Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey

A brand with a legacy

America’s first whiskey was made from rye, not corn, and Pennsylvania was where it was produced. In the late 18th century, 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.

(I’m far from a whiskey or spirits historian so for more detail I suggest you read some of the books and blogs by David Wondrich, Fred Minnick, Chuck Cowdery, Gaz Regan, and others.)

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.

Herman Mihalich (L) and John Cooper (R)

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 Advocate 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.

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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.)

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France, Submarines, Underwater Explorers… and Rum

SPYTAIL™ Black Ginger Rum enters the premium rum category

I ran into my friend Elwyn Gladstone a few weeks ago and asked him what he was up to. His answer was surprising, but, then again, everything Elwyn does is unique and extraordinary.

I’ve known Elwyn for a number of years and wrote about him last year when he launched Malfy Gin. He is a smart businessman, an astute marketer, and a successful product innovator. As I mentioned in my earlier post about him, he was instrumental in the development and launch of brands such as, Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry, Kraken Rum, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and others.

The company he launched, Bigger & Leith, has this description on their website:

Biggar & Leith owns a small portfolio of fine spirits from established, family-owned distilleries who are dedicated to innovation and quality. We search the globe for brands whose bottles transmit the personality and stories of the people who make them.

With that in mind, let’s take a close look at SPYTAIL Black Ginger Rum.

Submarines and rum

SPYTAIL Black Ginger Rum is produced by La Compagnie Bathysphere. It is Caribbean Rum aged, spiced, blended and bottled in the Cognac Region of France. It’s based on the French tradition of aging rum with fresh ginger.

SPYTAIL’s story celebrates the French deep-sea pioneers whose underwater efforts are renowned both in fact and fiction—from Jules Verne to Jacques Cousteau. The name “SPYTAIL” was discovered by their distillers stamped on an old engineering plan for a submarine in the local maritime archive. They also discovered that, while submarines sailed along the bottom of the Charente River, ships laden with rum and ginger followed the same route from the Caribbean.

Voila—an inspiration emerged. Barrels of rum filled with fresh ginger roots and aged until the liquid turned almost black.

Why stop there? The packaging inspiration

Elwyn and his distilling partners decided that to fully acknowledge the product, the history of the region and French submarining, an appropriate package needed to be created.

The SPYTAIL bottle shape is based on a Bathysphere (a primitive form of submarine) with a porthole embossed on the front and back. Hidden within the embossing are the co-ordinates of the final resting place of Jules Verne. The navy blue and orange striped label, based on a French Navy signal flag, is adorned with engineering details from original submarine designs.  The heavy stopper is crafted from metal and embossed with the words “Voyages Extraordinaires” – a nod to underwater pioneers.

It’s a fun product with an interesting back story.

But what about the taste and the product itself? I’m glad you asked…

The liquid

Black ginger rum is a terrific idea and a strong entry in the growing premium rum category. In addition, ginger has become a seriously popular flavor among cocktail consumers – Moscow Mules, Dark & Stormy, ginger beer, and more.

I’m not a spirit’s reviewer— just a booze business guy who enjoys cocktails and trying new products. So, here’s a layperson’s observation.

I tried it on the rocks with a twist of orange peel and with ginger beer. I also used it in a hot toddy instead of whiskey. The rum and the ginger really complement each other and it’s enjoyable and unique.

On the rocks
With Ginger Beer
The Nautilus: 4 pts SPYTAIL, 2 pts Amaro, 1 pt vermouth, allspice and bitters

Product details

SPYTAIL Black Ginger Rum is produced and bottled in France and imported by Biggar & Leith. It’s 40% alcohol by volume and a 750 ml sells for under $25. In addition to the U.S., SPYTAIL is also available in Canada, France, U.K., Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

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I very much look forward to my conversations with Elwyn. He has a unique grasp on the booze business and incredible insights. Beyond that his product offerings are top notch, creative, and based on his in depth understanding of today’s drinkers’ need and wants.

Malfy Gin is doing quite well and the early indications are that SPYTAIL is getting good reviews by the trade.

Here’s to continued success, Elwyn. Cheers!!

The press packet presentation of SPYTAIL.
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Hella Company

You Oughta Know Bitter…

That’s the tagline of a fascinating company that has entered the bitters business and is claiming a stake in the cocktail culture and beyond.

The Hella lineup.
The Hella lineup.

It is also the story of three friends with entrepreneurial skills and passion who, with the help of Kickstarter, started a business and making quite an impact. Just like the bitters they make, their diverse and eclectic backgrounds merge very nicely to create an outstanding product and a company with vision and values.

