Whisky Advocate

A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta

March 19th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxWhen Robert Simonson alerted me recently that the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean” and confirm that the whiskey* they bottle is from Canada, I was skeptical. However, in an article written for the upcoming summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, Simonson quotes WhistlePig’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell, saying that the original WhistlePig came from Canada’s Alberta Distillers (ADL), and that some of it still does.

Here’s some of what that piece will say:

“It’s fairly common knowledge that that’s where we started,” Pickerell said of ADL. “What’s not common knowledge is that’s not where we are now. We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada.” One of those Canadian distilleries, however, is still ADL.

Has several years of badgering from American whiskey bloggers softened the stance at WhistlePig? Finally, Pickerell has stated for the record that at least some of the whiskey is from Canada. He also went on record in 2010 that this is the very best rye whiskey in the world.

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

When WhistlePig was released in 2010, the firm’s publicist was blunt that they did not want people to know that the whiskey was Canadian. So I was surprised when WhistlePig brand owner Raj Bhakta contacted me last week wanting to talk. Speaking of his whiskey’s Canadian heritage he was quick to say, “That’s not something I’ve shied away from,” although he did later concede that might not have been his approach in the beginning. In any case, he is talking now, and is completely candid that the whiskey they are bottling today is still from the same single Canadian source, not five distilleries as Pickerell implies.

“Yes, we’ve been growing our own grain,” he continued, “and we have been contracting others to distill it for us. We wanted to see how it turned out. That whiskey is currently maturing on the farm in Vermont, but it is not yet ready for release.” And the whiskey in the bottles? It’s still all Canadian rye whiskey, and will be for years to come.

“We’re deeply in bed with Canada, it’s just not our lead,” he continues. “WhistlePig is a Canadian-U.S. collaboration to the core. The latest batch has spent four years on the farm in our own barrels, so much of the flavor is from wood we put it into in Vermont.”

Shortly after Bhakta bought WhistlePig farm in 2007, he began casting about for business ideas. A mutual friend introduced him to Pickerell. He had found what he called “the best rye whiskey in the world,” in Canada and wanted to bottle it. However, try as he might, Pickerell could not convince any of the big players to sell Canadian whiskey at a premium price. Bhakta, meanwhile, wanted to create “America’s first luxury rye.”

Rye growing at WhistlePig Rye Farm

Rye growing at WhistlePig Farm

“Dave had the product and the pedigree, I had the entrepreneurial gusto,” he told me. But after so many rejections, Pickerell wasn’t sure how to tell people the whiskey was Canadian.

“I’ve never not wanted to disclose,” Bhakta told me, citing what he called “the Templeton debacle.” But, he added, “you don’t start out saying, ‘This is Canadian whiskey.’ It’s looked down on. It’s been an interesting navigation. It’s a tricky piece—the people who react are the geeks of whiskey—but we don’t want to confuse the general public.

“Look, I’m a salesman with a bit of P.T Barnum in me,” Bhakta continues, “and I like that.” According to Bhakta, rather than talking about the Canadian connection, they decided to focus on their long-term vision of making rye whiskey in Vermont. “We’re not trying to dance around the issue, but how do you navigate this?” he wondered.

“We have the opportunity to sell younger whiskey,” he noted, “but we are storing our stocks and doing barrel experimentation. Five years from now the critics will come to see there was a much greater vision here. I feel I am getting attacked for building the thing the right way.”

One thing is certain from my conversation with Bhakta. There are no stills at WhistlePig. Although they have applied for a permit to open a distillery, they are still awaiting approval. For now WhistlePig is a farm, pure and simple, and not a drop of the whiskey bottled under the WhistlePig label was actually distilled by Dave Pickerell: sourced, selected, and approved, but not distilled.

 

*Rather than switch back and forth between the American “whiskey” and Canadian “whisky,” this one time we decided to just use the American spelling. Davin, no shy Canadian, approved, for which we thank him.

35 Responses to “A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta”

  1. I agree with the need to hold whisk(e)y producers to high standards of transparency and accuracy in their statements.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Why is it that WhistlePig is 100% Canadian whisky, yet the label does not say anywhere “IMPORTED” or “PRODUCT OF CANADA”. It used to….. Isn’t that requited by TTB?

    https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/viewColaDetails.do?action=publicFormDisplay&ttbid=13261001000089

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Don’t know for sure; maybe it’s considered an American product because it’s brought across in bulk and bottled in Vermont…though that seems tenuous. There may be a brief aging in Vermont (“finished in bourbon barrels” on the label), but I’m not sure of that. There’s actually quite a bit of room in the regulations, and this may also come under the NAFTA regs. But in short? I’ll go back to what I said first: don’t know for sure.

