America would likely be one Hollywood comedian richer if only Raj Bhakta had followed his mother's advice. His schoolboy charm, a knack for impressions, and a quirky comedic flair could have set him on the road to stardom. Instead, Bhakta chose a different path. Rather than pursuing show business, he set his sights on making rye whisky. Now, establishing a distillery in Vermont is not without its difficulties, as Bhakta soon learned. In fact, they likely outweigh the familiar absurdities that are the stuff of Hollywood gossip and budget over-runs. But having set his course, nothing would deter him. Now, nearly six years after filling his first bottle of WhistlePig Rye with whisky distilled elsewhere, this Bhakta brand is a category leader. His thriving farm distillery is not a film set but a reality.
Riding in Eisenhower's Cadillac
The limousine careers down a single-track mountainside road somewhere in Vermont. Dusk has turned to dark, though it makes little difference in this fog. My arm is about to ooze blood as my wife's nails dig deeper. On my left, Meghan is oblivious to our predicament and merrily mixes yet another rye Manhattan at her pop-up backseat bar.
"What's that smell?" my wife mumbles, trying not to sound that concerned.
"It's the brakes," says Leo, cheerfully, as Dave nods agreement from the front seat.
"Please," I beg, "drive into a tree while we're still going slow enough so some of us might live."
Leo and Dave chuckle politely. They think I'm joking. Mercifully, two gateposts appear up ahead and we're back onto a less perilous two lane.
Leo Gibson is WhistlePig's full time Legal Council and Dave Pickerell the Distiller, Blender, and general whisky guru. Together with Hospitality Coordinator Meghan Norwood, they plan to take us for dinner tonight while Bhakta babysits his daughter.
Leo pulls the decades old, all original (including brakes?) 'Eisenhower Cadillac' into a lonely parking lot. We wobble out and he pops the trunk. It's huge and it's empty but for a spade. We are now deep in the backwoods and suddenly I'm regretting how vocally critical I was when Pickerell and Bhakta launched WhistlePig five or six years ago. Here in this pitch dark, Bhakta is conveniently absent and my wife and I are woozy from too many backseat Manhattans. Barrel-chested Pickerell is heading straight for us from one side, Leo from the other. That massive boot looks like a helluva place to stash a couple of troublemakers.
Meghan casually tosses in her bag and Leo slams the lid. We head across the lot for gourmet fare in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Perhaps I have overestimated my own significance in the lore of WhistlePig.
Freedom and unity - Vermont style
In 2010, having been fired from Donald Trump's make-believe reality show, The Apprentice, and failed in his bid for election to congress, Bhakta had little to show for himself, other than a steady income from a string of hotels he owned with his father. What else to do but buy a 500 acre farm in verdant, easygoing Vermont, and start a distillery?
Awkwardly, his new neighbours would not agree. For five years, as local environmental regulators considered their endless objections, Bhakta filled his custom WhistlePig bottles not with local product but whisky purchased in Canada. Pickerell puts it more succinctly. "Raj and I shook hands. Five months later we had product on the shelf." Since there was no actual distilling on site, conspiracy theorists on the whisky web proclaimed that WhistlePig was another fake distillery. Meanwhile, the whiskey itself was garnering accolades far and wide. Then, after two years, the words 'Product of Canada' suddenly disappeared from the back label sending the whisky web, always eager to cry subterfuge, into overdrive. There's a lesson here. Jump to conclusions at your own risk.
In October 2015, after racking up a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, Pickerell finally fired up 'Mortimer,' their shiny, and now legal, copper pot still. For the first time, homemade whiskey spirit began to flow at WhistlePig. Yes, WhistlePig really is a real distillery. Like all things Bhakta does, once distillation started it went full tilt. An 800 gallon cooker feeds five 900 gallon fermenters, keeping the 750 gallon Vendome still running seven days a week. The mash, so far is all winter rye grown right on the farm.
At first, Bhakta made no secret that he bought his 10 Years Old 100 per cent rye whisky from Canada. Not sure what the final product would be though, the supplier insisted he did not disclose the actual source. "We could screw it up," says Pickerell in his jocular style. "Their side wanted to protect themselves."
Then, someone from the government visited and noticed the stacks of wooden barrels still had whiskey in them. In the ensuing discussion they instructed Bhakta to remove the reference to Canada from his labels. Since the whiskey was being finished in Vermont, according to government officials the Canadian product was merely 'an ingredient' in a product made in Vermont. Reluctantly, Bhakta had the offending country designation deleted.
But not for long. The words 'Product of Canada,' returned to the back label of WhistlePig's original 10 Years Old rye when there was a change of heart at the regulatory agency. "After Templeton, the government came back and said, 'Maybe we were hasty. So put 'Made in Canada' back on the label,'" says Pickerell. Sourced whisky had been in the news after a consumer lawsuit had forced Templeton Rye to disclose where their whiskey was made. But the whisky web, of course, falsely assumed Bhakta was backpedalling.
Boondocks to bottling hall
"Since day one, my vision was to build a farm-to-bottle operation where we house every aspect of the whiskey making process in one place," Bhakta tells me. "We're now well on our way to making that vision a reality. Now that's craft." The farm has expanded to 1,300 acres to encompass stands of Vermont oaks. Trees thrive in Vermont's lush summers, while the frigid winters slow their growth, yielding oak wood that is denser than that commonly used for whiskey barrels. Pickerell says this should also make them more flavourful. "We're taking our farm-grown rye whiskey and ageing it in barrels constructed from Vermont white oak harvested on our farm," Bhakta adds enthusiastically. "It's completely unique in its approach."
Set in an idyllic valley near the southern reaches of Lake Champlain, WhistlePig is a perfect whisky tourism destination but for one giant catch. The distillery's business licence specifically prohibits casual visitors. It's just one more way for government to impede business. Regrettably, if you do drop in unannounced you'll be politely sent on your way. After five years battling the system, they can't risk casual drop-ins putting their operation in jeopardy.
"We plan to offer a range of whiskeys," Pickerell continues. "And we have not ruled out continuing with the 10 Years Old we import from Alberta. We also have a 15 Years Old from Alberta that we age in our own oak. We have a range of sourced whiskeys that we finish here in Old World wine barrels, and we also have whiskey that others have distilled for us using rye that we grew here on the farm." But it is the homegrown 100 per cent Vermont whiskey that has them most excited. And that excitement is contagious.
Based on production to date, they expect to fill about 2,500 barrels of whiskey a year. I tasted some whiskey they were dumping from barrels and as I grinned approval, they hollered, "WhistlePig!" And now, with 10, 12 and 15 Years Old versions of this glorious whiskey in wide distribution, you are invited to do
a bit of hollering too.
Farm: 1,300 acres
Still: 1 - Vendome pot, 750 gallons
Cooker: 1 - 800 gallons
Fermenters: 5, stainless steel, 900 gallons each
Distilling schedule: 7 days a week
Annual production: 2,500 barrels
Barrels: home grown Vermont oak - 53 gallons
Grain: 100 per cent home grown rye
Current releases: 4