Rye whiskey comes back home

My friend Kate says she’s never before met a Jewish girl who drinks whiskey. That would be me.

It started with Scotch – first Dewar’s, then Johnny Walker, and then onto single malts. Then I met my husband and he introduced me to Bourbon, which I discovered I also like. Lately I’ve enjoyed drinking rye whiskey, which is not easy to find. So imagine my reaction when I found out a new rye whiskey is being made right here in Bucks County. Stunned and elated.

Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey is being made by rye grown here in Pennsylvania – Bucks and Lancaster Counties to be precise. To understand how exciting this is one needs to know a little bit of history.

What you probably don’t know about whiskey

Whiskey in this country began in Pennsylvania, distilled by German immigrant farmers from leftover rye grain.

In 1794, the new US Federal government recognized this growing trade and instituted a tax on whiskey to raise some much needed money. The Whiskey Rebellion was the result; Pennsylvania farmers fought and George Washington had to raise the militia to overcome them (the tax was eventually repealed in 1800 by Jefferson).

In fact, the tax didn’t have the deleterious effect expected on the commercial distillers — it actually cut out the small, home distillers — and it began over a century-long boom for the industry. In rye whiskey’s heyday Pennsylvania produced over six million gallons annually, mostly from Western Pennsylvania.

In rye whiskey’s heyday Pennsylvania produced over six million gallons annually, mostly from Western Pennsylvania.

Then came Prohibition in 1920 and the rye whiskey business was shut down. Most distillers never recovered. After Prohibition some blended, inferior ryes were made, giving rye a bad reputation. The last rye whiskey distillery in Pennsylvania closed in 1990. Now, fewer than two dozen rye whiskeys are being made in the US. But it’s being rediscovered by many and new craft distillers – like Dad’s Hat – are reviving the tradition.

So what is rye whiskey like?

Compared to Scotch or Bourbon, rye is a “young” whiskey, not requiring as much time in the barrel to age. It is drier than Bourbon, which has a sweetness to it (thanks to corn), and has a spicy, even grassy taste with hints of caramel and vanilla.

Rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye grain and is aged – like all American whiskeys – in a new oak barrel, charred on the inside. The charring gives it flavor and its amber color.

Rye was the original component of many famous cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.

Whiskey barrels at Dad's Hat

Enter Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey

Herman Mihalich grew up in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. His roots are rye’s roots too – a major rye whiskey distillery was once in his town. Rye whiskey was also part of his childhood. It was the drink of choice of both his grandfather and father, who ran a tavern.

“When I smell it, it’s like going home,” he says, as we chat in the Dad’s Hat distillery’s home in the Grundy Commons Complex in Bristol. Herman is the founder and master distiller at Dad’s Hat and he’s responsible for the recipe they use as well as overseeing the whole distillation process.

Herman and his partner, John Cooper, go back a long way too. They met in college. They both come from thirty plus years of corporate experience – Herman in the chemical engineering industry, John in information technology.

When I asked them why they were doing this, they both looked at each other. “Why not?” they said in unison, laughing. It was something they’ve talked about for years and they decided to take the leap.

From the very beginning, Herman and John have been intent on “doing this the right way,”

But don’t think this enterprise is taken lightly. From the very beginning, Herman and John have been intent on “doing this the right way,” every step of the way. For two years, they tested and proved the recipe, working with the chemical engineering department at Michigan State.

Wanting to replicate the conditions in which they would be distilling, they even shipped Pennsylvania rye to the university and bought their still from the same manufacturer used by the school. Everything had to be as close as possible.

While this was going on, they were building a business plan and attracting investors, many former college mates.

“We wanted to be solid, not looking over our shoulder and needing capital,” explains John. Even down to the design of the bottle – an unusual, almost rectangular shape. During the design process they learned that many bartenders are women, so they decided to create a bottle that would fit nicely in a woman’s hand. The bottle is also manufactured in Pennsylvania.

Herman’s father loved good hats.

And what of the name, Dad’s Hat? As they explain on their website, Herman’s father loved good hats.

“Before he left the house each day, he’d carefully choose one from the rack and don it. The hat always seemed to fit his mood – or the occasion – perfectly. My Dad’s gone now. But my mind somehow keeps coming back to those hats.

“People don’t really wear hats much anymore, I suppose. It’s become an affectation or a fashion statement. But in those days, it was something more. A symbol of optimism. That we cared about quality, polish and finish. A subtle, personal signature. From an era when taking the time to do it the right way mattered.”

Dad's Hat Rye WhiskeyDad’s Hat will be producing two products for now – a white rye and a barrel-aged rye. What’s the difference?

The white rye comes straight from the still, diluted with water. In the industry this is called high wine or white dog, and it’s 100 proof (that’s 50% alcohol).

I’ve tasted bourbon white dog and it nearly blew my socks off. But the white rye is much smoother – and meant to be. Herman and John wanted a spirit that would be the non-vodka alternative. It’s clear like vodka but “brings much more to the table flavor-wise,” says John. “It brings complexity to the cocktail.” And I agree. Even mixed with other flavors, the white rye maintains its character in the drink, unlike vodka which fades away.

The other product is the barrel-aged rye, which is hopefully coming out in June – “but not until it’s ready,” says John. “We want to produce a really good high quality whiskey for people to enjoy,” he explains, and that won’t happen until the time, and the whiskey, is right.

