One of the great moments in cocktail history came sometime in the 1870s when some unknown alchemist poured vermouth into a shaker with rye whiskey to make a Manhattan. Today, a small distillery near Philadelphia has reunited these two liquids as a rye whiskey finished in sweet vermouth casks. Only this time we know who conceived the beverage.
Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, Finished in Vermouth Barrels, is the brainchild of Mountain Laurel Spirits, headquartered in Bristol, Pennsylvania. The founder and distiller Herman Mihalich says the inspiration for the unique spirit came when he and partner John S. Cooper were sipping Vya Vermouth from California's Quady Winery. The discussion at the time was of Port, however, as the same winery was supplying casks for Dad's Hat Port-finished rye. "We fell in love with the vermouth, and a light bulb went off in our heads. We asked if they could send some vermouth barrels with the Port casks."
The marriage of the two concepts produces a remarkably smooth and flavorful whiskey, especially considering that it is aged for a total of only nine months: six months in charred, new-oak quarter casks and three months in the vermouth barrels.
Dad's Hat, which also makes a plain rye, a white rye and a cask strength, revisits Pennsylvania's early tradition as a center of rye making, says Mihalich. He adds that he grew up in an apartment over a tavern that specialized in rye. Much of today's rye whiskey is made as a side operation at Bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, but originally it was the whiskey of the east. The distiller says that many of the rye-rich spirits of Pennsylvania were not built for long aging.
As a young craft distillery, Mountain Laurel deals with a challenge common to that breed, says Mihalich, namely that "you don't have the luxury to wait eight or ten years for whiskey to mature." This vermouth-cask work-around is a novel and effective solution.
Small casks tend to hurry maturation as the spirit gets more contact with the wood. Mihalich adds that he takes a very narrow cut on the still run, as well, to avoid using impurities that would be mellowed out with a longer maturation period, but would remain in lesser maturatilon.
Even as Mountain Laurel markets younger whiskey, it is preparing to introduce a straight rye aged in a traditional 53-gallon barrel. (The designation straight rye indicates that the whiskey is at least two years old.) The planned straight whiskey was distilled with a fatter cut. (In pot distilling, sections of the first part to come off the still as well as the last part—the heads and tails, or foreshots and feints—are typically discarded to avoid impurities. With age, however, some impurities can transform into desirable flavor notes.)
"If you clean it up too much, it doesn't have any flavor," adds Mihalich.
The company uses a 500-gallon pot still from Carl Artisan Distilleries of Germany in conjunction with an unattached side column still.
The mashbill contains 80 percent rye, 15 percent barley and 5 percent malted rye. The rye is all sourced from local farms in the Philadelphia exurbs. The Dad's Hat grain recipe was developed when Mihalich and Cooper attended the artisanal distillery program at Michigan State University.
The two partners are also cigar lovers, who convene outside the distillery every Friday afternoon when weather permits for smokes in lawn chairs with their whiskey neat or on the rocks. While the vermouth-finish rye sounds as though it would be perfect for a Manhattan, Mihalich counsels against that as overkill. Instead, he recommends using it in an Old-Fashioned or taking it over ice with a twist of lemon.
We, however, could not resist the temptation.
Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, Finished in Vermouth Barrels (94 proof, or 47 percent alcohol by volume; aged six months in charred, new-oak barrels, three months in sweet vermouth casks; $49.99 for a 750 milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep copper color with a magenta cast. Medium speed, thin legs.
NOSE: No surprise, sweet fruit on the nose on first blush. Afterward comes a rush of spicy notes that are by turns reminiscent of rye's own spiciness and licorice, Christmas flavors and even mint. But there's also a distinct round, warming sensation.
PALATE: Much drier on the palate than on the nose, but even as the sweetness falls off a bit, the warmth and heartiness remains. It spreads out in the mouth with a host of complex herbs and spices: licorice, pepper, tarragon, mint, and basil.
FINISH: Lasts quite long for a whiskey of such young age. Some of the fruit returns as it fades out with a hard candy sweetness of tart orange and cherry.
IN A MANHATTAN: We mixed four separate cocktails with different vermouths, all with a two-to-one whiskey-to-vermouth ratio in conjunction with Fee Brothers Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Bitters, and have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Mihalich's assessment. In the main, this whiskey makes a great Manhattan.
WITH MARTINI & ROSSI EXTRA DRY VERMOUTH: The spices on the whiskey just lit up under the influence of this white vermouth. The aperitif also became more of a player than merely background scenery as so often happens with Dry Manhattans.
WITH NOILY PRATT AMBRE: This was the one clinker in the bunch. The Ambre was far too sweet for the whiskey and the whole thing became rather cloying.
WITH CARPANO ANTICA FORMULA: This partnership was lushness itself, coupled with the steady drumbeat of harmonizing spices. Melts in your mouth and coats it with warmth.
WITH MARTINI GRAN LUSSO: A wonderful woodiness takes over almost from the start, negotiating the comportment of the sweet and spicy elements, which play well together.