Heads, Hearts and

Whiskey Tales

Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories

Student or Teacher

April 2020

I enjoy the experience of whiskey.  The sensations on my palate are equaled by the delight of discussing the details of a delicious dram.  The history, nuances, and processes are all part of immersing in the intricacies of each individual spirit, the people who enjoy them, and the places they are shared.

I’m a volunteer tavern keeper and whiskey historian for an 18th-century, living history site called Dills Tavern in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.  Recently, we displayed traditional skills of 18th century craftsmen and women at the Cabin Fever Expo.  This annual event, held in late winter, showcases tools, machinery and models for people who build things.  In addition to timber framing, joinery and tinsmithing we highlighted the “Tools of Freedom – Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms”.  Included in our display were two copper stills.

Late in the afternoon, I encountered a young man intently examining the rivets on the larger still.  He was dressed in dirty jeans, worn out boots, leather apron with numerous burn holes, and a welder’s cap.  His cheeks and hands were covered with black dirt. But, the obvious first impression was his enthusiasm for the workmanship displayed in the older, larger still.  It is impressive.  This still was built in 1811 by the Heiss and Justice Company of Philadelphia.  The rivets not only ensure the shoulder stays attached to the pot, but the symmetry of the hammer work displays pride of artistry in an ordinary piece of equipment.  We aspired to the same level of craftsmanship while building “Lil Sister”, our smaller, 10-gallon replica of the H&J pot still.  Before the Coffey column or continuous still was invented in Ireland in 1830 most distillers used a rounder, squatter still.  Few modern distillers use a pot still, fewer still have built their own.

 “Lil Sister” was built by volunteer craftsmen from Dills.  Hours of annealing copper to make it more malleable, grinding and filing joints to a precision fit and riveting the sections together produced another, albeit, smaller work of art. 

“She’s really pretty,” he said as he stroked her head with a sooty hand.   “I’m Kane.  I demonstrate historical blacksmithing.” 


After introductions and additional details a fellow metal worker would want to know, I naturally asked, “so… do you drink whiskey?”.


“Naaah,  I tried it once but I just can’t get it down.”


Did you ever add a little water,” I asked? 


“Water!  No, my friends drink shots and gut it out…but it burns my throat too much!”  


“Tell you what” I countered, “you come back here tomorrow, and I’ll have some whiskey you can not only drink, but enjoy!"  I didn’t have any whiskies with me that day.  I wasn’t expecting to teach a lesson about whiskey anymore than Kane was expecting learn about it.


“Deal,” he said as he disappeared into the aisles of machinery, tools and models.

The next morning at 10:55 the young blacksmith was standing in front of our booth.


“You bring it?” he cheerfully asked. 


We walked out to my old' 98 Jeep Cherokee that I inherited from my son.  It is not an ideal setting for a whiskey tasting but I recently replaced the tailgate lifts so I knew we would have a place to sit in the shade.  I produced some tasting glasses, two bottles of whiskey and water. 


I didn’t particularly choose Dad’s Hat, but it is what I often have on hand.  I highlight the history of whiskey and regional differences in my tastings at Dills Tavern.  I describe Dad’s Hat as the drink of patriots.  When we broke off from England we couldn’t get rum.  Local farmer/ distillers used the grain they had growing on their farms.  Pennsylvania and Maryland became famous for their whiskies.  Pennsylvania, or Monongahela style, has a higher rye content in the mash bill.  Dad’s Hat hits your tongue like a .45 cal ball from a flintlock barrel.  It is not subtle.  Spice and pepper from the grain dominate the robust taste.  At the end of the flavor skirmish on your tongue it finishes subtly sweet with woody flavors of vanilla or caramel.  To take on the world’s best army, patriots needed a good whiskey and early Pennsylvania riflemen had rye.

The Drink of Patriots

Dad’s Hat hits your tongue like a .45 cal ball from a flintlock barrel. 

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Kane and I already shared a love of history and my hope was he soon would share my love for rye whiskey.  The first bottle was Dad’s Hat 90-proof, Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey.  I added a few drops of water as I explained the benefits of knocking down the ABV a few percentage points which allows the taste of the grain and barrel to shine through.  He watched intently and put his glass up to his nostrils as I described the spicy nose.  His eyes lit up with the first taste as the peppery, amber liquid bathed his tongue. 


“Hold it in your mouth a little and then pay attention after you swallow.  What do you taste?” 


“It’s like it gets sweeter,” he said.  “Wow, this is really nice!” 


Next, I poured Dad’s Hat Vermouth Barrel Aged Rye.  He immediately picked up on the differences. 


“This is fruitier,” he said, holding it up in sunlight to see if he could perceive a difference.  Without a cue he took a sip.  “Not as much vanilla or caramel at the end like the last one,” he said, “more of a grapey sweetness.”  I thought to myself this kid can not only swing a hammer, but he has some talented taste buds.

We lingered on the tailgate savoring several more pours, mid-morning sunshine, and the moment. 

I shared the history of Monongahela rye and the process of making whiskey.  He offered an analogy from blacksmithing.  He said tasting whiskey for the differences in flavor reminded him of watching the subtle color changes of glowing metal for just the right time to hammer it.


I’ve heard Buddhists believe when the student is ready the teacher appears.  With whiskey, occasionally student and teacher arrive somewhere together, at just the right time.

Cheers, Murray