America’s first whiskey was made from rye, not corn, and Pennsylvania was where it was produced. In the late 18thcentury, pioneering farmers from Europe with distilling skills found that rye grain was easy to grow and made a very delicious spirit. The first American indigenous spirit was born.
But, after Prohibition, the stills of Pennsylvania remained closed.
Starting in 2011, spurred on by Pennsylvania’s new distilling regulations, rye whiskey returned to the state and since has begun to flourish.
ENTER DAD’S HAT John Cooper and Herman Mihalich had known each other from their college days at Wharton. They kept in touch over the years as each pursued different careers—John as a sales person in tech and software areas and Herman in the chemical industry.
Along about 2006, each had grown tired of the corporate life and began thinking about “what comes next?” An article by Eric Asimov in the NY Times on November 29, 2006 pointed the way. It was headlined: “All but Lost, Rye Is Revived as the Next Boutique Find.” They decided that they were going in to the booze business and, “bring rye back to where it belongs—Pennsylvania.”
Herman’s father owned a tavern (and at certain times, a speakeasy), so he felt right at home in the business. As
Herman puts it : “My Dad wore hats. Real hats. The kind you only see in old pictures or movies… 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. In those days, it was more than just fashion; 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.”
That became the credo and guiding principle for the distillery—to produce a rye that is true to its Pennsylvania roots and based on quality and a particular style.
So off they went to the Michigan State Artisan Distilling Program and by 2011 they were off and running.
I’ve met scores of startup and craft entrepreneurs and many (but certainly not all) subscribe to a philosophy that I call “build it and they will come”—meaning it’s all about the distillery, the process, and the end product. Only a handful think in terms of the drinker, the bar, the marketing, and sales.
For Herman and John, this broader view of the business means is that they have fully thought through the commercial and route-to-market issues. Take distribution for example. They don’t lose focus by opening markets indiscriminately (hoping to increase revenue) but by strategic expansion. They don’t over promise; they strive for consistency; and, believe that slow and steady growth is the way to go.
The products—Local, sustainable, practical, and genuine Dad’s Hat is a rye in the Pennsylvania Rye tradition. Period.
The rye comes from their close relationships with local farmers. The spent rye mash even goes back to the farmers to feed their livestock. Using high-quality ingredients, a grain bill of 80% rye, 15% barley malt and 5% rye malt yields a “flavorful mash that undergoes a week-long, controlled fermentation to develop complex flavor.”
The recipe was formulated at the Michigan State program over a two-year period and is based on traditional Pennsylvania rye whiskey.
The flagship is, of course, the 90-proof classic Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, which, by the way, was recently awarded “Best in Class” by Whisky Advocte and named the Craft Whiskey of the Year for 2016.
There is a Straight Rye Whiskey (95-proof). Also, a Bottled in Bond 100 proof Straight Rye Whiskey aged four years.
But to me, their most intriguing products are the rye whiskies that are finished in vermouth and port barrels (also 94-proof). These came about when John and Herman were sitting around one day after work, drinking manhattans, and wondering about line extensions. The eureka moment was “what would happen to a Manhattan if the rye was aged (3 to 6 months) in a vermouth barrel?” I’ve tried it and, let me tell you, it’s amazing.
This idea also led to port barrel finished rye with an interesting taste. Both products use barrels from the Vya-Quady winery in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey sells for roughly $40 for a 750ml. The distillery and warehouse is located in Bristol PA in Bucks County and just across the river from New Jersey. There are tours which are held on most Saturday afternoons and well worth the visit.
Finally, a big shout-out to my friend Cliff Oldfield with whom I fought the Mongolian wars a few years ago. Cliff introduced me to John and Herman. He runs their sales in the NY-NJ region and is among the most effective salespeople I know these days.
Gentlemen: My hat’s off to all of you. (Please… I can hear you groan.) ( www.boozebusiness.com)