain Laurel Spirits, producer of the Dad’s Hat line of rye whiskeys.
To get more information, I caught up with Herman Mihalich, co-founder of Dad’s Hat. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Tell me about yourself, and how Dad’s Hat got started?
Herman: My exposure to rye whiskey goes back quite a long way. My grandfather started a speakeasy in the 20’s and his favorite drink was rye whiskey up until he died at the age of 95. We had a bar outside of Pittsburgh and I lived in the apartment upstairs. It was something I always knew about and heard about. My grandfather cut his teeth on rye whiskey, and the largest rye whiskey distillery in America was located right near my hometown of Monessen, Pennsylvania.
I was working in corporate America; I was an executive in the chemical industry for a long time. My business partner John was also working out in the suit and tie world. There was an article in 2006, in the New York Times… [by] Eric Asimov, and Lew Bryson was in there, and a few other guys. Rye whiskey was kind of peeking its nose up a little bit because a lot of the bartenders were starting to use it for cocktails. They decided to do a tasting and an article about rye whiskey. I saw the article and I said “Wow, that’s pretty cool! It’s making a comeback!”
I knew that there was nobody making rye whiskey in Pennsylvania anymore. From a hubristic point of view, I started chatting with friends, saying “Wouldn’t it be fun to bring rye whiskey back to Pennsylvania?” In 2009, I started talking about it a little more seriously. Pennsylvania is a control state. We went into Harrisburg to ask the liquor control board, “Hey, people have been saying rye whiskey is growing again; you don’t have it listed as a separate category. Are you seeing the same things?” And they were like, “Well, actually, yeah!” From what was then a pretty small base, it really was starting to show strong growth.
We decided to go for it; spent a year doing some research on recipes, visiting different places. I actually went to a distilling class out in Arizona. John and I got serious; we went up to Michigan State. They used to have a program there called the Artisan Distilling Program. You know, several days of hands-on learning experience, even though I have a chemical engineering degree. My eighth-grade science project was a still! My grand-pap and my dad had a still at home, but this was on serious equipment: a real still. We worked with them after the seminar to test recipes. They were very generous in the feedback and information we learned from them, and looking at some of the historical Pennsylvania [whiskey].
So that’s how we put together our recipe. I would say we’re some of the only people practicing that old-school Pennsylvania style: high grain – 80% grain, in our case – and 20% malt. No corn, and a sweet mash recipe.
The malt we’re using is a two-row malt, following the advice of the folks at Michigan State saying, “Six-row malt that is typically usually used by distillers is very high in enzymes, but very low in flavor.” We chose a two-row malt – it’s a brewer’s malt – that has a high enough enzyme content, but yet is more flavorful, particularly in younger whiskeys like we’re making. We thought that was an important element to add to the mix.
Malt: Tell me about the local sources of your grains?
Herman: We started off working with a few different farms and now we’re actually working with one exclusively, because he does such a great job for us. The Mease family, they’re right here in Bucks County. They’re an original Penn land grant family; they’ve been on that land since 1716. The family has been working that farm all these years.
The young man who is now running that farm, he’s in his 30’s. His first name is Nevada; Nevada Mease is his name. What’s great about Nevada is he’s absolutely passionate about doing the best job that he can. That’s something that we’ve found to be really remarkable. He has invested the energy – and money, more importantly – in, for example: when he does the cleaning of the rye, he doesn’t use a corn cleaner. He has equipment that is specifically sized for rye. So, we get a really clean rye that stores very well. Through the year, after harvest, we continue to get really high-quality rye from him.
He’s a pretty courageous guy and he leaves the rye in the field until it’s super dry and super ripe. We get really ripe rye berries, mid-summer, middle of July when he harvests. A lot of farmers are kind of afraid to let it sit that long in the field because to the risk of it being knocked over in a storm; they call it “lodging.”
So, we’re really fortunate to have this great relationship with him. He does a great job making sure we get a first-quality rye grain.
Malt: Is this an heirloom rye varietal that is different?
