The pivotal moment in the creation of Whistle Pig occurred in 2008, when master distiller Dave Pickerell left Brown-Foreman after 14 years of creating Maker’s Mark. Looking for interesting projects, he immediately became involved in the craft distilling movement. Along the way someone introduced him to Raj Peter Bhakta, an entrepreneur who had just purchased a 500-acre farm in Vermont. The two hit it off, and Whistle Pig was born in 2010: a ten year-old, 100 proof, 100% rye whiskey.
If you didn’t sleep through high school math, as I did, you’ve already calculated that something is amiss. How can a whiskey that made its debut in 2010 be ten years old? The truth is that Bhakta and Pickerell purchased the rye from a distillery in Canada, and it finished its aging process in Vermont. They won’t say where they got it, nor does it matter. Whistle Pig is a formidable, full-throttle whiskey, bold and dramatic, with complex flavors of coffee, vanilla, candied fruits and spice, bolstered by a fine herbal edge. Pickerell feels that the finished product hits the “sweet spot” in the crucial categories of proof, purity and age. It’s expensive ($70), and like all other good things in life, there isn’t enough of it. A mere 1,000 cases were released the first time around, but fear not---Bhakta has been growing his own rye up in Vermont, and dreams of creating a “farm to bar” distillery.
The good news is that Whistle Pig has just released a new expression called Triple One ($105). This formidable whiskey is 100% rye, of course, as well as 11 years old and 111 proof; this time there are 1100 cases to go around. On the nose, aromas of fresh herbs and pepper mingle with sweet scents of oak. It enters the mouth smoothly, and yields a rush of pepper and spice in the mid palate; the texture is soft and rich, and the whiskey is somehow balanced, despite the high level of alcohol. The finish seems endless (“So long,” in the words of Pickerell, “it’s got its own zip code”), with echoes of vanilla and crushed fresh herbs.
And what exactly is a whistle pig? It’s a groundhog or woodchuck, depending on what part of the country you come from. They actually do whistle, particularly when alarmed. According to Raj Peter Bhakta, he was hiking outside of the Rockies in Vail one day, when he saw an elderly man with white hair barreling down the mountain on a bike. The man stopped, got directly in Bhakta’s face, and demanded in a thick French accent: “Could it be a whistle pig?” With that, he sped off. Bhakta decided that this was the strangest bit of social interaction he was ever going to have, and that it was “a sign from the Gods” that he had to do something called Whistle Pig.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.