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10 April 2024

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Interviews

Know Your Distillers: Herman Mihalich

Crafting Authentic Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey: The Herman Mihalich Way

Discover the story of Herman Mihalich, a dedicated distiller reviving Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey's legacy. Raised above a family tavern, Herman's passion led him to create exceptional rye whiskey, blending tradition and innovation. In this interview, he shares the art of distilling, his sustainable practices, and insights into the evolving craft spirits landscape. Join us in exploring the essence of Herman Mihalich's authentic distillery legacy.

Tell us a little about your background and journey into distilling.

I grew up living above our family tavern in Western Pennsylvania and my father and grandfather were both rye whiskey fans. I knew about the history of Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey (Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American Whiskey), so when I saw an article in the New York Times in 2006 that predicted that the rye whiskey category was making a comeback, I got the idea to bring back rye whiskey to its historical home. At the time there were no more distilleries making whiskey in Pennsylvania. Teamed up with my business partner, John Cooper, and spent the next couple of years learning all we could about making Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey. We worked with the Artisan Distillery Project team at Michigan State University to develop our recipe, and by 2011 we started up our own still in Bristol, PA.

Image: Herman Mihalich and John Cooper.

Your current role and what does your day look like?

Since Travis Scott joined our team, he has been primarily responsible for the day-to-day operations. John Cooper and I oversee the production and development of new expressions - and evaluate the whiskey as it ages. We decide which barrels will be selected as candidates for Single Barrel programs and which will be selected for our annual Bottled in Bond release. As well as the barrels selected to go the products we produce and sell every day.

What inspired you to become a distiller?

See the answer above. My Grandfather actually developed his taste for rye whiskey as a young man enjoying rye whiskey made just a few miles from our hometown at what was the largest rye whiskey distillery in the US until 1920 - The Gibson Distillery. He and my father continued to serve and enjoy rye whiskey even when there were only a few options available (like Old Overholt). This history has always been a big part of my inspiration.

What are some of the most important skills for a distiller?

Patience
Focus (it can be easy to get distracted by fads and projects that are not central to our main mission)

How do you think a distiller can help in driving marketing and sales personally?

Many customers like to understand the details behind the production of our whiskey (grain selection, distilling conditions, barrel selection, etc.), so being available to provide this information credibly can bring customers closer to our brand.

Define a good distiller.

Someone who takes an interest in every facet of making good whiskey - from selecting the best grain and malt to managing the cuts off the still, to participating in the the evaluation of barrels to be selected for bottling.

What is the hardest part of a distiller's job?

Waiting for whiskey to age.

Image: Herman Mihalich and John Cooper.

What's your elevator pitch to a bartender when pitching your brand?

Our Pennsylvania Rye whiskey is faithful to the Old School Pennsylvania style with our high rye mash bill and generous use of a high-quality malt. Today, it is not necessary to have a mash bill with a lot of malts since enzymes can be purchased and added. During Pennsylvania Rye heydays, a sufficient amount of malt was needed to get good conversion in the mash. Our mashbill contains 15% two-row malted barley and 5% malted rye. Using this much malt gives our rye a balance of flavor that is unique and authentic to the traditional Pennsylvania style.

What are the current challenges the spirits industry is facing according to you?

Navigating the changing and confusing direct-to-consumer space in the US is a big challenge. There are a lot of new players jumping into the game and it is not clear how this is going to evolve. It seems that the regulators are playing catch up and we want to find the best, and legal, way to participate in this opportunity.

What skill or topic you are learning currently and why?

We need to learn more about communicating to our customers - existing and future.

What is your idea of a good life?

Enjoying time with my family and friends.

Which is your go-to drink and what is the perfect setting you enjoy it in?

I like our whiskey in a simple Old Fashioned - frequently at the end of the day on my back porch.

Your favorite 2-3 distilling or spirits books?

The Practical Distiller by Samuel McHarry, Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson.

Take us through your process of blending.

As smaller producers, we are challenged to keep a consistent flavor profile for our main products. We manage this by keeping our 6,000-liter tanks of aged whiskey at least 1/3 full. We bottle from these tanks and then add new barrels to them so the newly harvested whiskey is blending with the whiskey that was most recently bottled. This way, we keep a consistent style so when a customer buys one of our main products they will surprised with a bottle that tastes completely different from the last one they purchased. While we strive for a consistent style for our main products, we have some fun tasting through barrels that we find unique and save them for our Single Barrel program and the annual Bottled in Bond release.

Image: Dad's Hat Distillery located in historic Bristol, PA.

How do you take care of production waste?

We had been returning most of it to the farm that supplies our grain, but we are now planning to add a dewatering system to make it easier to handle the growing quantity.

If you had to give a quick elevator pitch on why an account should bring in your product for its consumers, what would it be?

Give customers a chance to taste some delicious whiskey that will be different from other American ryes they have tried - most rye whiskey made in Kentucky contains a fair amount of corn and many of the well-known brands in the US come from the same distillery that uses a very minimal amount of malt (5%). Our authentic and unique style will be a fun change.

How do you create complexity in the fermentation stage?

Our fermenters have cooling jackets, so we can control the fermentation temperature and keep it in a tight range that allows us to go low and slow. We ferment for 5 to 7 days to allow for great flavor development.

What steps do you take to become more sustainable?

First, rye is inherently a very sustainable grain. It is planted in the fall and spends the winter holding soil to prevent erosion and fixing nitrogen and carbon. it requires little if any fertilizer or pesticides. It is much less input resource intensive than other grains. We source our rye grain from a farm that is not far from our distillery here in Bucks County Pennsylvania, so we are not transporting it across the country or the globe. In our process we also do our best to save water and energy by capturing the hot water that comes off of our still condenser to be used for cleaning tanks, making mash, and eventually blending and proofing - less energy is used to heat up for cleaning and mashing and less water use overall.

How do you explore new markets for your spirits and focus on business development?

During COVID we were obliged to forgo looking for new markets, and we continue to focus on our local geography in the Northeast US. We have a unique opportunity in our home state of Pennsylvania which permits us to set up up to 5 tasting rooms in the State. This direct-to-consumer opportunity allows us to sell our whiskey by the bottle and by the glass (or in cocktails), and we can sell other alcohol products produced in Pennsylvania by the serving; taking advantage of the rich availability of other distilled spirits, beer, wines, and ciders made here. We have recently been approached by distributors in new US states, and we have started up with a couple of them - Bonded Beverage in Missouri and PR Imports in Louisiana.

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What trends do you anticipate in the beverage industry in the coming months? Where do you see the domestic craft distilling scene going? What's next for the industry?

In the US, malt whiskey and fruit brandy are categories that are getting more attention. We have been making some apple brandy and like the results. Consumers are always looking for new things to try and these categories are emerging in the US.

Note: Header and Index Image Source: Herman Mihalich

International and Domestic Submission deadline is February 22. If you are looking to grow your brand in 2024, looking for product feedback, or looking to get in front of real trade buyers. It's time to enter your brands in the London Competitions. Here's how to enter, costs and benefits.

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