Herman: A lot of it is just what he’s been growing there for the past years, Danko and Prima varieties; the seed base he gets from his own crop. We are working on a project with Delaware Valley University that we initiated years ago to reintroduce Rosen rye, which is an heirloom grain. You can see it on advertising and on labels just post-Prohibition. A lot of the Pennsylvania ryes that existed then advertised the fact that they used Rosen rye.
Doing the research in 2009, 2010, that was something that I identified, that I was looking to see if I could get my hands on the stuff. The farmers I talked to and even the Penn State ag extension people here were like, “Uh, we have no idea what you’re talking about.” I actually contacted Michigan State again because, believe it or not, in 1909 Rosen rye was introduced by Michigan State in their ag school. It was then spread out from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a lot of different places. I think whenever rye whiskey and rye bread fell by the wayside in the 50’s and 60’s, farmers kind of lost track of it.
So, what Michigan State said was, “Contact the USDA and get some of the seeds in their seed bank.” We got five grams of seed; we sent some to Penn State initially, and then I started working with Del. Val. because they’re closer, here. The Rosen rye which started off as five grams years ago is now acres of plants growing. We made a small batch; another distiller in Western PA made a small batch. I’m hoping next year I’ll have enough to make a few large commercial batches, but we’re taking all the seed we can and putting it back into the ground so we can grow more and more.
We haven’t done an extensive analysis of it. I’ve had some [gas chromatography] work done in the lab that does identify some interesting differences versus what we were using, but it’s really early days. I’m not going to plant a victory flag yet. It’s going to be interesting to see if we can eventually sense, organoleptically, the difference with what we’re growing.
In the white dog we have, and in the analysis we’ve done… but the problem is that right now I’m not willing to jump on that, because I did the distillation of the white dog on my grand-pap and my dad’s old still. I have a little 5-gallon still – which is legal and federally registered, by the way – but it’s a different environment than our 500 gallon still. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison yet, until later this year when we can do a full-scale commercial run and then we can do a better apples-to-apples comparison.
Malt: How do you think about flavor creation at the mashing stage?
Herman: We’re using yeast that was recommended by Michigan State. We’re pretty pleased with that; it gives us a really consistent result and a very productive result. The other thing I think is important for us is our fermenters are all temperature controlled. They’re jacketed with cooling jackets. We do a five-to-seven day, low and slow fermentation. The mashing process itself, we have the ability also to tailor our temperature regime there. In our mash tank, we have the ability to inject steam directly. We can really control the temperature environment from the time it starts the mashing process. We have a cooling system for cooling the mash so we can crash cool it and then straight to the fermenters where, again, the temperature is controlled.
Malt: Tell me about distillation?
Herman: The still we have is similar to the one we worked with at Michigan State. It’s a Carl still from Germany. I guess you could call it a hybrid still; it’s a pot still, but we have a side column that we can use at our discretion. We can go full-on alembic pot still distillation, or we can divert into the column to do some fine tuning. We do that fine tuning around the transitions between heads and hearts. We’re able to do a really sharp cut there. Sometime some of the younger whiskeys, and some of the craft stuff, is a little turpentine-ish, you get a little of that solvent-y stuff to it, and we’re able to cut that pretty cleanly with our column. We make a couple different whiskeys.
All of our straight whiskeys are aged in 53-gallon barrels, and those are all a minimum of four years old. In addition to that, we’re still making our classic rye – we sell it at 90 proof – aged in 15-gallon barrels, and that’s aged for about a year. Now, back to distillation: when we’re making the white spirit, we run the still differently for the 15s than we do for the 53s. We know it’s not going to age as long, so it has to go into the barrel a little cleaner. We tailor the cut to make it a little cleaner so that, after a year of aging in the barrel, you don’t get that cloying young spirit taste. We try to clean it up before it gets in the barrel so it doesn’t have to have as much time in the barrel.
Malt: What is the proof off the stills?
Herman: Depending on which one of the cuts we’re doing, anywhere between 140 to 155.
Malt: And what is barrel entry proof?
Herman: In both cases, 120.
Malt: Tell me about your cooperage relationships?