“Craft distilling is where microbrewing was 20 years ago”

Still at Dad's Hat Rye Whiskey Distillery; photo credit Lynne Goldman
Still at Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey Distillery

“Craft distilling is where microbrewing was 20 years ago,” explains John. People across the country are beginning to distill spirits on a small, hand-crafted level.

You may have seen Penn 1681 Vodka (also made from Pennsylvania rye, in Philadelphia) or whiskey from Tuthilltown Spirits producing whiskeys under the Hudson label.

At Dad’s Hat everything is in one large room – stills, bottling, barrel storage, tasting room, office, and shipping and receiving.

Having the stills in the same room as the filled whiskey barrels keeps the space nice and toasty. Aging whiskey likes “summertime” temperatures, warm and humid, so that the barrels don’t dry out and evaporation is kept to a minimum. And since the distillery sits between the canal and the Delaware River, humidity is easy to come by.

Dad’s Hat rye whiskey is 80% rye and 20% rye and barley malt. The distillation process begins with the grain and malt being ground in a hammer mill, almost to the consistency of flour.

From there it is carried into the mash tank, combined with hot water (Herman takes local water and applies reverse osmosis to it) and cooked for three hours. Changing the temperature slightly makes the starch convert to sugar. That’s good.

Because when yeast is added, it wants sugar, and fermentation can occur. The mash is then pumped into the fermentor where it bubbles away happily for 5 – 7 days.

Then the mash goes through the still for the first stripping, or distillation. The liquid that comes out of the still is called low wine and it goes back through the still for a second distillation that smooths out the flavor and “cleans it up,” Herman explains.

This high wine, or white dog, is 150-160 proof. If it’s to be bottled as white rye, it is cut with water and brought down to 100 proof. If it’s bound for barrel aging, the high wine is cut with water to bring it down to 120 proof and then stored in charred, new white oak barrels.

After aging anywhere from nine months to several years, the spirit is diluted with water and brought down to 90 proof for bottling and sale. Dad’s Hat filled their first barrels last October. They are purposely using smaller barrels now to speed up the aging process a little but will be using larger barrels for longer aging.

Fermentors at Dad's Hat Rye Whiskey Distillery; photo credit Lynne Goldman
Fermentors at Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey Distillery; photo credit Lynne Goldman

Part of “doing this the right way” is buying from Pennsylvania – from the rye to the bottles – and even recycling the spent mash, which goes into large containers that the farmers take back and feed to livestock (very happy cows and pigs).

Even the tasting room is “recycled.” John took the wood that was used as packing material for the shipping of the stills and made it into the bar that is part of the tasting room.

A very pleasant Friday afternoon at Dad’s Hat

I spent a lovely spring afternoon with Herman and John, talking whiskey and tasting both the white rye and the barrel-aged rye. It’s a good product and quite frankly I can’t wait for it to hit the shelves.

But how can you get some, you ask?* Thanks to the medieval retail liquor system we have in Pennsylvania, the white rye is now only available online through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s website. You can have it delivered to your house ($14 for shipping) or to your local state store ($7 for shipping).

When the barrel-aged rye comes out this summer, the PLCB has committed to carrying both products in state stores. You can also try it at a number of area restaurants – the Yardley Inn, Marsha Brown, the Carversville Inn and the Hulmeville Inn are a few. This summer the distillery will also open once a week for tours and tastings. In the meantime, peruse Dad’s Hat website. It’s informative and includes some fun cocktail recipes.

Mountain Laurel Spirits
925 Canal Street
Bristol, PA 19007

Update 8/9/17: Since we published this story, Dad’s Hat Rye has become a local celebrity, recognized far and wide for their excellent spirit. In December 2015, Whiskey Advocate magazine named it the Craft Whiskey of the Year. It was also nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in the spring of 2017. And you can easily purchase it in Pennsylvania state stores now, as well as in 14 other states and 12 other countries (many in Europe).

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  1. Excellent article. The history, pictures etc. were excellent. Since I live in Bristol and ride past the distillary everyday, I am looking forward to trying the Rye and doing a tour.

  2. I’m the other Jewish girl who drinks whiskey! I’ve been a bourbon fan for years, and am expanding my whiskey tasting as I am able. I’ve liked rye for many years, but here in PA, many don’t even know what it IS, no less where you can find it! So glad to hear it’s back, and available right in Bucks County!

  3. […] Another favorite of mine this time of year is the annual whiskey dinner at the Yardley Inn. Every year chef Eben Copple comes up with an interesting and delicious menu, pairing courses with specific whiskeys. In the past they’ve highlighted single malt scotch and bourbon (see our post from a few years ago,  Warming up at the Yardley Inn). This year, on Sunday, January 19, the focus is on rye whiskey, which coincidentally has become my whiskey of choice, especially for a Manhattan. Of course, Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey will be served, our Bucks County rye distillery in Bristol. Dad’s Hat Founder and Distiller Herman Mihalich will be at the event too, answering any questions about this great local rye whiskey. Angels Envy and Sazerac rye whiskeys will also be represented. To see the enticing menu, go to the Inn’s website or get more details on our full Food Events calendar. [To learn more about Dad's Hat, see our previous post, Rye whiskey comes back home.] […]

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