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WhistlePig Leads the Rye Revolution

The origins and future of straight rye whiskey

Panorama of WhistlePig Rye Whiskey

In mountainous regions of North America, groundhogs—also known as woodchucks or whistlepigs—can be spotted among rocky outcroppings, standing as tiny sentries over unseen burrows.

These little guys probably don’t make you think much about craft American spirits, but as the legend has it, they inspired a namesake rye whiskey known as WhistlePig. While we don’t know for sure if an actual whistlepig influenced the naming of this East Coast-born spirit, we do know this: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey is leading the rye revolution in modern-day American spirits.

The story of WhistlePig is one of nostalgia for a pre-Prohibition era spirit: rye whiskey. This whiskey dates back to the era of George Washington, an early rye whiskey distiller in Mount Vernon, Virginia. After Prohibition, rye whiskey began to fade, replaced by corn-based whiskeys and bourbons. “Rye whiskey is the underdog of American whiskeys,” says National Sales Manager and Senior Steward of the Brand, Daniel Kahn. “But rye whiskey was America’s first true whiskey.” American whiskey was all rye-based until Prohibition, but during the New Deal, the corn subsidy spurred farmers to grow more corn—especially in the early 1930s. When Prohibition was repealed, corn whiskey became the leading type of American whiskey.

In the early 2000s, Philadelphia-born politician and entrepreneur Raj Bhakta had the dream of revitalizing this American pastime and spirit. In 2006 he bought a dilapidated dairy farm in Shoreham, Vermont, and in three years, that farm became the home of Bhakta’s brainchild: WhistlePig Whiskey.

Bhakta partnered with industry legend Dave Pickerell, former Master Distiller of Maker’s Mark. Pickerell was essential in sourcing WhistlePig’s exceptional, original reserve of rye from western Canada, and brought it to the farm to finish and bottle it. This was the source for the original bottled batch of WhistlePig rye whiskey. “We strive to be a premium rye whiskey,” Khan says. And since the 100-percent rye whiskey is a single grain, unmalted whiskey (meaning there is no malted barley, corn, or wheat involved), exceptional rye and flawless barrel aging are key to the resulting smooth flavor.

Currently, WhistlePig grows its own rye, barrel-ages the product, and bottles it by hand on-site. The farm also owns its own oak forest, which it strips and ships to a cooperage that later sends back virgin oak barrels for aging. In July of 2015, Whistle Pig will officially open the doors to its Vermont distillery, truly taking the product from grain to glass in its fully integrated estate facility.

Today, WhistlePig distributes 36,000 cases of whiskey per year, and distributes to liquor stores in Denver, Colorado. This summer, WhistlePig will release a sustained new product called “Old World,” which is the ideal composition of Sauternes, Madeira, and Port finishes. Two of their fine products include the 10-Year Straight Rye and the Old World Sauternes.

Whistle Pig 10-Year Straight Rye

A bottle shot of WhistlePig Rye Whiskey
Pickerell spent more than a year scouring North America for the most exquisite stock of top-shelf rye offerings, and found it in western Canada. This spawned the flagship 10 Year rye, finished in bourbon barrels in barns on the farm, bottled by hand at nearly 100-proof.

On the nose: Allspice, orange peel, anise, oak, and a hint of caramel
On the palate: Caramel and vanilla sweetness, followed by rye spice and mint
The finish: Long, warm, and full of butterscotch

Whistle Pig Old World Series

A bottle shot of WhistlePig Old World Series
The Old World series showcases the great potential of rye grains, and the shifting personality of rye whiskey aged in different barrels—those formerly used for Sauternes (a highly prized white Bordeaux), Port, and Maderia. Each barrel in the series is extremely limited, making these special editions rare as the Old World itself. Luckily, DiningOut was able to try a sip or two of the Sauternes finish.

On the nose: Honeydew melon and hints of salted caramel
On the palate: Bread, pistachio, and honey
The finish: Salt water taffy and yellow birch

—by Monica Parpal | Senior Editor