Herman Mihalich is a Celebrity Among PA Distillers - for Good Reason
As I tour around the distilleries of Eastern Pennsylvania, a couple names keep coming up as places I should visit, and the lucky folks connected to them. Herman Mihalich, maker of Dad's Hat Rye and owner of Laurel Mountain Spirits in Bristol, PA, is one of them. When I stop by his distillery on a dreary Tuesday morning, I understand why.
As is my style, I arrive earlier than the appointed time. Herman seems unfazed - almost relieved. He, along with a couple of other men in casual business attire, were standing around an electronic instrument set on a tabletop. I've been in sales long enough to sense what was happening. Herman was about to buy this doohickey and come to regret it, or he had already done so and the men were trying to talk him off a cliff.
The salesmen hardly notice when Herman breaks away to introduce himself to me. They are busy playing around with the device. It turns out to be a hydrometer, which measures the alcohol content of a liquid (and I'm sure the men would tell me it does a whole hell lot more than that). It costs around $50,000. That's probably why the hydrometers I come across at most craft distilleries are the old-fashioned, non-electric, glass-thermometer-looking ones, that work (perfectly fine) by bobbing in the distillate.
Herman shows me his massive, 500-gallon still: a pot still, with a column attachment. It makes sense that he's pumping out 2400 bottles per week. Even more amazing, Herman focuses on one type of whiskey: rye. As with anything, a narrow focus allows for a depth of expertise. Herman is a man who stays in his lane: experimenting only with different barrels, proof and length of aging. The mash bill remains the classic 80% rye, 5% malted rye and 15% malted barley.
Herman notes that this relatively high amount of rye, along with malt of some sort, was typical Pennsylvania style, back in the 1800s when the state was the US's largest producer of rye. It came to be known as Monongahela style, named for the river in western Pennsylvania along which the rye grew. Herman is simultaneously proud and disappointed that Dad's Hat is the only rye producer left in the state. (Some ryes still claim PA-style status, but are made in Kentucky.)
It's the "Classic" version -90 proof and aged for six months in fifteen gallon barrels of new American oak with #4 char- that proves to be the most popular and won the distillery Whiskey Advocate's "Best Craft Whiskey of the Year" award in 2015. I find the nose to be woody, like a forest, with hints of vanilla. The palate has the distinctive spice of rye, but accompanied by more complex floral and plum notes, finishing on citrus.
We move up in both length of aging and proof with Dad's Hat's straight rye (I know, apostrophe hell, but it's technically accurate). This rye is aged at least two years, as any whiskey with "straight" on its label must be, and is 95 proof. Another difference from the Classic: it is aged in 53 gallon barrels of #3 char. Here, the nose is more prominently of vanilla and caramel - classic characteristics of barrel aging. The palate has a sour flavor, tending towards pickle, before ending on spice.
The most interesting of the ryes are the ones finished in barrels used for different types of wine, specifically vermouth and port. Both are 94 proof, and start as the Classic rye but are finished for between three and four months in their respective casks.
The vermouth finished rye has a nose of pound cake, vanilla, caramel and baking spices.The palate is spice and a dry wine, with herbs and bbq sauce on the finish. The port finished rye has a nose of deep plum and chocolate. The palate combines smooth wood, specifically oak, while finishing on spice and plum.
Dad's Hat takes their straight rye to the next level, aging it for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof in a "Bottled-In-Bond" version. The nose here is of sweet caramel. The palate has spice up front, mellowing out to cherry and oak. This one is probably my favorite, just because my tastes skew towards barrel aged.
I feel like I've learned as much as I can from spending about an hour with a specialist. Herman and I both notice that the hydrometer gentlemen are still standing by their machine, so to speak. We part ways and I am left reflecting, as I head out to my car, on how rye is most likely not the only spirit with a complex and misunderstood history. On one hand, it helps that the mass-producers are adopting historical labels of spirits and remarketing them with the original names, as that will spur the drinking public's interest in distillers long gone. On the other hand, without enough independent distillers like Herman, who take on the painstaking mission to faithfully recreate spirits within their respective tradition, the flavor of the past will be lost.
Maybe I'm overthinking it. If I were to jump in a time machine, transport to a Pennsylvania bar at the turn of the 20th century, and ask any patron what he loves so much about the "Monongahela style," do you know what he'd say? "Cos it gets me drunk." Leave it to us of 21st Century luxury, with access to a previously unimaginable variety of food and drink, to romanticize one of the only escapes for the hardworking men and women of yore. Or something like that.