I’ve been a fan of WhistlePig Rye Whiskey since they hit the market in 2015. Attending pairing dinners led by their Chicago based Brand Steward, Taylor Hansen, and speaking with Taylor and fellow stewards at whiskey events around Chicago for the past 2 years. When he invited me out to the WhistlePig Farm in Vermont this summer I jumped at the opportunity.
Read our WhistlePig x BBQ pairing dinner article, click here!
I enlisted the help of my wife, Jordan, our friend and industry insider Martin Duffy, and signed on professional videographer Christian Wilson to go with us and document the four days we would spend on the farm. This blog post is meant to accompany a full video of our experience on the farm which will be posted here as soon as it’s ready!
We arrived on a Saturday evening to meet Zoe Miller, WhistlePig Activities Guide, at the airport. Zoe drove us through the picturesque Vermont countryside to the farm in Shoreham, VT where we met our other host for the weekend, Derek Quenneville. They showed us to our rooms in the renovated farmhouse and introduced us to chef Mark, already at work preparing dinner. (Before being converted to a guest house it was WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta’s actual home.) We dropped our bags and headed upstairs to the “Rumpus Room” for cocktails. In addition to the multiple bars always stocked with WhistlePig throughout the house the rumpus room spoiled us with a full bar, pool table, games, and couches to relax on after a hard days work on the farm. I started my visit with a hefty pour of FarmStock. A blend of sourced rye from Alberta, Indiana, and for the first time, whiskey distilled on the farm from rye grown on the farm aged in Vermont oak from, you guessed it, the farm.
Raj decided America needed a premium rye whiskey
Raj’s original office is on the second floor of what is now the guest house. He bought the farm in 2007 not knowing exactly what he was going to do with it. Then the market crashed hard and Raj moved to the farm to figure out what to do next. He looked at the premium Scotch market and decided America needed a premium whiskey and he was the man to bring it to market. On the desk in his old office I found spirits industry reports, books on distilling, and other tools Raj must have used to hone his ideas into his vision of a craft distillery.
Raj reached out to former Maker’s Mark Master Distiller and industry consultant Dave Pickerell for help. That’s when Dave dropped a bomb that would end up jump starting WhistlePig’s explosive growth. Dave happened to have a considerable number of 10-year-old rye barrels purchased from a distillery in Alberta Canada. He wanted to bring the rye to market under a new brand. Raj knew just the brand to make that happen and over dinner with Dave convinced him to come on board with WhistlePig Rye Whiskey.
Read our coverage of the 2017 Chicago WhiskyFest, click here!
That night Mark served an incredible farm to table dinner of whole roasted chicken, roasted vegetables and more. After dinner Derek built us a roaring fire in the backyard complete with s’mores and of course all the WhistlePig we could drink. I paired my s’mores with a bespoke blend of 12 year “Old World”. The 12 year is always a blend of rye finished in Madeira, Sauternes, and/or Port wine barrels. Bespoke blends are custom blended, often by restaurants and liquor stores, to contain different amounts of those finished whiskeys. Each bottle I found around the house was a different blend and a different flavor profile.
As we sipped whiskey by the fire I looked up at my wife and saw something move in the darkness behind her. I squinted to see a 300+ pound pig meandering just 30 feet away. I turned to our host Derek, pipe in his mouth, and asked how much danger a wild WhistlePig might pose. Derek replied with a slightly alarming, “ah shit, the pigs escaped again.”. As he picked up a flashlight and gave chase the four of us in my Chicago Bourbon crew grabbed our glasses of rye and followed behind. On the other side of the farmhouse we found 3 giant pigs rooting around the dirt under a tree by the grain milling barn under construction. All of the rye used in the production of WhistlePig FarmStock’s farm portion is grown and milled on this farm. We used the flashlights on our phones to help Derek wrangle the pigs, and a few ancillary sheep, back into their large pen then turned in for the night.
Maple syrup, harvested, barrel aged, and bottled on the farm
Our first full day on the farm started with an awesome breakfast prepared by chef Brooke. One of several chefs the farm keeps on call to take care of guests and special events. Brooke served us an egg casserole with homemade biscuits and homemade granola. After breakfast I filled my cup with coffee, and a dash of barrel aged maple syrup, and headed out on a tour with Zoe. She took us up the road to a small shed with pipes running up into the forest and explained this is where the fresh maple syrup comes down. Which I appreciated as I sipped my maple spiked coffee. To the left we saw a field of oak saplings about 3 feet tall. Zoe told us those were planted to replace the trees harvested to make their FarmStock barrels. WhistlePig cut down mature oak trees from the farm, and sent them to the master coopers at Independent Stave Company where they are crafted into 53 gallon whiskey barrels to age the rye distilled on the farm.