      • Jim W/ says:

        If a car made entirely of foreign parts and assembled in Greenville, SC can be called “made in American,” why not a whiskey distilled and aged in Canada, and then bottled in Vermont?

        I’m just making a point that this “made in Vermont” gripe is going after something that extends far, far beyond whiskey.

  3. two-bit cowboy says:

    I don’t come close to grasping the need to standardize the spelling of whiskey. Even the stubborn New York Times updated its style guide some years ago to respect and reflect the spelling based on the country of origin’s usage.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      It was for this story only. We’re always very careful to make the switch, but in this case…exactly when the whisky from Canada became whiskey from America got very blurred (as someone else pointed out, apparently the TTB had the same problem). That’s why we took the decision seriously enough to make a point of it, and note that it was a one time thing. It does not represent a policy shift on our part.

    • sam k says:

      To back up what Lew said, there’s not another publication on the planet that is as fastidious about the correct spelling of whisky/whiskey than Whisky Advocate and its blog…every time except this one.

      • Lew Bryson says:

        Thanks, Sam (our copy editor, the guy who – along with the sharp-eyed Melanie Gochnauer – makes sure that we get that right). And I’d reiterate; this time it was by choice, for one time only.

  4. portwood says:

    What are the chances Whistlepig has paid for one (or more) full page ads in the current and/or future editions of the magazine?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Really? Sonny, that’s not even worth making fun of. As we’ve said over and over, our editorial has nothing to do with ad sales; never has.

  5. Bleargh says:

    Haven’t we known for years that WhistlePig started with Canadian rye, and wasn’t operating a distillery? No new revelations there.

  6. Thomas Tiberius says:

    Dave Pickerell is a blender, not a master distiller. Their lies still continue.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Thomas? Did you read the last paragraph of the story? Dave HAS been a master distiller (at Maker’s Mark, for years), but Davin clearly states that he did not and does not distill at WhistlePig. And of course, a master distiller does a lot more than just distill. Pickerell’s more than earned the title, regardless of what he’s doing at WhistlePig.

      • DavindeK says:

        Yes, Dave Pickerell has earned his Master Distiller title honestly. He’s been distilling great whisky for well over a decade.

      • Jim W says:

        Thomas is pretty typical of the troll that infests this debate. They see everything as black or white, no grey.

  7. Tom Alexander says:

    I believe the same issue exists with Masterson’s. As a Canadian, it is a conundrum to me that we distill fantastic rye whisky, then sell it in bulk to US companies like WhistlePig and 35 Maple, where they bottle it and sell it back to us at a premium price. On one hand, it greatly irks me. On the other hand, WhistlePig and Masterson’s are fantastic whiskies, so I don’t stop buying them. I just wish we bottled them ourselves!

    Great post, Davin, as always – but I do wish a stance was taken on the labeling issue. WhistlePig and Masterson’s should be labeled as Canadian whisky in the US, and it is flat out wrong that they are not. Unless publications like Whisky Advocate take a public stance against those sorts of practices, the industry will not change, and in this matter it should.

    • DavindeK says:

      Thanks Tom. I am not qualified to comment on US laws rules or regulations. The latest batch of WhistlePig was re-gauged into other barrels at WhistlePig Farms and has spent and additional four years maturing in Vermont, so there is US added value but I do not know the labelling rules.

      The most recent Masterson’s I have was bottled late in 2013 and is clearly labelled “Product of Canada.”

      The high-speed bottling lines in Canadian distilleries make boutiquey batches ultra expensive to produce here.

  8. Chris says:

    They’re not trying to dance around the issue that they don’t make anything? This clown was on Bloomberg talking about how American whiskey historically never had an age statement, and pretending that WhistlePig is somehow American whiskey. It’s unfortunate he’s such a slimy character, because the whiskey is great. But I try to buy my whiskey from people who aren’t out to deceive me.

    • DavindeK says:

      I can only say that Raj Bhakta was candid, unguarded, and direct in his responses to my questions. He hid nothing and it was a long, wide-ranging discussion. I now see the current batches as stepping-stones to Vermont-distilled rye made from home-grown grain.

      The Vermont papers report that his application to begin distilling has been held up for ages by objections from a neighbour. However they also show that Bhakta is sincere in setting up a farm distillery.

      To their credit, he and Dave Pickerell are engaging other distillers to work with their Vermont grain so they’ll understand it and be able to hit the ground running when their application to operate a still is finally approved.

      • Chris says:

        Did you ask about how the whiskey they produce eventually will differ from the current product? Since they’ll be using grain from Vermont, not western Canada, and (presumably) pot stills instead of column stills, I’d assume that the whiskies will be fairly distinct from each other.

