Rye whiskey, an American original, came to life out of necessity during the American Revolution when rum supplies dried up. Scottish and Irish settlers in western Pennsylvania and Maryland came to the rescue using their longstanding expertise in distilling rye grain while a post-presidential George Washington popularized the endeavor distilling rye at Mount Vernon.
Today’s American rye whiskey must by law be distilled from at least 51 percent rye grain. Other grains like barley and corn are often added to the mash cutting down on rye’s more assertive, edgy, and to some palates biting flavor profile. But Raj Bhatka founder of WhistlePig Rye Whiskey in Shoreham Vermont is on a mission to create America’s first premium 100% rye whiskey. “Why should we water down and adulterate rye’s true personality and character?” Scotland has their scotch, France has their cognac, America should have its signature rye whiskey.”
You can’t fully appreciate WhistlePig whiskey until you get to know the man behind its creation. Raj Bhakta himself is emblematic of all that is possible in the United States. Born from an Irish mother and Hindu Indian father, Raj attended a private boarding school building a strong foundation of intellectual prowess. Then it was off to Boston College and upon graduation after a shoulder injury prevented him from joining the Marines, did a short stint at a boutique NYC mergers and acquisitions firm. From here he embarked on his long term path to serial entrepreneurship. First he founded a pre-owned car valuation technology startup Automovia. Within 2 years, Chrysler bought him out so he headed to Vail Colorado redeveloping the Apex Holiday Inn.
Success in these endeavors gave Bhakta the impetus to try his luck as a contestant on the 2nd season of The Apprentice. Although fired after 9 weeks, he capitalized on his newfound celebrity by testing the waters for a run in politics by crossing the U.S.-Mexican border riding an elephant with a six-man mariachi band showing how easy it was to do without the border patrol noticing. Although earning the Republican endorsement for Pennsylvania’s 13th district, he lost against the incumbent, and soon after headed to India searching for an Indian version of Aussie Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter” who had recently met his demise on the barb of a stingray. Bhakta visited all of India’s national parks interviewing gamekeepers, wardens, and holding auditions in Bollywood but returned to the U.S. empty handed.
Going through a period of disillusionment after these misfires, Bhakta bought a 500 acre dilapidated dairy farm in Shoreham Vermont upon the advice of a friend and moved there to figure out his next move. At first he really had no clue how his farm would sustain him financially but his mission became clear after meeting master distiller David Pickerell, a 14 year veteran at Makers’ Mark. At the time, Pickerell was using his talents to help startup craft distilleries. He also had access to some of the finest rye whiskey in the world available in Canada. Pickerell couldn’t convince the established big boy distilleries that it was possible to bottle and sell Canadian rye at a premium price. But Bhakta saw this opportunity as a first step towards establishing America’s first premium farm-to-bottle rye.
Bhakta was inspired to name the farm and its resulting whiskey after a surreptitious encounter with a white haired man while hiking in a remote area of Colorado who abruptly asked in a thick French accent, “Could it be …. a whistle pig?” He then snapped his fingers in Bhatka’s face, threw his arms up in the air and left. Bhakta was perplexed but convinced that it portended a significant role in his future.
Although “whistle pig” is really a colloquialism for woodchuck or groundhog, Bhakta adopted a more literal interpretation that worked better when it came to developing a brand mascot. He purchased two Kunekune pigs from New Zealand, named them Mauve and Mortimer, and started strutting them around on leashes at product launches along New York City’s Fifth and Madison Avenues. The imagery projected irreverence…a rye whiskey proud to be distinct.
Bhakta started with ready-to-sell 10-year aged rye while blending and barreling batches in aged Vermont white oak barrels crafted by the famed Independent Stave Company cooperage in Missouri for later release. His next milestone toward farm-to-bottle sustainability was growing rye on his long fallow dairy pastures proving to be a crop most excellently suited for Vermont’s often unforgiving growing climate.
Bhakta’s once dilapidated farm has now more than doubled in size to 1,300 acres while the farmhouse is nearly fully renovated into a budding country villa with fully equipped guest rooms, open communal kitchen, and rumpus room over the garage complete with a full open bar and game room. Stay tuned for when they begin booking rooms to the public.
Soon, WhistlePig’s new distillery will take the entire whiskey making process in-house in a retrofitted dairy barn housing a multistory copper pot still, tasting room with a massive walk-in stone fireplace, and wood planked floors leading out to an expansive deck overlooking the Lemon Fair River. And if his past successes like 96 points by Wine Enthusiast, 5 out of 5 stars by Spirit Journal, and Wall Street Journal’s top 5 new whiskies designation are any indication, we have a lot to look forward to in future releases.
Photos courtesy of WhistlePig and Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored tasting.