Herman: We’re very fortunate; we have been working for a very long time with a cooperage called McGinnis wood products in Cuba, Missouri. They make barrels for some of the big guys, and they’ve been in business since the 60’s. They’re using all air-dried Missouri oak and it’s excellent quality. We’re really pleased with what we get from them.
We’ve been testing some other barrel sources lately just to play with some things, check some other sources, and get a little more creative in what we’re doing. Initially we liked working with McGinnis because they could supply both our 15s and 53s and they were consistent in terms of result. We had people send us barrels; they looked really nice, but the question is: how do they taste? What they look like doesn’t matter so much to us. We’ve always been getting really good, consistent results from McGinnis, so we’ve been sticking with them for the most part.
Like I said, we’re testing a few others now, just out of curiosity. We’re pretty happy with the consistency we’re getting; I think we have enough track record to start playing a little but with what we’re doing and have some fun trying more creative stuff.
Malt: Do you have a standard char level?
Herman: We go between 3 and 4. We go back and forth and do kind of a mix of the two. We’re backing off the 4 a little bit. All the 53s have been level 3. The 15s, we’ve been playing back and forth between 3 and 4.
Malt: What’s your warehouse setup?
Herman: In the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s, Pennsylvania [whiskeys] were typically not aged in rickhouses. They were aged in controlled-temperature warehouses. We’re in an old textile mill that was one of the earlier forays into reinforced concrete construction in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. It’s this bomb shelter of a building with really thick walls. We have some storage, 6,000 square feet, in the distillery itself. We have another 6,000 square feet on the fifth floor of this building. It’s got controlled temperature by virtue of the fact that the walls are three feet thick. The temperature stays relatively constant; it gets a little warm and humid in the summertime, but never gets that cold in the winter. It’s a more stable environment than you would get in a rickhouse.
Malt: Do you think there is a house style or a hallmark Dad’s Hat note?
Herman: Because of the malt we use, I think that gives us a bit more fruit than some of the other ryes. The [ryes] that come out of Kentucky, you get a bit of that bourbon dimension. Everyone likes to talk about the pickle stuff coming out of Indiana; I think it’s more minty than pickle-y. I think ours is the center palate fruit that I think is probably distinctive for us versus some of the other ryes out there.
We’ve stopped entering a lot of taste competitions because we would get feedback saying, “This doesn’t taste like rye whiskey.” We’re like, “Well, that’s like saying Macallan doesn’t taste like Laphroaig.” That’s a silly comment. Do you like it, or don’t you like it? If you don’t like it, that’s fine. John and I, our rule of thumb is: we bottle it when we like it, and if we don’t like it we won’t bottle it. We’ve got to be satisfied on our own that we’re happy with what we’re making and willing to stand up behind it.
That style difference is something that’s distinctive. Having talked to the guys in Kentucky, they like having a bourbon dimension to it, because it’s an easier transition for their bourbon drinkers into rye.
Malt: You mentioned your father; is there a particular story about the hat?
Herman: My father unfortunately passed away fairly young. He did wear a lot of fedora hats, and I don’t have much hair, so I started wearing his hats. When we met with the communications company we work with in Philadelphia, called Signature Communications, they noticed the hat. They thought that was a really great way to communicate the nostalgia we want to associate with the brand. We’re bringing back rye whiskey from the past; fedora hats have that kind of identification with the old-school days. We thought those would be a great way to pay a bit of a homage to my dad and my grand-pap. When you see a fedora hat, it evokes that nostalgia, regardless of the family association.
Malt: The bottle shape is also unique; where did that come from?
Herman: We saw some old bottles that were being sold by a company in California. They were a rectifier and bottler just before Prohibition. We thought they were kind of cool looking, so we gave that shape to a designer we were working with. He tailored it, put a little bit broader shoulders on it, gave it a little bit more of a cut to it. One of the other things we’re very pleased with is that bottle is actually made in Pennsylvania. The plant that makes that is in Monaca, PA which was, until recently, Anchor Hocking. They just got purchased by a German company. They were very cool about that, too. As a startup, a lot of guys are like, “Yeah, right. Just buy what’s on the shelf and be happy with that.”
