Reviving the rye

Dad’s Hat teams up with Delaware Valley University to create first batch of Rosen rye whiskey in decades

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Cheers!: Delaware Valley University chair of agribusiness John Urbanchuk, Dad’s Hat founder and distiller Herman Mihalich, and Delaware Valley University dean of agriculture and environmental sciences Dr. Broc A. Sandelin, stand in a field of Rosen rye on the university’s campus. Source: Delaware Valley University

History is about to repeat itself in the best way possible.

For nearly 200 years beginning in the 18th century, the palates of Pennsylvanians sought out one beverage above the rest — rye whiskey. Independently distilled by local farmers using their surplus rye grain, more than a million gallons left some of their homes each year to keep up with the demand not only in the state, but around the world.

Sadly, this booming business came to an abrupt halt with Prohibition in 1920, the concept of “rye whiskey” all but a history textbook tidbit for the next generation. But for Herman Mihalich, whose father and grandfather were avid whiskey lovers, he knew that couldn’t be the end of this tasty tradition. In 2011, along with his friend John Cooper, Mihalich founded Mountain Laurel Spirits, today known at Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey in Bristol and the first distillery in the state to make the drink in 28 years.

Since Dad’s Hat opened its doors at 925 Canal St., Mihalich and his team have been investigating the rye whiskey recipes of Pennsylvania’s distilling fathers. For some time, Mihalich held a strong interest in bringing back Rosen rye whiskey, made from a variety of grain widely grown in the U.S. about 100 years ago. The only issue? No one had ever heard of it and Mihalich was unable to track down seeds.

That is, until he found an unlikely ally in John Urbanchuk, Delaware Valley University’s chair of agribusiness, who was visiting Dad’s Hat for a tour three years ago. Urbanchuk was intrigued by Mihalich’s mission and in 2015, obtained less than a handful of seeds from a USDA seed repository for the project. By planting this miniscule amount in greenhouses and high tunnels on campus, the university was able to get enough seeds to plant the batch that sprouted up this year.

“I don’t think anyone else is growing this type of rye in Pennsylvania,” Urbanchuk said. “The purpose of this project is to revive a heritage variety of rye.”

Later this summer, the agriculture and environmental sciences students will harvest the Rosen rye, providing Mihalich with enough to make his first test batch of the highly-anticipated whiskey. At that point, he and his Dad’s Hat staff will analyze the concoction and make adjustments to the recipe as needed.

“It’s pretty nerdy stuff at this point,” he laughed. “But my guess is that it should be good.”

Reflecting on the multi-year journey of bringing back this historical drink, Mihalich stressed the vital role Delaware Valley University has played.

“It’s a local partnership put to productive use,” he said. “It’s a great way for a small company and school to team up. Hopefully it leads to bigger and better things.”

Urbanchuk shared a similar sentiment, explaining how it’s been a learning opportunity from the start for everyone involved, especially the students.

“The biggest tasks the students have are preparing the ground for growing and planting and harvesting,” he said. “The whole effort has to do not just with planting the seed, but how to identify diseases and pests that might impact the crop. It’s a good, practical example that is a little unusual for them to get to see.”

Mihalich recently visited the campus to check on his prized harvest, and was more than pleased with the students’ work. What he doesn’t use for his first test batch will be dried out so that the seeds can be preserved for the next planting.

“I am very excited to try some of this Rosen rye in a small batch at the distillery,” he said. “The best Pennsylvania Rye Whiskeys of the past were made with Rosen rye and we are doing our best to make the best rye whiskeys available today.”

Depending on the success of this test batch, Mihalich’s hope is for a larger plot to be planted next year, with enough seeds to craft a full batch. For now, the project will be contained to Delaware Valley University, though the goal is to one day expand to local farms. According to Mihalich, Rosen rye is both environmentally-friendly and low-resource intensive.

He also envisions a world where Pennsylvania is once again the first place one thinks of when they hear “rye whiskey.”

“We wanted to bring whiskey back to its home,” he said. ••

Visit dadshatrye.com for more information on the distillery and its products. Visit delval.edu/academics/undergraduate/school-of-agriculture-and-environmental-sciences for more on Delaware Valley University, 700 E. Butler Ave., Doylestown, and its School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com