A few days ago Davin De Kergommeaux, Malt Maniac, leading Canadian whisky blogger, and noted author of the most significant book on Canadian whisky, wrote a piece in whiskyadvocate.com called "A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta" that contained the information that "the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean and confirm that the whiskey they bottle is from Canada"
It also had the bombshell that Whistlepig will be a vatting of 5 different rye whiskies in the future (the Alberta Distillers it has always been bottling, plus "We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada." Although Bhakta corrects this by stating that all the whiskey out now - and in the near future is the same Alberta Distllers only whisky it has always been since the brand launched in 2010. The 5 origin stuff is aging and will on the shelves somewhere down the road.
Why come clean now? Maybe it had something to do with the shock and outrage that followed upon Raj Bhakta's comments (more like a cavalcade of completely wrong, dishonest, and false statements) on Bloomberg TV February 13th:
In the brief television spot, Bhakta says that Whistlepig is the only "aged" rye on the market at 10 years old. An interviewer point blank asks him about Sazerac and Michter's (who market rye whiskies aged 18 and 25 years old respectively) and Bhakta doubles down. Later he reiterates the lie that Whistlepig is American and that it's patriotic American thing to drink it. This is a howl because it's a Canadian product lock stock and barrel. All Bhakta's crew does is rest it and then bottle it. He also says that only aged (i.e. older than 6 to 7 years old) ryes are sufficiently aged and worth drinking. As someone who loves younger ryes like Thomas H. Handy 6, Russell's Reserve Rye 6, Willett's Family Reserve Single Cask ryes as young as 3 and 4 years old, etc... I can attest that some of the finest ryes you can drink are quite young. Rye's herbal spice, like peat's fiery kick, is fresher and fiercer in young whiskey. Aged rye picks up lovely mature flavors at the expense of the herbal kick and heat. Thus choosing a fine younger rye to get that freshness and power is a totally defensible epicurean choice. Pretty much every word that came out Bhakta's mouth in that spot was wrong.
The weird thing is that Dave Pickerell was perfectly honest about the whiskey being Canadian - even back as early as 2011:
Although, certainly, in most of the interviews, Pickerell side steps the issue of origin and just talks about the whiskey - often leaving the incorrect impression that he's actually make it and that's an American made product. But the fact that Pickerell plainly publicly told the truth for years explains why the true story was so widely known. One wonders about why the lack of transparency sometimes and not others? Certainly Whistlepig's label itself is part of the deception. "Hand Bottled at Shoreham, Vermont" appears on both front and rear labels but not a word is there about where the whiskey was actually distilled.
The controversy is good in that it has brought the truth out and is a lesson for others who would hide the truth. Other examples of this kind of thing, Templeton Rye, Michter's, Widow Jane have similar trajectories. Some people will boycott because of the lack of honesty. I can understand that, but I'm more interested in whats going on in the glass - particularly if you can't source the juice from the original distiller as is the case here - in the USA market.
A fascinating detail of De Kergommeaux's interview is the story that Pickerell had a line on a supply of extremely good aged 100% rye whiskey from Alberta Distillers and was in search of a a vendor to buy it and bring it to market. Pickerell then found Bhakta who had a farm and was looking for a whiskey project and the WP thing was born. This would explain the apparent paradox of a brand new company suddenly putting out richly flavored fantastic rye whiskey on day one. And, make no mistake, the whiskey is certainly good. In 2012 I did a double blind head to head of a number of Canadian 100% ryes bottled in the USA - a group that included Masterson's Rye 10, Jefferson's Rye 10, and Pendleton 1910 Cowboy Whiskey. Thomas H. Handy and Old Potrero were also in there - not as blinds because they are so distinct. In the finale, the Handy won overall, but of the ones that playing on the same level of proof I found Whisltepig the winner.
|Dave Pickerell tells the story of the Frenchman asking Raj "Have you seen the Wheeestlepig?"|
at Bottlerockets Liquors in New York
A few months ago I caught up with Dave Pickerell at Bottlerockets Liquors in New York where he was introducing a new limited edition version of WhistlePig called "The Boss Hog" that consisted of hand selected casks that were allowed to mature an extra couple of years. The results were bottled at full cask strength. The whiskey was interesting and I signed up for a bottle, but the critical reviews upon its release were mixed with complaints about cost and flavors. I couldn't tell if it was a question of barrel variation (it's a single barrel product and a number of barrels were bottled) or just a question of people being able to handle the power and flavor of the product. After having tasted a few of the barrels (6, 8, and 9) I'm leaning towards thinking it's the latter interpretation.
The Boss Hog Barrel 9 12 3/4 years old 134.5 proof. 67.3% abv.
Color: golden coppery amber.
Nose: floral honey, dusty cut yellow flowers, herbal lavender, cilantro, ivy, and oregano. Plus there is a salty acidic note. Sku describes it as "pickle juice". It's hard not to see it that way after hearing that.
Palate: POW! Honey sweet in the first seconds and then, rapidly, a huge expansion chock full of toffee-caramel roundness, cut ivy, alfalfa, cilantro, briny pickle squirt and floral herbals attack with abandon. The mouth is completely filled. The turn to the finish is marked by sweetness fading into complex herbal bitters with lingering anise-seed sweetness and nuttiness. The finish is medium long on oak and herbal bitters all the way home.
This is the pure rye flavor profile on steroids. It has a vividness and intensity that is all but unique. Thomas H. Handy has the rye flavor profile at the same level of power, but with a mash bill that expertly melds in the toffee citrus of corn. I give the nod to Handy overall, but as the pure essence of rye, this is pretty special. That said, it's herbal, bitter, intense, and hard to take. It takes water well, hanging on to a little bit of a darker richer note than the usual 10 even at comparable dilution - but the difference is slight. Given the high cost (between $130 and $175 - the former at Shopper's Vineyard, the latter at Park Avenue Liquors) this is too expensive to justify the slight difference between this and the 10 at comparable dilution. What you're paying for is the thrill ride of having it neat. At full power this is intense stuff. The Stagg of Pure Rye.
Given the news that Whistlepig is changing the formula in future batches, this might be the statement expression of the pure Alberta Distillers stuff. If you are a fan of this flavor profile it might help justify the long green for you.
Whistlepig 10 - 50% abv.This is very close to the same stuff all around - just taken down to a more humane 50% abv. It's rich delicious heady whiskey and has been among my favorite ryes for years. The nose is dramatically muted by comparison. Everything is dramatically muted by comparison. Still, this is redolent of dust, preserved citrus, and light florals. The entry is sweet with jammy citrus, spicy on the expansion with complex herbal ivy and cilantro notes. Well balanced tasty oak and herbal bitters on the finish. Still one of my favorite ryes, but it steps aside when the Boss is on the same table.