Next Zoe took us on a tour of the distillery. The WhistlePig distillery is not currently open for public tours though is set up as an excellent show piece for the brand and used for private company events. Here Zoe guided us through a tasting of the FarmStock, 10 year, 12 year, and 15 year. There was an empty bottle of Boss Hog: The Independent on the bar and we were assured we would have our fill later! If you haven’t tasted each of these releases yet let me assure you they are markedly different. They each started with much the same juice though through blending and barrel finishing have become incredibly different products.
From there we walked to the back of the large refurbished barn to find the massive 700 gallon Vendome still, “The Mortimer”, named after one of the former farm pigs. The barn that houses the still stands strong with an original exterior and much of the original interior beams and restored to its original glory with a new roof, interior walls, and concrete floor. I remember standing at the desk in Raj’s old office looking out the window at the distillery barn. I imagine him sitting at this desk back in 2007 wondering what he was going to do with a 500 acre dilapidated farm in a poor real estate market. Incredibly, the office looks like Raj could still use it. Letterhead on the desk, family photos, and binders containing distilling industry reports. I picked up an old yearbook on the office coffee table and flipped to an inscription from someone looking forward being Raj’s roommate the next year. If there’s one thing I took away from my visit to WhistlePig farm it’s the heart and soul of the brand. The word “brand” is almost too cold. WhistlePig IS the passion of Raj Bhakta, it IS the dedication of the 30 employees of the farm and distillery and the nearly 200 total employees including the Brand Stewards hard at work throughout the world. Raj, with his wife and three children, live on the WhistlePig farm. Through hostile turmoil in the company’s past Raj has emerged more dedicated than ever to see through his vision of creating the best rye whiskey in the world.
Speaking of Raj. As our first day on the farm drew to a close, Marty, Christian, and I retired to the rumpus room for evening cocktails. I poured myself a barrel aged Manhattan from a mini barrel on the bar, Marty opted for some WhistlePig 12 year, and Christian poured through a few tastes of various bottles of local Vermont spirits the staff keeps stocked on the house bar. We talked about the state of the industry with Marty, a 15 year veteran of Diageo, current US brand rep for Glencairn Crystal, and co-founder of the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo. As we talked I heard a car pull up outside and went down to the front door to see WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta walking towards the house; having just arrived home from a family trip to Colorado. Raj introduced himself and joined us for a drink upstairs to unwind from his cross-country travels.
From military service, to politics, to making rye whiskey
We talked about the company, the whiskey, gleaned his insight on other distillers he likes, and a few he doesn’t. He told us about his clashes with Vermont’s restrictive distillery regulations and his strong political views. (Raj ran for the US House of Representatives in 2006). He believes that everyone in America has an incredible opportunity to succeed at a cost of incredible hard work and dedication, not handouts. It seems state regulations have challenged WhistlePig calling themselves a farm. Something to do with their profits being derived from whiskey sales and not raw grains of the farm. No matter that the whiskey is made, in part, from grain grown on the farm. Raj told us they recently purchased land in New York state to house up to 14,000 aging barrels. This in addition to the 1,200 now stored on the farm and the 6,000 temporarily stored a few miles from the from. Why New York? More Vermont restrictions says Raj. Now that we were a few drinks in Raj walked over to a record player at the end of the room and flipped through what he told us is his personal record collection. He threw on some classic rock and charismatically danced back over to the couch where we continued our conversation into the night.
On our second morning we sat down for an interview with WhistlePig Head of Operations, Andy Purdy. (I’ll have a full video of our interviews up on Chicago Bourbon shortly.) Andy’s story with the company is not unlike a few others we heard. Local to the area Andy began working in the rick house before being promoted to his current position overseeing daily operations. In fact, Andy was responsible for sending whiskey samples to this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. He said he knew he was sending great whiskey, and expected to place well, but he had no idea the WhistlePig Boss Hog: The Black Prince that he sent in would win Best in Show Whiskey. The highest whiskey honor available among the 2,253 overall spirits entered.
After the interview, Zoe and Derek suggested we drive to the top of Mt Philo to get an awesome vantage point for the solar eclipse. It was a perfectly clear afternoon. We stumbled upon dozens of people playing music, enjoying picnics, and taking turns staring up at the sun. Two women were kind enough to share their glasses with us while we told them about Chicago Bourbon and WhistlePig. After lunch and an eclipse with the locals we shot back down the mountain for dinner.
