Rye is a hardy grain, perhaps best known (or at least in our opinion, enjoyed) for its use in creating one of the great American spirits — rye whiskey. Most prevalent in the USA before Prohibition (1920-1933), rye whiskey has had a resurgence over recent years, with the spirit’s growth in popularity being somewhat monopolised by the trailblazing, Vermont-based distillery, WhistlePig.
Founded in 2007, WhistlePig has gone from strength to strength in the international spirits scene, already becoming the world’s most awarded rye whiskey and for good reason. Their commercial success makes their farm and distillery operation even more extraordinary. Stretching for 500 acres over fertile agricultural land, the estate is home to the famously sweet-natured Kunekune breed of pig, as well as bees, horses, sheep, goats and 20 acres of maple trees. Not to mention their prized Vermont oak trees, used to make their very own estate-grown barrels. It is this sort of attention to detail which makes the world of fine wine and spirits so gripping, and WhistlePig most certainly understand this. It runs at the core of everything they do.
The brilliance within a bottle of WhistlePig can be largely attributed to the influence of the legendary late Master Distiller, Dave Pickerell. After firmly making his mark at Maker’s Mark for 14 years, he helped bring WhistlePig to life bringing both expertise and creativity to what was then, quite the ambitious project. Pickerell’s influence is still widely felt throughout the business; from his uniquely designed copper pot still, to his custom charred and toasted barrels, the distillery continues to be an innovator in its field, with a backbone of tradition and an obsessive eye on crafting the most delicious rye whiskeys around.
The Triple Terroir Ethos
Terroir is a constant reference point when it comes to wine. While it may be used less in the conversation around spirits, terroir within whisk(e)y in particular is no less crucial. WhistlePig put full focus on their triple terroir ethos, honing in on three components: local grain, water and wood.
This grain to glass approach starts in the fields, where rye, corn, wheat and barley are grown in rotation. This enables WhistlePig to produce between 1,500 and 2,000 barrels a year from grain exclusively grown on the farm. The rye is then proofed with water from the surrounding area. Finally, estate or hyper local Vermont oak is used to create WhistlePig’s signature Vermont Oak Barrels. Due to the shorter growing season that these oak trees experience in Vermont, they have more growth rings. When the whiskey comes into contact with these growth rings in the barrel, it imparts flavour, depth and complexity. Tasting across the WhistlePig collection, the impressive impact of these barrels are clear.
Being experimental can of course result in some sharp learning curves. Meghan Ireland, WhistlePig’s blender, once said she’s “willing to put whiskey into anything”. Although some of her tests have been less successful – her coffee barrel test was, in her own words, “awful”– many results have proved to be truly phenomenal and make it to bottle. Take the WhistlePig Old World Rye 12 Year Old; aged in 63% Madeira, 30% Sauternes and 7% Port barrels (a treatment often seen in Scotch production), the resulting whiskey has beautiful honey-kissed fruit notes and a dark chocolate finish. It’s one of our personal favourites.
Small in scale, giant in impact
Despite having such a large presence in the spirits scene, WhistlePig has a relatively small production, releasing just 100,000 cases in 2020. Its intimacy has many benefits, including the ability to put enormous onus on how to weather the impacts of climate change. Jeff Kozak, CEO, believes the smaller scale of WhistlePig allows it to react swiftly as needed. For example, the changing weather patterns can impact when the rye needs to be planted as well as affecting its growth rate. Additionally, the effects of climate change on the maturation process are not overlooked by Kozak and the WhistlePig team, who have no plans to control the temperature of their warehouses. The approach throughout their production is simple: work with nature, live a little laissez-faire, and use the skills of their highly expert team to adapt and adjust season by season.
Rye whiskies to try
The original offering, coined the ‘Quintessential Rye’. It is aged in American Oak then former bourbon barrels (with 96 Points from the Wine Enthusiast). Very bold and flavourful, it is barrelled at 50% ABV, 100 proof.
An ‘Old World Rye’, with the spirit divided into one of three barrels – Madeira (63%), Sauternes (30%) and Port (7%). This is a treatment often seen in Scotch, resulting in honey-kissed fruit notes and a dark chocolate finish.