WhistlePig’s new distillery unveiled
SHOREHAM — Raj P. Bhakta has always sought to make a splash, whether it be as a contestant on the reality TV show “The Apprentice” or as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Saturday, Oct. 3, was no different.
Bhakta used visual pyrotechnics and enlisted the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s brass band to officially inaugurate the new WhistlePig Rye Whiskey distillery at the company’s 1,300-acre farm off Quiet Valley Road in Shoreham. The distillery will process rye grown on the farm into whiskey. The company has thus far been sourcing whiskey from Canada, a practice that will continue in light of the positive reviews the potent potable has been receiving from national wine and spirits publications.
But Bhakta’s message at Saturday’s bash was all about WhistlePig’s domestic product.
“What we are going to be making here is the country’s first, true farm-to-bottle whiskey,” Bhakta said during an interview. “We are not only distilling it here from grain entirely procured from the farm, it is also being finished in our own oak harvested from the farm. It’s taking vertical integration and next-generation agriculture up to an entirely new level.”
Bread Loaf Corp. workers recently finished renovating a 100-year-old barn at the farm that houses the distillery and some offices. WhistlePig uses 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 are shorn off the plants, ground up, mixed with water and yeast, then fermented in tanks. After three or four days, that fermented liquid becomes a “distiller’s beer.” The solids are separated from the 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.
And Bhakta noted the company has been sourcing oak from its farm to make wooden barrels for the aging process. The wood will impart some of the flavor notes in the whiskey.
“The two primary inputs you have in whiskey are your grain … and your wood,” Bhakta said. “Of the two, wood becomes the more prominent component.”
WhistlePig began growing rye at the farm around five years ago. Bhakta believes the company will release some whiskey made from its own rye later this year. The goal is to begin releasing product aged in its own oak barrels as soon as the middle of next year.
The first year is expected to yield around 1,000 barrels of product, which equates to 15,000 to 20,000 cases, according to Bhakta. He hopes WhistlePig’s farm-based product will amount to 25,000 cases within the next four or five years.
“I think with our homegrown product, our biggest trouble for a decade is going to be keeping up with demand,” he said. “We will have very limited output for the first couple of years, and that will continue for four or five years. Our big problem is going to be keeping up with demand, and scarcity. We will release in Vermont first.”
Plans call for the farm-based product to be priced in the “mid-$50s to mid-$60s” per bottle, according to Bhakta.
“For a true farm-to-bottle product, aged at least four years, that is a steal,” he said. “Accordingly, we want to deliver extraordinary value and reach to a new set of consumers who may not necessary want to, or be able to, afford an $85 bottle of whiskey. At $55, I think we will be able to attract a new group of people.”
Bhakta took some time on Saturday to reflect on what has been a lengthy process to complete the distillery. He and his associates 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 traffic and the prospect of the company’s whiskey aging process producing 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.
“For a while, I wondered what the hell I had done, having a 500-acre former dairy farm in the middle of nowhere in Vermont as a 32-year-old single guy,” Bhakta said. “I began to think — and that thinking was sped up by a financial crisis in 2008 — on how to make this farm work. And several ideas came out. One of the ideas was to start a brewery.”
Otter Creek Brewing founder Lawrence Miller was among those present at Saturday’s WhistlePig celebration, and Bhakta singled him out from the crowd.
“(Miller) was the first guy I ever talked to about getting into the alcohol drinks business, and he recommended that I don’t do it,” Bhakta said with a chuckle. “Many people did the same thing, they said, ‘You can’t create a whiskey company out of thin air; you can’t take a dairy farm in Vermont and make it the home of America’s premier rye whiskey company.’ The odds were entirely stacked against us, but through a series of what I would say was very ambitious and lucky planning, things came together with the help of a number of people.”
He thanked his wife, Danhee, and reserved special kudos for two former Middlebury College students who helped him advance the fledgling company several years ago: Daniel Khan and Michael Hodge. Bhakta explained he met the pair while speaking at Middlebury College on the subject of the history of entrepreneurship. They both applied for internships with the company and have since become “the pillars” of WhistlePig’s sales force, according to Bhakta.
“We see a great, long future ahead of us,” he said. “What a great thing that in this country that someone can move in without an idea, without a plan, with just a dream to make something happen, and with the help of many people.”
RAJ ON DONALD
Bhakta was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the 13th Congressional District in Pennsylvania in 2006 and was “fired” by Donald Trump during week nine of season two of TV’s “The Apprentice.” So it seemed only natural to ask for his reaction to Trump’s early success, on the Republican side, in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
Bhakta is treading lightly in talk about his erstwhile reality TV mentor, noting that Vermont is the home state of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democrat nomination for president.
“I hate (Trump’s) position on immigration, however it’s ironic that a reality TV showman is actually elevating the level of truthfulness in politics, along with Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I am deeply, deeply torn over Donald Trump’s success and what it says about America. On the one hand, it can’t get any worse than the jokers we have in office right now. Maybe we need a new set of jokers.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]