        • DavindeK says:

          I didn’t ask. They are currently having others do test runs for them so they can figure that out. However, Dave Pickerell has already said it will be different. Different doesn’t mean better or not as good. I’m not certain, but I believe their whisky has always been distilled in a pot still.

  9. Joe Selby says:

    So good, we at Kappy’s FIne Wine & Spirits just bought an entire barrel. Whether it’s from Canada, Vermont, or anywhere else, we care most about providing fantastic whiskey to our customers. WhistlePig is fantastic whiskey. ‘Nuff said.

  10. Here we have the heart of the matter: It’s Canadian, so they were fearing that the El-Cheapo image of Canadian whisky might hurt sales.

    But the constant throwing of smoke grenades created more and more an impression of dishonesty, and apparently the Whistlepig makers feared that this could become even more detrimental to sales than “confusion” of the “general public”.

    This long overdue public committment is another episode of the ongoing renaissance of Canadian whisky. And hopefully such thoughts which lead to the concealing of Whistlepig’s origin will be a thing of the past soon.

  11. Josh says:

    I’ve come to learn that anybody who needs to spend so much time spinning, explaining, evading, marketing and so on is 99% full of b.s. and have no reason to suspect otherwise with the Whistle Pig folks, who make the Michter’s snake oil peddlers look downright transparent by comparison.

    • Chris says:

      Come now Josh, let’s not go crazy here. Michter’s is still in a class of their own when it comes to obfuscation, lying by omission, and flat-out dishonesty.

  12. Randy P says:

    This conversation makes me wonder if it is easier (and more profitable) to get Canadian product across the border in barrels rather than in bottles. I would think a company would need a lawyer(s) to navigate the tax law, import/export law, as well as the labyrinth of laws surrounding alcohol. Maybe WhistlePig and Masterson’s have found the best way to do it?

  13. Tom Alexander says:

    Thank you Davin – I did note his comments in your interview re: the recent re-gauging, which yes adds an American influence to a Canadian distillate! Re: Masterson’s, my understanding though is that in Canada it is labelled “Product of Canada”, but in the US it is not. I may be wrong here but I think I read that somewhere.

    Neither WhistlePig nor Masterson’s label themselves as American rye, of course, though that is implied in their marketing (more than implied when you use Bat Masterson as a hook!) But labelling laws aside, it is unfortunate – though technically legal – that they are not marketed as Canadian whisky internationally. They are great whiskies, and may add prestige to the international profile of Canadian whisky, which could be of great benefit to our industry.

    Randy P – I think our whisky crosses the border in tanker trucks, not barrels…as for tax/duties, I have no idea, I don’t work in the drinks industry…

  14. the truth says:

    Basically this guy says- I lied before, because I needed to, but now that you let me in your house, i’m sort of going to come clean with an explanation….

  15. Josh says:

    Just say “no” and buy something else. Don’t enable and enrich this sneaky, obtuse dirtball. Too much good stuff made by good people out there, I say as I sip from a bottle of Four Rose Single Barrel after a dram of Henry McKenna BIB 10 Year Old.

  16. Josh says:

    Just looked back on the interview and this Raj creature says that he’d proud to be like P.T. Barnum, whose most famous quote is “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Who in their right mind would give this oily cretin their hard-earned money?

  17. Kevin says:

    I like honesty. But I like good whiskey better. And WhistlePig is great Rye whiskey. I will buy and drink WhistlePig over lesser Rye distilled and aged in the US regardless of any label games that are played. In the end, it is taste that counts.

  18. whiskyman says:

    I have Masterson’s in the US and it is clearly labeled as a product of Canada. I think in Canada it is double labeled. For French requirements.?

  19. whiskyman says:

    And to an above reply regarding the Bat Masterson inspiration implying an American product…. Bat Masterson is Canadian, born in Quebec! I feel as though Masterson’s did not shy away from Canada at all and is proud to say it is a 100% Canadian product..? Just my two cents. Clearly I enjoy a good dram of the Mastersons Rye :)

    • Tom Alexander says:

      whiskyman, thanks for the clarification. I was going by a review of the American bottling that had said it was not labeled as Canadian. And actually, yes I knew Bat Masterson was born in Canada, but he did all his work in the US and, much like Mary Pickford, is more of an American icon than a Canadian one.

  20. Dale_Nixon says:

    To further complicate matters in regards to getting the story straight with no chaser, Whistle Pig released a special “Vermont Edition”

    But still there is no still in the Whistle Pig “distillery”

    If the country tweed suit fit, I’m sure Raj would just buy a town in Alberta and rename it Vermont just to cover the bases…

    Farming rye is great, but growing green is obviously better.

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