On the 11-mile drive from the New Jersey Transit train station, in Trenton, to the Dad’s Hat Rye distillery, in Bristol, Pennsylvania, you cross state lines on the bridge over the Delaware River and drive through the town’s quaint centre, a portrait of vintage Americana. You pass the King George Inn, a bustling command centre during the Revolutionary War when soldiers were stationed there to guard the river against British attacks. That history reverberates for miles and miles.
If you’re lucky enough to be riding to the distillery with Herman Mihalich, the distiller and co-owner, you’ll learn all sorts of other Revolutionary War trivia. And he’ll also point out the corner location along a main street in town where the Dad’s Hat tasting room is set to open. I was lucky enough to ride with Herman when I paid a visit to the distillery on a Thursday in May. He picked me up from the train station and rattled off more Pennsylvania history during the drive than I’d learned in my whole life.
“We’re here,” he announced as we pulled into the parking lot of a complex of sprawling, stark warehouse buildings that once housed a textile mill. “And there’s Nevada.”
The Nevada in reference is Nevada Mease, a grain farmer and merchant who grows his bounty at Meadow Brook Farms, about 20 miles north of the distillery, in New Jersey. Heritage ryes are among his many crops. Herman and his co-owner John Cooper are working with him to grow Rosen rye, which was part of the grain bill of whiskeys historically made in the region. It was planted this year, Herman told me, and it was scheduled to be harvested in the next month or so. The plan is to plough it all back into the ground so they have commercial-level quantities to work with, because Dad’s Hat is growing fast.
On this Thursday, Nevada was making one of his twice-monthly deliveries – a six-ton order. There was whiskey to be made; Pennsylvania rye whiskey, to be specific. Herman and John have made the distinctive old-world style their stock and trade. Herman spent years researching the stuff, learning about how Pennsylvanians of generations before him made their so-called Monongahela rye, named for the river that flows from north-central West Virginia and onward north through Pennsylvania. In one of the river’s valleys, the British and colonial forces lost to the French and Native Americans in one of the first battles of the French and Indian War. This river has real historic heft.
Dad’s Hat Maple Syrup Cask Rye Whiskey
The rye supply – six 2,000-pound (905kg) sacks – were piled in the back of the sweeping, echoey distillery space. There was no room for them near the entrance. That was where the pallets of dozens of freshly constructed 53- and 15-gallon barrels were stacked. They’d just been delivered from a cooperage in upstate New York. They would be filled with new make and moved to an upstairs maturation room by the end of the week.
The distillery – named Craft Producer of the Year in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky 2020 awards – sits beside a tranquil stretch of the Delaware. Steamer ships used to dock nearby and deliver coal for the mills, which ran on steam. The French general Marquis de Lafayette was said to have used a nearby landing when commanding American troops in the area during the Revolutionary War. But the history on display inside the building is a little less well known, and I wager anyone reading these pages would find it much more beguiling.
There’s a homey bar area at the front end of the otherwise industrial space. Banners announcing the distillery’s awards are draped on a wall behind the bar. On the other side of the room, black and white photos hang in no-frills frames. Herman walks me through them one by one, offering history lessons of another sort. In this one, a brunette behind a bar looks straight at the camera with a friendly, welcoming smile. That’s Herman’s mother. In the next one, his grandmother and grandfather are lounging in a bar – their bar, which they opened as a speakeasy in the 1920s. In the background is a newly minted portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which places the scene in a very specific moment in time – 1934, to be exact.
Herman and John enjoy a whiskey in the warehouse
The bar was downstairs from where Herman grew up and by age 14 he was keeping the books. It was only miles from the local mill and when that went quiet in 1976, the bar shuttered. Herman was finishing high school.
“The guys walked to work and at every shift change – 8AM, 4PM and midnight – they’d come and have a shot and a beer. I knew all the characters – it was the neighbourhood bar. My grandfather taught me how to make a good martini there. He was the only guy that drank anything besides whiskey and beer,” he fondly recounts. They served a great deal of rye whiskey.
The spirit’s legacy was ironclad in the region. Philadelphia-based John Gibson’s Sons & Co., which is believed to have operated from 1837 to 1926, was said to be the largest rye distillery in North America at the time. Philadelphia Pure Rye Whiskey Company operated until 1920, just five miles away from the current distillery.
It’s that pedigree that called to Herman, who worked as a chemical engineer for 35 or so years. John, his longtime friend and fraternity brother from University of Pennsylvania, was working in information technology for the healthcare industry. Around 2010, the two realised a mutual appetite for a career change. As a chemical engineer and tech professional are wont to do, they mapped out a strategic and highly academic path: they attended a distilling programme at the University of Michigan for hands-on training and recipe development. Herman dug into old archives – far deeper than the Pennsylvania roots of the still-popular Old Overholt – to gain a thorough understanding of what defined Pennsylvania rye whiskey and the stronghold it held in the regional market during the late 19th century. The style captivated Herman and John so deeply that, even in those early days of the craft distilling movement, they made the rather unconventional decision to distil rye whiskey and nothing else. Ever. No vodka or gin to bring in cash while the whiskey aged. Just rye whiskey. Their commitment to their heritage was unwavering.
“In 2006, the New York Times ran a story about how rye was making a comeback. But nobody was doing just rye. There were pockets in the US where some were making it, but a few were just bottling it,” he said. High West of Park City, Utah, for instance, came out with its award-winning product, but it was later revealed that it sourced the spirit, rather than distilling it in its own facility. It got a lot of attention, and not the good kind. “We checked with the state to see if the rye category was really growing. It indeed was, and they were surprised themselves to see that.” [Pennsylvania is one of the few so-called ‘control states’ in the US. This means that the state government operates all the liquor stores.]
Now, exactly 10 years later, Herman and John have stuck to their vow. Their flagship products are a 90-proof rye and a 95-proof straight rye. Made in the pre-Prohibition style, both are distilled from a mash bill of 80 per cent rye, 15 per cent malted barley, and 5 per cent malted rye. The former is aged a minimum of eight months, the latter for a minimum of four years. In just two expressions, they cover all the bases: the younger rye is bright and spicy and the older one is more complex and muscular, anchored in earthy molasses, ideal for sipping. The classic 90-proof, aged in quarter casks, offers a versatile canvas for Dad’s Hat’s port wine and vermouth cask finishes.
Scenes from Dad’s Hat Distillery
Herman and John also make some finishes I’ve never imagined before, and I’ve seen some weird finishes. For their Maple Syrup Cask and Honey Cask finishes, the syrup or honey sits for a few weeks in an ex-rye barrel. When it’s emptied, the syrup is packaged and sold, and the whiskey goes into the barrel to age for a little bit. Often with finished whiskies, the barrel element overwhelms or doesn’t quite march in lockstep with the spirit, like trying to introduce an electric guitar to a string quartet. Here, however, the sweetener notes are so harmoniously integrated, they don’t just artificially inject or inflate a whiskey’s sweetness. You’d never know they come from an added step of production.
When the pandemic hit, Pennsylvania closed all its 600 liquor stores for several months. Herman and John went full-throttle setting up a shipping operation and their fans couldn’t have been more grateful. Today, business is thriving. Pennsylvania rye whiskey clearly has a rich future ahead.