Hats Off to Dad’s Hat
Tradition and Innovation in Pennsylvania: I meet Herman Mihalich and John S Cooper.
In Europe, we like to think our drinks have the longest, richest history. Big mistake! The United States might be comparatively youthful nation, but that doesn’t mean to say that it lacks strong traditions and fabulous stories from the past.
Take Pennsylvania rye whiskey for example. What a story. The hills and hollows of Western Pennsylvania were full of the distinct smell of copper stills in action from the eighteenth century onwards. Even when the industry was tamed by the Federal Government’s whiskey tax in 1791, the traditions lived on, and by 1810 the state was producing 6 million gallons of legal whiskey a year. Pennsylvania Rye whiskey was the rye. It’s reputation and popularity grew through the 19th century. By the early 20th century there were 168 distilleries in the state.
Then, disaster. Prohibition. What were they thinking of? As misguided government legislation goes – and that is a very competitive field – the crushing of an entire industry must be in the top three. Bootleg rye might have given customers the alcoholic effect, but it did nothing for their taste buds – or the enamel on their teeth. The reputation of the entire sector took a hit from which it barely recovered. By 1990 the once proud Pennsylvania tradition of rye production was over.
Luckily for that tradition all was not lost. A revival was stirring. Above Mihalich’s bar in Monessen PA, young Herman was intrigued by his grandfather’s loyalty to the distinctive Pennsylvania rye. Impressed too by its medicinal powers – grandad was 95. Jump a few decades and Herman Mihalich and his old mate John S Cooper get together and single handedly – or two-handedly – bring a noble tradition roaring back to life.
‘My Grandpap had some of the last rye made in Pennsylvania in the 1970s (Sam Thompson Rye) and cherished that as his before dinner tipple. It made a big impression on me as a boy. It was the starting point for what we have here in Bucks County.’ What he and John have in Bristol Buck’s County, is an Award-winning range of whiskies which is going well beyond the revival of an old tradition to develop exciting new ideas about finishes that are showing that you can take established liquors into fresh territories.
Herman and John started to plot in 2010 and took their first cask from the still in 2011. They showed me a half empty bottle – all that’s left of that first batch. Their approach was careful and painstaking from the get-go. They took a course at Michigan State University and, working with the University, they tried out different recipes until they felt ready to start. Herman’s background in chemical engineering was handy, up to a point. ‘My project in graduate school, when getting my MBA at Wharton was a business plan for brewery’ says Herman.
As I always say, distilling is an art as well as a science. A product of their collaboration with Michigan State was their use of 2-row brewer’s style malt. ‘Most US distillers use a malt that’s high in enzymes. But it tends to be low in flavour. We opted for a malt that’s more like the ones used in Scotland. It gives a better biscuity flavour with fruit tones,’ says Herman.
And for more history how about this? ‘Our grain all comes from the same farm. It’s a farm that’s been continuously worked by the same family since 1716.’ That’s proper heritage. But in case you equate heritage with looking backwards, John tells me that the farmer, the distillery, and the Delaware State University are working together on a project to reintroduce heritage ‘Rossen Rye.’ We’re looking to add to the distinctiveness of what we do. Pennsylvania rye is dry and spicy – not to be confused with bourbon. We don’t do gin, we don’t do vodka, we don’t do any other style of whiskey,’ says John.
Their location, close to site of one of the most prestigious pre-prohibition distilleries, is a local landmark, a building with two-foot thick walls – ‘perfect for ageing whiskey in,’ says John. They have a pot still and column still giving them flexibility in cut-offs from the process for different products. Herman even has his grandfather’s 5-gallon still – ‘it’s great for experiments. It’s fully legal,’ he adds.
The spirit of experimentation extends to the barrels and to their innovative approach to finish. We were inspired by Laphroaig ¼ cask. There’s no reason why good whisky can’t come out of small barrels,’ says John. ‘Our Classic 90 Proof Rye is aged 10 months in 15-gallon barrels.’
For their Straight Rye they use more traditional 53-gallon casks, aged for an average of 5 years. But the two core styles are aged with as much care as they are distilled. The casks primarily come from The McGinnis Wood Products in Cuba Missouri. But they also source oak casks from West Virginia and from the Adirondack Cooperage in New York State. And always they taste test before committing to a new cask.
Dad’s Hat produces several finishes. John explains:‘We do a port and a vermouth finish plus a honey and maple finish. The vermouth finish came about when we were having a whole company meeting one day down at the loading dock. The whole company being Herman and myself at that point. We were in our aluminium lawn chairs enjoying a cigar and a Manhattan when the idea came to us.‘We work with the Quady Winery in California, using their vermouth barrels and their port-style barrels.’ John continues:
‘Some finishes taste like they took the original product – port or vermouth – and just pitched a glass of whiskey in afterwards. ‘That’s not our approach. You should taste the rye first and foremost and then, as a bit of a surprise, the flavour of the finish should sneak up on you.’ Dad’s Hat also does a honey and maple finish. Herman explains:‘We take a 15-gallon cask fill it up with locally sourced maple or honey and let it age. We then drain off and jar the honey and maple before filling it up with cask-strength whiskey. Let that age too and then bottle. Simple process, nothing fancy – no chemicals, no colouring, no additives. It’s labour intensive, but it’s worth it.’
Again, tellingly, the boys don’t seem to have a full jar of honey or maple to show me. These products clearly go off the shelves very fast. The effort and dedication of the company has not gone unnoticed or unrewarded. Critics love the products and amid a slew of awards since 2011, last year Whisky Magazine awarded them Craft Producer of the Year for bout their US and International categories. A brilliant accolade. Less good timing. ‘Right in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the best time to make the most of and Award like that,’ says John, ruefully.
Nevertheless, there is a real tide of support for Dad’s Hat among writers and influencers, acknowledging both the distillery’s unique product on its own merits but as a cocktail base.‘Speak to John on that,’ says Herman, ‘he’s your man for cocktails.’ So, what is Dad’s Hat good for in a mixing glass?‘Manhattan,’ says John.’ Three parts Classic Rye to one part vermouth. We don’t stint on the whiskey. And also, an Old Fashioned. Definitely. We use two types of bitters – Angostura and Peychaud, from New Orleans. And Sazerac, with our own vermouth finish rather than adding vermouth. And then, of course, Whiskey Sours. A classic. Paying careful attention to the quality of lemons.’
John could have filled the interview with his enthusiasm for cocktails and the versatility of his products as a base. Dad’s Hat has made a significant impact in the world of craft whiskey. Their success is due to their distilling flair and a relentless attention to detail. From the ingredients to the process, to the ageing – every aspect is treated to the same forensic scrutiny. Everything they use, even the bottles, are sourced locally. The later has been a great boon when supplies in the industry have been disrupted in recent months; ‘they come from just down the road,’ says John. ‘It’s a short supply chain!’
The whole operation is sustainable, they use the water from the condenser to clean the tanks, for example. It is very much a 21st century approach to distilling based on a 200-year-old heritage.
‘We stick to the knitting here,’ says John. ‘ We’re genuine and real. Just rye. Nothing else.’ That’s more than enough. Dad’s Hat’s success is a fitting testament to Grandad’s still and his good taste. Herman and John’s conversation is as rich and entertaining as their whiskey.