Malt: Speaking of towns, tell me about Dad’s Hat’s hometown of Bristol?
Herman: Bristol is a little town just outside the border of Philly. It’s an old textile mill town that has seen better days. It went through a rough period in the 60’s and 70’s but it’s really turning around and becoming quite a nice place to live and work. We’re pretty pleased to be there. We have a great connection with the local folks, who have been very supportive.
Malt: Where did the distilling company’s name of “Mountain Laurel” come from?
Herman: Mountain Laurel is the state flower of Pennsylvania. My brother and I were sitting around, having a couple of beers; we had to get a corporate name first, before we could get a brand. So, we went with the state flower. The brand is Dad’s Hat; that’s what we hang our hat on. [chuckles]
Malt: Where can folks find your whiskeys?
Herman: We’re currently in 20 states. We’re mostly distributed on the east coast, New England down to DC. We’re in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia. We had been selling a fair amount overseas, until the tariffs came in. We’ve been sort of on hold with Europe; in the meantime, we’ve picked up some sales to Taiwan, and I’m going to be talking to Australia later today.
Malt: What else do you want our readers to be aware of?
Herman: The distinctive category that we’re in; the Pennsylvania style, I think, it’s a distinctive style. One of the oldest brands to come out of Pennsylvania is made in Kentucky now, by Jim Beam: it’s Old Overholt. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re quietly Pennsylvania-izing the brand again. It started in West Overton, Pennsylvania in 1810. It was purchased by Beam 30 or 40 years ago.
Now, what’s interesting is – and we’re actually quite enthusiastically supportive of – is they’re making reference now to their Pennsylvania roots. In fact, if you look at the new Old Overholt labels, it says “Born in Pennsylvania, Made in Kentucky.” It’s kind of a cool reference which I think bolsters our category, Pennsylvania rye as separate category. It gives folks a gateway into what we’re doing. Although, they’re not there yet, and they’ve not been clear about what they’re going to do with their recipe. Their recipe is not the old Pennsylvania style; they’re practicing a more Kentucky style with corn. I’m hearing they’re going to start migrating or creating some different riffs with the brand.
The idea: to open people’s minds that Pennsylvania has a history, has its own recipe that might be interesting to you. Again, I don’t have a problem if people say they don’t like it. That’s fine; you don’t have to like every whiskey. But, to recognize it as a separate style, and that it does have its merits. In Pennsylvania, in 2020, we were the #3 brand of rye whiskey in Pennsylvania, including all the big guys.
Malt: Have you and the other Pennsylvania rye producers talked to the legislature about getting formal recognition of Pennsylvania rye, in the manner of Tennessee whiskey?
Herman: Not yet, we haven’t. We started in 2011; there’s been a couple other guys who started just after us. There’s been a bunch more smaller guys join the party. The guild is really just starting to get its feet on the ground. As a guild, and as an organization, we’re starting to talk about things more often. Our website has just been constructed; we’re going to be able to communicate more readily, cooperate on things like festivals and also advertising.
There’s been a bill introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature that is a tiny step in that direction, although not specifically for whiskey. You’ve heard of the Milk Marketing Board? Well, in Pennsylvania they have the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, they have the Pennsylvania Brewers Marketing Board. Now they’re talking about creating a Pennsylvania Spirits Marketing Board which would provide a reasonable amount of funding, like $1 million worth of funding, towards advertising Pennsylvania as a place that is distilling interesting products.
Sincere thanks to Herman for sharing his time and insights. Speaking of interesting products: I’ll now be reviewing a pair of straight rye whiskeys from Dad’s Hat. Full disclosure: both of these bottles were sent to me free of charge by Herman, though that will not influence my notes or scores.
Kicking off, we’ve got the Dad’s Hat Straight Rye Whiskey. Aged “a minimum of 4 years,” the whiskey is bottled at 95 proof (47.5% ABV). A 750 ml bottle of this retails for $55.
