Local rye to be distilled into whiskey at Shoreham distillery
SHOREHAM — WhistlePig LLC is busy installing distillery equipment and is lining up plenty of oak barrels — some of them made from Vermont-grown white oak — in anticipation of beginning on-site production of its rye whiskey at its Quiet Valley Road farm in Shoreham as soon as next month.
Company officials also confirmed on Tuesday that WhistlePig will soon open a tasting room in Middlebury, in association with Danforth Pewter. Danforth is a nationally renowned manufacturer of pewter products that is headquartered on Middlebury’s Seymour Street.
“The vision has always been to have a grain-to-glass operation here on the (former Norris) farm,” said Leo Gibson, WhistlePig’s general counsel.
“We have basically got all the equipment here now.”
It was in 2007 that Raj Peter Bhakta purchased the former Norris Farm with the idea of planting rye on a portion of its 467 acres and distilling the grain into a high-quality whiskey. He and his associates have spent the past few years raising capital for the project and obtaining the requisite state and local permits needed to open a distillery. WhistlePig’s Act 250 application drew opposition from several neighbors who were concerned about such issues as traffic and the prospect that the company’s whiskey aging process might produce ethanol emissions in sufficient volume to spawn the growth and spread of Baudoinia Compniacensis, sometimes referred to as “black mold.”
The District 9 Environmental Commission ultimately issued WhistlePig an Act 250 permit in April of last year that, among other things, allows the company to operate a distillery using rye grown on site or imported from other sources; install a bottling room and an office suite to operate a facility to import, age, bottle and ship whiskey for resale; and erect a new whiskey storage building to accommodate up to 5,900 barrels of whiskey.
WhistlePig has thus far been sourcing whiskey from Canada and bottling it in Shoreham under its label. The company’s three current whiskeys have won critical acclaim and are now being distributed in more than 30 states, as well as in the U.K., Australia and Canada.
Now the stakes have only become higher for WhistlePig. Gibson said the company is taking great pains to ensure that the whiskey it produces on-site is at least equal to, if not better than, the product it is sourcing from Canada.
To that end, the company has planted two seasons’ worth of rye on roughly 300 acres at the farm. Some of that rye has already been harvested and is being stored in waterproof sacks; some of it has been sent to off-site distilleries. Quality rye, as well as premier equipment, will be the key inputs in the final whiskey product, Gibson explained.
Tuesday saw Bread Loaf Corp. workers renovating a 100-year-old barn at the farm for use as the distillery and some office space. WhistlePig will use a traditional “pot still method” in the distillation process, thanks to a 750-gallon copper still that has found a home in the barn. The seed heads of the rye will be shorn off the plants, ground up, mixed with water and yeast, then fermented in tanks. After three or four days, that fermented liquid will become a “distiller’s beer.” The solids are separated from beer, which is then heated. The alcohol is then captured as a moonshine in cooling pipes and then fed off to a separate container. That moonshine is then aged in wooden barrels until it achieves the desired quality for whiskey.
Gibson stressed only time will tell the quality of the whiskey that WhistlePig will produce on-site. But he and Bhakta are optimistic they will grow a winner. Carefully selected barrels will impart flavor notes to the whiskey as it ages through Vermont’s deliciously divergent weather patterns. Gibson explained that temperature swings cause the barrels to expand and contract. Expansion for the barrels allows for evaporation of any impurities within the liquid, he said.
Colder temperatures slow the aging process and allow the whiskey to mellow, according to Gibson.
“We think Vermont’s climate is favorable to releasing a younger product,” Gibson said, in comparing it to the whiskey aging process in points further south (like Kentucky) and in Scotland, which see less pronounced temperature swings.
“Eighteen years in Scotland is very different from 18 years in Vermont,” Gibson said.
WhistlePig officials are not yet certain when they will release their first crop of whiskey produced on the farm. But they are already taking steps to raise awareness of their brand.
Andy Toy, director of retail for Danforth, said the company’s Seymour Street outlet will provide space for a WhistlePig tasting room that is slated to open in early September. That tasting room will allow WhistlePig and Danforth to become part of a Middlebury Tasting Trail that is encompassing a growing number of local beer, cider, wine and spirits producers. Fans of locally crafted libations are encouraged to make a day of visiting multiple producers on the Tasting Trail, including Lincoln Peak Vineyard, the App Gap Distillery, Vermont Hard Cider, Otter Creek Brewing and the Drop-In Brewing Co.
“There is something bubbling, and we want to be a part of it,” Gibson said with a smile.
The tasting room was a logical extension of an ongoing collaboration between Danforth and WhistlePig, Toy noted. Danforth has made three pewter items for WhistlePig: A whiskey bottle topper, cufflinks and a coin bearing the company’s porcine mascot, Mortimer.
“We sell drink ware and there are certainly aspects of our production line that fit perfectly with (WhistlePig’s) products,” Toy said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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