WhistlePig releases whiskey with local rye
SHOREHAM — Raj Bhakta is surrounded by whiskey, so it’s no stretch for him to make a toast.
And the ubiquitous founder of Shoreham-based WhistlePig Rye Whiskey believes he has much to celebrate right now, with the release last week of the company’s first installment of whiskey using natural resources culled from the 400-acre farm off Quiet Valley Road.
Bhakta also announced the litigation that once threatened his position within the company he founded almost a decade ago has come to an end.
“This is the realization of a dream,” Bhakta said last week of the release of FarmStock, a product featuring whiskey distilled, aged and bottled on the WhistlePig farm in Vermont. “It’s a historic moment for the company, and I think for whiskey in general.”
They’re calling FarmStock a “triple terroir release,” which defines the combination of the three primary resources that go into the product, according to Bhakta: Grain, water, and oak — all harvested on site.
“Full vertical integration,” Bhakta said.
Around 20 percent of FarmStock is made up of this first-ever batch of WhistlePig’s on-site-produced whiskey. Another 49 percent comes from 5-year aged whiskey from Alberta Distillers, finished in WhistlePig’s Vermont oak. The remaining 31 percent is made up of 12-year aged whiskey from the MPG distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind.
“This whiskey combines the best elements of our aged portfolio with the brightness and youthful vigor of our triple terroir whiskey,” Bhakta said.
“It’s like combining the wisdom of a 70-year-old with the youth and dynamism of a 20-year old,” added Bhakta, no stranger to showmanship. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Officials were particularly concerned about how the barrels — made of oak harvested from the farm property — would affect the flavor of the whiskey as it ages.
“We started the Vermont oak project as a test, and it has been an extraordinary success,” he said. “There’s more flavor in northern oak.”
WhistlePig has developed a devoted following for the whiskey that it has thus far obtained from Canada. Company officials have therefore had their fingers crossed hoping the raw ingredients culled from the Shoreham property would yield a whiskey that could live up to the brand.
Mission accomplished, according to Bhakta.
“It’s better than hoped for,” Bhakta said. “The whiskey coming from the still here is creamier, richer in flavor, while still being vibrant. It’s got a great combination of character and smoothness that is characteristic of all WhistlePig (varieties), but especially true in the FarmStock.”
The product is 86 proof and has a suggested retail price of $89.99.
WhistlePig’s plan, according to Bhakta, is to gradually increase the amount of its on-site-produced whiskey.
“We will continue, for the next several years, to add some of our older whiskey in, but basically, FarmStock will be the beginning of a journey of an increasing proportion in both percentage and in the age of the whiskey that comes from the farm.”
Demand for FarmStock’s limited first release of approximately 200 barrels has been strong, according to Bhakta.
“We have three times as many orders as we have product to ship, as of now,” he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Bhakta expects more abundant FarmStock reserves during the years to come. And more whiskey could eventually drive a need for more storage space for aging. Bhakta acknowledged WhistlePig has inquired about the availability of space within the former 116,000-square-foot headquarters of Connor Homes.
“It’s something we have thought of, but it’s not a high priority,” Bhakta said.
It was in 2007 that Bhakta moved to Shoreham and bought the former Norris dairy farm. He lined up investors to help him pursue the goal of creating the first farm-to-bottle distillery in the country.
It hasn’t been easy.
Producing whiskey takes time, capital and permits.
WhistlePig’s Act 250 application for its distillery and storage facility drew opposition from several neighbors who were concerned about traffic and the prospect that 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 awarded WhistlePig its Act 250 permit in 2014.
Last year, Bhakta became embroiled in a legal dispute with WhistlePig’s board of directors. Two board members had sought to remove him from the board and from his administrative post within the company, citing alleged offenses ranging from fraud to a 2015 stop by police in Shoreham for driving under the influence (for which he pled to a reduced charge of negligent operation).
Bhakta fought the case in court, and declared last week that “the swords are in the scabbards, and I am focused on being founder and chief steward of the brand, (dealing with) sales and marketing, getting a vision for the brand. It was a rough year last year, but I think we’re all lined up very well for long-term growth.”
Bhakta will maintain the title of founder and chief steward of the brand. WhistlePig has brought in a new operating manager, Roland Van Bommel, who Bhakta called “a longtime spirits executive.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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