Dad’s Hat Straight Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-pale burnished copper
On the nose: Initially, this presents itself as a very pure expression of rye. There are citric fruity aromas married with a creaminess and some sweet-and-spicy baked goods notes that, in tandem, strongly suggest key lime pie. I get a faintly smoky spiciness in the manner of Hungarian paprika, as well as a floral note reminiscent of perfumed hand soap. With some time in the glass, a pleasant aroma of ripe Granny Smith apples develops.
In the mouth: Again, the pure rye aspects from the nose are at the fore, being recapitulated as the whiskey enters the mouth. On the front of the tongue this tastes the youngest, with a juvenile grain flavor. There’s another blooming reprise of the nose’s floral soapy note as this reaches the middle of the tongue, where a more zesty citrus flavor (lemon, this time) meets with some tannic woody nuances. This reverts to full-on rye as it finishes, leaving behind a gently lingering off-bitter aftertaste of orange peel. Throughout, the bottling strength feels about right, allowing for a balance of texture and flavor.
This whiskey convincingly argues for the distinct Pennsylvania rye mash bill in the parts where that grain – and the associated aromas flavors – are expressing themselves most forcefully. There’s good flavor development evident in both the nose and the palate; only that momentary young grainy sensation at the front of the mouth points to a need for more extended maturation. Overall, though, I’m pleased to report that there’s ample distinct character here, the sine qua non of craft whiskey. Reflecting that this is about the equal of the more solid examples of craft rye I have tried, I am scoring this a point above at the middle of the range.
We’ve also got a bottle of the Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey. Barreled on 3/4/2015, this was bottled on 12/1/2020 at an age of five years, eight months, at a strength of 64.6% ABV (129.2 proof). This is bottle #99 is from cask #9; retail price is $70 for 750 ml.
Dad’s Hat Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: A darker shade of toasted amber
On the nose: In comparison to the freshness of its precursor, this presents more autumnal notes of fallen ripe red apples on the orchard floor and dried leaves. That sensation transitions seamlessly to a smoky, moistly meaty note of barbecued pork shoulder. The rye spice is more pronounced here, with a piquant whiff of black pepper that suddenly meets with an exceedingly pleasant baked and buttery note of pastry crust. Deeper inhalation yields a dark-smelling sweetness, like caramelized brown sugar or chocolate fudge. There’s still an elemental note of rye grain in here, but it is enveloped by the many other diverse and well-developed aromas swirling around.
In the mouth: This begins with a pert kiss of stone before immediately pivoting to the airy sweetness of confectioners’ sugar. In the middle of the mouth, this comes together deliciously with a rounded completeness composed of equal parts wood, grain, fruit, and spice. Through the finish the whiskey once again returns to the firm stoniness of the forepalate, with a minty accent and a touch of the dried floral flavor of potpourri. A prickly heat re-emerges from the back of the mouth and zips back up toward the lips, leaving a lingering tingle on the sides and bottom of the tongue.
Even more so than the prior rye, this whiskey serves as proof that Dad’s Hat’s embrace of the Pennsylvania style can deliver aromas and flavors not to be found elsewhere. The diversity of the aromatic profile is exceptional for a whiskey of this age. The elements in the mouth are a bit more segmented, though there’s a moment of perfect harmony firmly at the center. The high barrel proof is noticeable but unobtrusive, being felt mostly through and after the finish, as noted above.
I’d purchase this in a heartbeat. Beyond being just immensely flavorful rye whiskey in a broad sense, It is perhaps the best example of the Pennsylvania rye style that I have yet tried. As a consequence, I am pleased to award this a very solid score.
These both delivered good drinking for the price, but that’s not enough to warrant an above average score. What pushed these into significantly positive territory, for me, was that the raw materials translated into distinct, unique flavors unlike those to be found in rye coming out of Kentucky or elsewhere. If Dad’s Hat represents the future (by, paradoxically, being an indication of the past) of Pennsylvania rye, then this is a category that will certainly garner more attention going forward.
Lead photo by Taylor; other photos courtesy of Dad’s Hat.