Driving north out of the most famous of General Washington’s namesakes, Washington, DC, we immediately drop into the state of Maryland, skirt past Baltimore, brieﬂy touch the northern tip of Delaware, then cross the border into Pennsylvania. The cities in the so-called Northeast megalopolis (which runs from DC up to Boston) are so tightly packed together that you never really escape the urban sprawl, but it’s no surprise that the area, with its navigable rivers and natural harbours, initially attracted settlers. In time, heavy industry would spread throughout the region, with rivers such as the Hudson and Delaware being transformed into vital shipping lanes.
Mountain Laurel Spirits was established in 2010, located in the northern Philadelphia suburb of Bristol. Housed in a massive former textile mill only a few blocks from the Delaware river, the distillery was founded by college buddies John Cooper and Herman Mihalich. Given that they make a rye whiskey called Dad’s Hat, ﬁttingly, Herman greets us on arrival, wearing a hat belonging to—that’s right —his dad. At this point I’m unsure as to whether or not I should acknowledge that he’s wearing a Stetson that’s almost identical to the one pictured on every bottle of whiskey he sells. A few seconds pass and I come to the conclusion that he’s probably already aware of it.
I choose instead to wax lyrical about his product, which was, when I ﬁrst tried it in 2014, probably the best rye whiskey I had ever tasted. But looking back on it I think I had lowered my guard. Sometimes packaging that might be construed as… gimmicky… can function as an apology for poor-quality liquid. And when I saw the hat thing I kind of assumed this was one of those. I was wrong.
There’s a good reason for the hat, too. Herman’s granddad came to the US from Croatia in 1905 and opened a speakeasy just outside Pittsburgh in the 1920s. The bar was licensed after Prohibition and Herman’s dad ran it as the family business (while wearing his hat) throughout Herman’s childhood.
In spite of the massive building, the Dad’s Hat distillery only occupies a small area and also includes a tasting area, bar and gift store. There’s a mash cooker, fermenters, and a still squeezed in there, as well as a selection of barrels. Herman tells us he’s got loads of storage space upstairs with more barrels in it, and plenty of space to expand if needed.
Any product labelled as “rye whiskey” must, by law, contain a minimum of 51% rye in its mash bill. The remaining portion of the recipe can be made up from any other cereal, but its usually malted barley and occasionally corn that’s used. In the past, malted cereal would be an essential component of any mash bill because un-malted cereals don’t have the enzymes that are necessary to convert starch into sugar during the cooking stage. Without sugar you can’t make any alcohol.
We’ve already established that rye whiskey must be made from a minimum of 51% rye and matured in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. There is no minimum aging requirement. However, a whiskey labeled as “straight rye” (this is actually applicable to all “straight” whiskeys) must follow additional rules, and be aged for a minimum of two years, have no added colouring or ﬂavouring, and be the product of one state. If your powers of deduction are strong, you may conclude correctly that rye whiskey without the “straight” denomination is permitted to be coloured and ﬂavoured and can be a blend of rye whiskeys from distilleries in more than one state.
Straight rye must include an age statement on the bottle if the youngest spirit in the bottle is under 4 years old. If the whiskey is over 4 years in age, a number on the bottle is optional but if there is one it’ll be referencing the youngest whiskey, not the average age or the oldest.
Finally, there’s the rather antiquated (but cherished by many) classiﬁcation of “bottled in bond”, which follows the same rules as straight rye but must be bottled at 50% ABV/100 proof and contain a blend of whiskeys that are all the same age (i.e. whiskey that was distilled in the same year). In the old days, this was a way to protect the consumer from brands that were merely bottling up whiskey from other distilleries and blending or adulterating that whiskey.
PENNSYLVANIA RYE (45% ABV) Juicy cherry and toasted nuts on the nose, with a distinct bready, cereal note. Taste remains true to the cereal, cherry becoming dried, with the barrel playing a supporting role, amplifying toasted notes without contributing too much caramel. A touch of tobacco on the ﬁnish.
STRAIGHT RYE (47.5% ABV) Stewed stone fruit aromas are the most noticeable aroma, with Mirabelle and sweet plum tart. On the palate, the whiskey is full-bodied, juicy, and concentrated with chili-spiced-fruit-and-nut-chocolate-bar and dark wood spiciness. The ﬁnish is dry and tacky, demanding another sip.
BOTTLED IN BOND (50% ABV) More nutty and caramel on the nose, with less fruit and more wood spice. Flavour is very chocolate-y, with bread crust, basil nut, and cacao nib. Cinnamon- spiced mole sauce continues through to the ﬁnish.
…The afternoon quickly descends into misty, whiskey-fueled debate around such topics as authenticity, legislation, and hats. Our planned two-hour visit ends after four hours, but only because the distillery is closing for the day and Herman has invited us out for dinner.
60 ml/2 oz Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye
10 ml/2 teaspoons brown sugar syrup
10 ml/2 teaspoons water
A dash of Angostura Bitters
Add all of the ingredients to an old fashioned glass ﬁlled with cubed ice. Stir well for a minute or two. Garnish with a twist of orange, or a cherry, or both.