I met the team at the suggestion of my friend Sean O’Rourke from Fedway Distributors in NJ. Sean is the Craft Category Manager, a rising star at Fedway, and someone with first hand knowledge about craft and startup ventures. With his recommendation in mind I set off to Long Island City, Queens to meet the owners.

The Team

Jomaree Pinkard is the CEO, a Wharton MBA with over a decade of experience in the consulting and financial industries. Eddie Simeon is the CMO, a senior digital strategist and former Adweek executive with experience in commercial media development. Tobin Ludwig is the COO and an F&B industry veteran, a James Beard House featured craft bartender, educator and beverage consultant.

Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin
Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin

The partners came together at various times in their lives as friends and business associates. Among other things, they shared a passion for food and do-it-yourself culinary efforts, including making their own bitters as a hobby. So, they made a batch of bitters, and friends and family loved it. So much so, that to meet the demand they went on Kickstarter and raised two and a half times what they had wanted.

Bitters

Let’s spend a minute on the topic of bitters. Here is a succinct history.

To cut to the chase, as they say, bitters have been around for centuries and ultimately found their way to become various types of medicines derived from plants or other types of natural resources. By the 19th century, the British and Colonial Americans added bitters to Canary wine (wines from the Canary Islands). From there they went to cocktails and to oblivion, thanks to prohibition. By the beginning of this century, they were back with a vengeance, and have become the backbone of most, if not all, cocktails. (See an earlier post on Gary Regan and his Orange Bitters No. 6.)

Why do I admire these guys?

Simple. They’re smart business people who understand that, in the craft world, “build it and they will come” just doesn’t work. They understand growth constraints, have developed business plans and strategies, and are outstanding marketers.

Bitters are a slow usage category with only a few drops used in a cocktail. My bottles of Angostura and Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters have been in my pantry since Methuselah was a teenager. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an old expression.) So if you’re manufacturing bitters, there are limits to your growth and expansion.

What the Hella guys have done is produce a line of bitters—orange, aromatic, ginger, smoked chili, and ginger lemon. In addition, they recognize that bitters are of appeal to home chefs and do-it-yourselfers so they produced a Craft Your Own Bitters Kit. (I’m a proud owner of one of those kits and as you read this, my first batch of grapefruit bitters is aging.)

Other Products

Let’s start with cocktail syrups. These are also syrups used by many home bar chefs designed to help make cocktail mixing at home effortless and fun. These syrups make it easy to produce drinks at home that taste on par with what you will find in fancy cocktail bars. Hella makes three—hibiscus, cola, and tonic.

Here’s how they describe it:

Hella Cocktail Syrups are different than what you’re used to, and that’s just the way we like it. We wanted them to embody everything that Hella stands for so we made sure to use only the best all-natural ingredients, combined with just the right amount of cane sugar. Our 72-hour infusion of bark, fruit peel, and whole spices result in not too sweet and perfectly bitter syrups that make an excellent dry soda or a light and refreshing mixed drink or cocktail.

Another line of products includes Hella cocktail mixers—five in all, including Bloody Mary, Margarita, and Moscow Mule. I haven’t had a chance to try them as yet, but friends who have rave about them and think they’re among the best on the market.

Distribution and Sales

Here’s the part I really love.

While bitters generally contain high levels of alcohol, often 90°, in many states they are not considered an alcohol product, so you can buy them in grocery stores. They are also available in liquor stores. So distributors and retailers in both worlds are available to them.

In fact, check out the list ’A’ of retailers (in NYC): Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, Chelsea Market, Whisk, Astor Wine and Spirits, to name a few.

Where to next?

They are not saying, so I feel free to speculate and perhaps offer an idea or two.

Based on the quality of their products, the commitment to excellence, and their entrepreneurial savvy, I hope they move from the margins of the booze business into the mainstream. My instinct tells me that if they were to add spirits to their mixers, the result would be a top shelf pre-mixed cocktail. Or, if they applied their creativity, they might come up with a proprietary spirits product that would make for an excellent cocktail.

But then again, these folks are smart. They know that focus is the key ingredient for an entrepreneurial success.

Incidentally, the name Hella comes from a popular expression—hella—as in a slang term meaning “very” or “extreme.”  So Hella products can mean hella awesome or hella great. In old school slang, we used the term “helluva,” as in they make “helluva bitters.” Either way the term is appropriate for their products.

By the way, I’ll let you know how my do-it-yourself bitters product turns out. Check the Booze Business Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/boozebusiness/

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