After dinner in town we headed back to the farm and over to the distillery to meet Kevin Commiskey, Night Distiller. Kevin is a self-taught distiller gaining all of his vast chemistry knowledge and distillation expertise through self studying and experimentation. Another local to the area Kevin answered a ‘distiller wanted’ ad and the rest is history. He hit the ground running at WhistlePig and tells us that himself and two other distillers fill about 30 barrels a day. All of that distillate comes through their 700 gallon still. For better or worse the demand for WhistlePig far outweighs the amount of un-aged whiskey they can distill from their own mash. You see, 700 gallons of wash going into a still at about 8% abv will yield approximately 70 gallons of 80% white whiskey.
So how can they fill 30 barrels in a day from a single 700 gallon still? That’s a question that came up while talking with Kevin. To meet anticipated demand for future FarmStock releases they are supplementing with sourced distillate. They take a white whiskey, or “White Hog” as they refer to it, from another distillery and run it through their still with a portion of wash they have fermented themselves from grain grown on the farm. Because a large percentage of the liquid going through the still is already at ~160 proof it flies through faster than an 8-10% beer wash. This allows them to reach 30 barrel fills per day and will help them fill the new 14,000 barrel rick house. We hung out with Kevin until about 1:00am while we sampled white whiskey fresh off the still, filled some barrels, and talked about his craft.
WhistlePig has an 18 year rye whiskey planned for a future release
On our last morning at the farm we waited in the backyard for Raj to come down from his home just a couple hundred yards up the road. In what I’ve come to know as Raj’s somewhat over the top personality he pulled into the yard in his classic black Cadillac and parked right behind us. We poured a glass of FarmStock and Raj dropped us a few pieces of very interesting info. They have about 20,000 barrels of aged rye stock from Alberta, MGPi, and possibly others. Raj told us their next release after this fall’s Black Prince will be a WhistlePig 18 year. We refilled our glasses of rye and continued our talk as we walked back through the yard and followed a path, past a broken down school bus, into the woods where we found the famous WhistlePig Yurt. Raj told us a story about once pretending to be a shaman for a group of farm guests. After guiding them through a spiritual journey using a thick Indian accent Raj finally revealed the joke.
“We’re going into the deep reserves”, said Raj as he found us a bottle of The Black Prince
As we wrapped up our interview Raj invited us for a final rye tasting. One of our farm guides broke out a bottle of last years Boss Hog: The Independent. An incredible whiskey in its own right but not enough to satisfy Raj’s intent to show off his latest creation. After one of our guides scoured the farm and could not find a single bottle of this year’s Black Prince Raj said “Alright, we’re going into the deep reserves”, and sent our guide to his home where she brought us a bottle of Boss Hog: The Black Prince from Raj’s personal case of barrel #1. We sipped this award-winning rye whiskey with an intense viscosity from its time in Armagnac casks; it coated my mouth and left a finish that seemed to last for hours. Raj had one more surprise for us. He picked up the phone and called down to the main office. He told them he had the crew from Chicago Bourbon on-site and it was imperative they send up a sample of their newly designed pewter bottle topper for the official fall Black Prince release. Seen for the first time outside of the WhistlePig family the bottle topper had yet to even receive it’s cork insert. As he handed me the stopper he asked if I had ever seen a skinny pig. Well, neither had he which is why he insisted they redesign the stopper to emphasize the powerful stature of the man to which this whiskey pays homage, Edward, the Black Prince.
We spent our last hour on the farm having lunch at the guest house with Raj and one of his associates. Raj became animated once more as he told us of a future opportunity he sees in a new market category. A category he described, as he raised his voice and threw his hands in the air, as being worth “Tens of billions….not a billion…TENS of billions”. Raj is working to get ahead of the curve and have his plans in place to take advantage of this upcoming opportunity. You’ll have to stay tuned to see what he has in store.
While WhistlePig didn’t start as a ‘farm distillery’ in the truest sense of the term; they are working toward this goal. Growing rye grain being used in the distillery, barreling, aging, and bottling their own distillate. Albeit a small amount today. They are working each day to move closer to embodying the farm distillery designation. New grain silos and a new grain milling barn were under construction during our visit. WhistlePig FarmStock “Crop #001” contains 20% rye whiskey grown, milled, distilled, and aged on the farm. The plan for each FarmStock crop going forward is to use a larger percentage of their own whiskey each year until they eventually reach a 100% farm made whiskey. You might say “but William, WhistlePig makes rye whiskey, not bourbon!” You would be right, they bottle, and now distill, five primary whiskeys all 95% to 100% rye. While I’m passionate about bourbon and devote 95% of my time to America’s Native Spirit I also appreciate the opportunity to expand my palate to other excellent spirits. And who knows, WhistlePig may release a bourbon one day…
WhistlePig graciously covered the cost of our trip to the farm. All opinions and descriptions of my visit are completely my own. Video and photography equipment provided by BMP Film Co.