‘Apprentice’ starts whiskey biz
SHOREHAM — Raj Peter Bhakta was fired by Donald Trump during week nine of the second season (2004) of the NBC reality television show “The Apprentice.”
Bhakta no longer has to worry about “The Donald.”
Six years after his stint on “The Apprentice,” Bhakta is now his own boss in a new entrepreneurial reality he has carved out for himself far away from the asphalt jungle of New York City. Shedding his trademark bowtie and suit for more casual attire, Bhakta can be seen these days bottling rye whiskey on the former Norris dairy farm he recently purchased on Palmer Road in Shoreham.
The gregarious, onetime Republican Congressional candidate from Pennsylvania plans within the next few years to plant rye as far as the eye can see on his 500-acre spread that once hosted 200 dairy cows. That rye will provide the essence of “WhistlePig Whiskey,” an organic spirit that Bhakta will distill and age within buildings on the farm.
Tuesday saw Bhakta and a small work crew bottling a batch of aged rye whiskey that was made in western Canada but is being marketed under the WhistlePig label on an interim basis. Plans call for WhistlePig to manufacture its first “domestic” version next year using homegrown rye and other ingredients, setting the stage for what Bhakta anticipates will be a lengthy run for a unique — and above all profitable — value-added agricultural enterprise in Addison County.
“This is something I intend to nurture and build for years to come — over decades,” Bhakta said during a WhistlePig tour on Tuesday.
It was during a sojourn in Addison County around five years ago that Bhakta fell in love with the local countryside and quality of life. The Pennsylvania native, former investment banker, Internet company founder and hotelier elected to purchase the former Norris Farm, but determined the property would have to generate some revenue.
“I was effectively searching for a way to combine a couple of my personal passions — whiskey, and the ability to make money,” Bhakta said. “Obviously, traditional farming is an enormously challenging environment.”
Bhakta considered several non-dairy options for the farm, including a microbrewery and vodka production. He quickly determined the market was already quite saturated with such beverages. But after doing some research, he concluded the U.S. market was thirsty for rye whiskey — a spirit he notes was a colonial favorite of the Green Mountain Boys and could again be manufactured successfully in Vermont’s rollercoaster climate.
“Through WhistlePig Farm and the distillery, I am going to be able to combine the use of the land — where we are going to be growing all the rye organically — distill it, and in the process create the country’s first single-estate rye distillery, where all inputs are grown on the farm,” Bhakta said. “We’re not quite there yet.”
WhistlePig workers have already planted an initial crop of rye, due to be harvested next summer. That would allow for a maiden offering of on-site manufactured WhistlePig rye whiskey late next year.
Ultimately, Bhakta wants to offer substantially aged product — ideally 10 years in American oak barrels — from his farm. Until then, he will offer younger varieties and he said he will be able to expedite the aging process through using smaller barrels, among other techniques.
“I expect we will have a product of our own out next summer, called ‘White Pig,’ which is a new whiskey,” Bhakta said.
Bhakta has enlisted an expert to help him get his brand started: Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, who formerly spent 14 years in that position at Maker’s Mark, a premier whiskey distiller in Loretto, Ky. Pickerell has been assisting Bhakta in designing his future distillery. At the same time, Pickerell has been traveling throughout North America looking for rye whiskey stocks to bottle under the WhistlePig label until the fledgling company can offer its own product.
Pickerell located a Canadian source, which Bhakta said he is unable to reveal due to a confidentiality agreement. That source will yield enough for 1,000 cases, each containing 12 bottles. Each bottle contains 750 milliliters of 100-proof rye whiskey. Connoisseurs in markets ranging from New York to San Francisco are not batting an eyelash at the $70-per-bottle retail price, as all of the WhistlePig inventory is already pre-sold, according to Bhakta. He said whiskey aficionados are beginning to rediscover ryes, which Bhakta called “the most flavorful” of all the whiskeys. Generally speaking, bourbon is made from corn, scotch is made from barley, and of course rye whiskeys are made from rye, Bhakta noted.
“It is a hand-picked product that is getting phenomenal reviews,” Bhakta said, citing, among others, a 96-point rating in Wine Enthusiast magazine. “Because of its intense flavor profile, it competes well against the highest-end scotches.”
He realizes that WhistlePig will soon have to stand on its own four feet.
“This is our opening offering, as a brand,” he added. “When our own whiskey is ready and in the barrels, we hope it will be even better.”
CHOOSING A NAME
Asked how he picked the name “WhistlePig,” Bhakta smiled and recalled walking down a trail some months ago and encountering a white-haired man riding in his direction on a bike. The man stopped, came right up to Bhakta and inexplicably blurted out in a thick French accent, “Could it be a WhistlePig?” then left.
Bhakta joked he considered the randomness and quirkiness of the event “a sign from God,” and elected to name his company “WhistlePig.”
Only time will tell whether WhistlePig establishes staying power in the reinvigorating rye whiskey market.
“We are essentially breaking new ground here,” Bhakta said. “We’re going to see how the whiskey ages in this climate.”
The product will not be temperature-controlled, which Bhakta believes will lead to an expedited aging process in Vermont.
“It’s that expansion-contraction, and interaction with the barrel, that determines how your whiskey ages,” he said.
WhistlePig distillers are working with the Addison County Economic Development Corp. and the University of Vermont Extension System, among others, to put the business on a strong footing. It will take some significant renovations and capital investments — including distilling and cooling equipment, along with hundreds of American oak barrels — to get WhistlePig rolling. Some of those oaks barrels will have to be specially charred to impart extra flavor to the rye whiskey. Once in full operation, Bhakta anticipates employing around 15 full- and part-time workers.
He’s off to a nice start, and the former “Apprentice” is now shooting higher than Trump Towers.
“My objective is to make the best whiskey in the world — period,” Bhakta said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].