A century ago, rye whiskey was as inextricably linked to Pennsylvania as bourbon is still tied to Kentucky. The grain — noted for its distinctive spiciness — grew well on the small farmsteads throughout the state. And so an industry grew, from 18th-century farmers distilling surplus rye themselves to the small distilling concerns that proliferated by the end of the 19th century.
With the recent release of Dad’s Hat White Rye, distiller Herman Mihalich is aiming to return Pennsylvania rye to prominence. Mihalich, a chemical engineer by training, grew up in the western part of the state, where the family business was running a tavern. Dealt a crushing blow from Prohibition, the rye industry in Pennsylvania was in steady decline throughout the 20th century. But his grandfather and father remained rye adherents. Every evening, his grandfather would take a shot of Sam Thompson — a brand that vanished roughly 30 years ago — before dinner.
Mihalich was also a dedicated home-brewer. And six or seven years ago, when rye began "peeking over the horizon again," as he puts it — gaining attention from curious spirits enthusiasts, on the lookout for the next big thing — he began to explore starting a distillery in Pennsylvania, using grain grown in the state, too.