It only happens about once a year, or less, that I find myself uninhibitedly gleeful about a new spirit. In the past there have been just a handful — Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, St. George absinthe, Weber Haus cachaca, to name a few. But I must gush that recently I had the rye whiskey of my dreams: 100 percent rye, perfectly balanced, layered beautifully with spice and fruit, impossibly smooth. It’s called WhistlePig, and even though it’s just now hitting the market it becomes in my mind the benchmark of quality to which all aged ryes should aspire. It’s got a great story behind it, to boot, and I was fortunate to be able to sit down recently with the mastermind behind the brand, who illuminated for me not only his own product, but also the complicated and often opaque world of rye whiskey.
A master distiller with an unconventional background
Dave Pickerell, the brains behind WhistlePig, might be described as sort of a “still whisperer.” He served for 14 years as the master distiller of Maker’s Mark bourbon and spent years as consultant to large distillers all over the world, including China, Scotland, Russia and the Dominican Republic (“I’ve made some of the best and worst whiskeys in the world,” he told me), but he is not a down-home Kentucky good-ol’-boy, such as you’ll often find in the Bourbon industry. Rather, he grew up in Ohio, attended West Point on football scholarship and has a masters in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville, taught chemistry at his alma mater West Point and was a natural in the study of thermodynamics. Though his foray into distilling might have diverted his academic career in chemistry, his relationship to spirits still plenty scientific. “I can close my eyes and see molecules running around the still,” he says.
Ironically, though, he had nothing to do with distilling the current batch of WhistlePig. Rather, what you find in the bottle today is stuff that Pickerell found.
Why did a master distiller have to bottle someone else’s excess rye whiskey rather than making it himself? Does this fact diminish the product that it wasn’t distilled by the genius distiller behind the brand? In the answer to those questions lies the key to the mystery behind why so many rye whiskeys have failed to completely satisfy me and why WhistlePig is special. But let’s look at the big picture.
An obsessive study of rye whiskey
For a whiskey to be called rye, it only needs to have more than 50 percent rye in it. The rest can be corn, wheat, whatever. Distillers rarely give out the contents of their mashbill, so you never know really how much rye is in any whiskey. And, if you don’t know how much rye or corn or whatever, it’s hard to make educated judgments about why you might like one particular whiskey over another. In the two years since he left Maker’s Mark in 2008 to pursue his own dream, Pickerell dedicated himself to two things: investigating the world of microdistilling and figuring out how he could impact it; and studying rye whiskey with an obsessive’s fervor because he (like me) was utterly fascinated by it.
Of course, Pickerell’s rye whiskey investigations have far exceeded mine, which rarely range beyond a bottle, a glass and a conversation. Pickerell already knew how rye behaves in a still, as compared to others grains. He had sampled various versions from all over the world and had tasted barrel after individual barrel in the warehouses of some of the world’s greatest distillers. And he found, as I have, that great rye whiskey was rare, if not impossible to find.
Why? Age has something to do with it. Rye is spicy and sharp distillate as opposed to corn, which is much rounder and sweeter. It’s a basic tenet of whiskey-making, so Pickerell knew that the grain and the wood in a good whiskey need to be balanced. Specifically, he found that ryes aged less than nine years in wood are lean and green (think Anchor Distilling’s Old Potrero ryes) and may need corn to round them out to make them palatable to a wider audience. But with the addition of corn (think less compelling ryes like Jim Beam), you lose the purity. Ryes older than 11 years, he found, would get too woody and you’d lose the expression of grain.
So, rye aged between nine and 11 years — an average of 10 — is the stuff WhistlePig is made of. And it’s astonishing that Whistle Pig is 100 percent rye bottled at 100 proof (which Pickerell calls the right strength to insure that the whiskey is not lost when mixed in a cocktail). A rye that pure and that strong I would expect to sear my tongue and enflame my gullet. But in fact, the opposite happens: It’s one of the smoothest, most luxuriant American whiskeys you’ll ever taste. The flavors are perfectly correct: cinnamon, clove, allspice, orange zest, followed by toasty notes of caramelized apricot and honey. I tried WhistlePig in a Manhattan and in a Sazerac — and both were delicious — but ultimately it was an easy decision to eschew cocktails and drink the stuff straight. It’s that smooth and that perfect.
So where did this gorgeous elixir come from? Because of the current rye whiskey craze, Pickerell told me that “there is zero right now — every available drop has been claimed.” But, because of his extensive network in the industry, Pickerell located a store of rye that perfectly fit his concept and whose producers were willing to sell it to him. While he won’t give up his source, I reckon it has to be some rye barrels that have been aging at one of the large distillers and which just doesn’t fit into any of their existing brands. Anyway, Pickerell says it’s enough rye to keep WhistlePig going.
Does it detract from the cache of the brand that Pickerell didn’t distill it? Not at all. For one, lots of brands are made up of “found” whiskeys. High West, another well respected brand, has similar origins. With so little rye in the system right now, there would be no great ryes to drink for years until the newly made stuff matures properly. Anyway, 80 percent of what we taste in a whiskey is the result of the barreling and the aging, not the distilling. Pickerell’s palate, his most important asset, found and selected these ryes and has used them to define a style of what he thinks great rye should taste like. This is what’s important and sets the stage for WhistlePig’s second act.
What’s next for WhistlePig
WhistlePig’s piece de resistance will roll out in, well, about 10 years. See, I’ve only told half of the story here. The other half is just as interesting and concerns Pickerell’s unlikely partner, Raj Bhakta, who is the business mind and finance behind the brand. Bhakta is a somewhat wild and outspoken self-made tycoon who has run for Congress in Pennsylvania (as a Republican) and appeared on NBC’s “The Apprentice.” But he also owns a farm in Vermont, where he and Pickerell have planted rye and are building a still to Pickerell’s ideal proportions and design.
The goal is to make the first single-estate rye in America, and distillation begins next year. In the meantime, the current WhistlePig will continue to be bottled from Pickerell’s secret stash. And other expressions of WhistlePig will come out over the next decade while the Vermont rye whiskey ages. I, for one, can’t wait.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photo Credits: WhistlePig