Distiller tips Dad's Hat to Monessen family's legacy
By Ron Paglia
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
It's produced in Bucks County in eastern Pennsylvania, but there's a distinct Monessen “flavor” to Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey.
“In 2006 I found an old promotional shot glass in my father's memorabilia and it was engraved with the name of an old rye whiskey brand,” said Herman C. Mihalich, founder and distiller of Mountain Laurel Spirits, LLC. “My dad and grandfather were always big rye whiskey fans, so I did a little digging on the Internet and found a lot of information on the history of rye whiskey in Pennsylvania, including a piece written on a whiskey blogger site about the Gibson Distillery that was located in Gibsonton between Monessen and Belle Vernon until it was torn down in the 1920s.”
That discovery also sparked fond memories of Mihalich's formative years in Monessen, where he lived in an apartment above his family's bar at the corner of 12th Street and Knox Avenue.
His father was the late Herman Mihalich, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from the 58th District from 1990 until his death at age 67 in September 1997.
The popular neighborhood bar that carried the family name for more than 40 years was founded by the younger Mihalich's grandparents, Matt and Kathryn Jursic Mihalich in 1933, just after the end of Prohibition.
“Living upstairs of the bar was quite an experience,” said Mihalich, 54, who lives in New Hope, Pa. “I have vivid recollections of the sights, sounds, people and stories that prevailed in the bar, and those memories certainly helped inspire me to reintroduce the world to Pennsylvania's once-rich rye whiskey producing heritage.”
Those memories have remained a constant companion throughout Mihalich's adult life, which has included careers in the specialty chemical and fragrance/flavor industries.
Mihalich graduated from Monessen High School in 1976, received a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980 and earned a master's in business administration from Wharton School of Business in 1984.
“From 1984 to 2009 I worked for two companies, Rhodia, a large French chemical firm, and Firmenich, a large Swiss flavor and fragrance maker,” he said. “I spent five years (1990 to 1995) working in France for Rhodia. I held several positions and finished my career leading global business units and supply chain teams.”
Not long after finding the classic whiskey shot glass that belonged to his father, Mihalich read a story in the New York Times in 2006 that talked about how rye whiskey was going to make a comeback after falling out of favor since Prohibition.
“That's when John Cooper, a college classmate, who was from the Bronx in New York City, and I began having conversations about starting up a Pennsylvania rye whiskey distillery,” Mihalich recalled. “We thought it would be a great idea to bring rye whiskey back to Pennsylvania, where it enjoyed much success through the 19th century up to Prohibition. So, in 2009 we wrote our business plan, raised the investment capital, and by September 2011 we were up and running, making our first batches of whiskey and putting them in barrels to age.”
Choosing a name for the new product – Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey – was an easy decision for Mihalich.
“My dad wore hats – real hats, the kind you only see in old pictures or movies these days,” he recalled. “He had a lot of hats. His favorites were Stetson fedoras, which were handcrafted in Philadelphia.”
In addition to serving as a state representative, the elder Mihalich was executive assistant to the late James J. Manderino, also a longtime legislator and Speaker of the House; as administrative aide to the late Congressman John Dent, and as development director for the Fayette County Development Council.
“No matter where he was going, before he left the house each day, my dad would carefully choose one of those hats from the rack and don it,” Mihalich said. “The hat always seemed to fit his mood – or the occasion – perfectly. Dad's gone now, but my mind somehow keeps coming back to those hats. People don't really wear those kind of hats much anymore, I suppose. It's become an affectation or a fashion statement. But in those days it was something more, a symbol of optimism, that we cared about quality, polish and finish – a subtle, personal signature. It represented an era when taking the time to do things the right way mattered.
“I founded Dad's Hat because I also want to do it the right way, to take up a tradition, to make something that mattered – the old way, by hand, in small batches. We use only natural, local ingredients and employ the most careful methods. Dad's Hat is made right here in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of rye whiskey – in honor of my father, who enjoyed rye whiskey and served it at our family's tavern, and of that wonderful, optimistic time in America's history when we made a lot of things and took care to make them well. My heart tells me that many of us are searching for that spirit again.”
Dad's Hat made an auspicious debut and enhanced its recognition by winning the Good Foods Award in the Spirits category at the third annual Good Foods Awards ceremony in San Francisco on January 17. The prestigious distinction recognized Dad's Hat for its “superior taste, craftsmanship and sustainable practices.”
Mihalich and Cooper currently distribute their rye whiskey in state liquor stores and restaurants throughout Pennsylvania as well as in New York and Connecticut, and plans are in place for future releases in New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and Illinois. Additional information about that progress is available at their website, dadshatrye.com.
When he isn't busy perpetuating a tradition that is close to his heart, Mihalich directs his energy to family.
He and his wife, Valerie S. Fusco, a native of Delaware County in eastern Pennsylvania, have been married for 32 years. They met in college and are the parents of two children. Their son Nicolas “Nico” is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and expects to graduate this spring with a degree in computer science engineering. He rows on the Penn crew team. Younger son Adam is a high school senior, a talented musician who leads his school's Music Performance Club and also competes with the track and field team.
Mihalich's mother, longtime Monessen resident Lois Pile Mihalich, recently moved to Arlington, Va., to be closer to her daughters, Kathryn Mihalich, who lives in Burke, Va., and Gwen Kinsey, who makes her home in Ashburn, Va. Their brother, James Mihalich, lives in Shrewsbury, Mass.
Mihalich's ties to the Mon Valley remain strong.
His uncle, retired Westmoreland County Judge Gilfert Mihalich, lives in Smithton, and the judge's sons, Gil and Leonard also reside in the area – the former near Bentleyville and the latter near Yukon.
“I have so many wonderful memories of living and growing up in Monessen and the Mon Valley,” said Mihalich, who recalled Mike Kuvinka and Christy Major Tippet as his closest friends during those years.
He played football and was active with student council at Monessen High School, worked summers at the Monessen plant of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., and helped organize and attended dances sponsored by the Monessen Chamber of Commerce at the Monessen Armory.
“I loved being able to walk around downtown and go to the Manos Theater on Saturday afternoons and then go to the Palace of Sweets for a sundae afterwards,” Mihalich said. “It was great walking around town and seeing people you knew and shopping at stores where they knew you and your family – such places as Monessen Plumbing and Electric, Falbo's Shoes, Bud Roman's Sports Shop and so many more. Interacting with people from all walks of life in Monessen, including patrons at our family bar, taught me to treat others with respect regardless of their background or profession.”
Mihalich's parents provided the major influence on him.
“We got to meet a lot of people at our family bar, and my parents always welcomed everyone,” he said. “They truly lived the Golden Rule, treating others as they would want to be treated, and this has had a lasting effect on how I live my life.”
He also cited valuable lessons from his teachers at Monessen High School.
“Bill Pavlovich was a great chemistry and math teacher, and I will always appreciate the energy and creativity Marina Agrafiotis injected into our English classes,” he said.
All of those recollections of his hometown notwithstanding, Mihalich's memory bank is always filled with thoughts about the large building at 12th and Knox.
“How can anyone forget loving parents and a wonderful home?” he asked. “My brother, sisters and I were truly blessed.”
He and his brother were responsible for cleaning the family bar until it closed its doors for good after Mihalich's senior year in high school.
His father managed the bar directly and also hired others to handle those duties when he worked at other jobs.
Those vivid and poignant memories transcend time with a constant – and fitting – daily detail.
“I kept all of my dad's hats and I still wear them,” Mihalich said. “And you know what? They fit perfectly.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
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