Something to Whistle About
BY TRACEY MEDEIROS
If on his farm he had a whistle pig, Old MacDonald might be tempted to have a drink—or two. That’s because WhistlePig is the name of a Shoreham-based organic farm and distillery that is winning national attention for its whiskey, soon to be made from Vermont-grown rye.
The story of how an Indian-Irish Pennsylvanian came to establish this business and give it its memorable moniker is, appropriately enough, a twisty tale.
Raj Bhakta grew up in Philadelphia, the son of Indian-Irish parents. He graduated from Boston College with a BS in economics and a BA in history, then began a career in investment banking. In 2005, he participated in NBC’s “The Apprentice” and has appeared as a political and current events commentator on news networks including Fox News and CNN.
Through the years, he has considered himself fortunate to have been able to spend a great deal of time in Vermont. These visits instilled in him a love for the Green Mountain State. In 2007, Raj followed his dream and purchased one of the oldest farms in Vermont. His goal was to create a model for sustainable agriculture on the 500-acre mix of rolling pastures and leafy woodlands located in the picturesque town of Shoreham.
The odd name “WhistlePig” makes those who hear it inquire about the name’s origin. As Raj tells it, several years before he purchased the farm he was hiking in Colorado in the middle of nowhere. After being alone for most of the day, he turned a corner and nearly bumped into a strangelooking fellow.
The man, who had a shock of white hair that ran down the middle of his head, spoke with a thick French accent. In a shrill voice he asked, “Could it be a whistle pig? Could it be a whistle pig?” and then he whistled twice.
Raj reflects that he was worried about his personal safety and was very relieved when the unusual creature scurried away. A few years later, with that bizarre encounter still in mind, he dubbed his newly purchased property WhistlePig.WhistlePig Farm has introduced two uncommon pig breeds to Vermonters, the Mangalitsa (a rare Hungarian breed) renowned for its meat, and a pair of Kunekune pigs (from New Zealand) known for their social charm. They are Mortimer and Mauve, WhistlePig’s global brand ambassadors. These unusual hogs share their pastoral home with 30 grass-fed Black Angus cows, three goats, three sheep and a collection of horses and ducks.
Eight full-time staff run both the distillery and the certified organic farm. One of the members of this hardworking crew is responsible for making sure that the farm stays at the forefront of the best agricultural practices. The busy owner says, “Anything unsustainable that we do to our land is entirely incompatible with our mission as a business.”
Master distiller Dave Pickerell joined the WhistlePig team after 14 years with Maker’s Mark and has been instrumental in helping to produce an outstanding rye whiskey. WhistlePig’s Straight Rye Whiskey has won acclaim and the Wall Street Journal’s endorsement as one of the Top 5 whiskies of 2010. It has also received Wine Enthusiast’s highest rating ever for rye whiskey, 96 points.
The whiskey has initial notes of allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, orange peel and anise. The woody notes of oak, char and caramel complement these with a faint presence of honey. The taste is complex, rich and full-bodied, beginning with warm, sweet and floral with hints of caramel and vanilla, followed by rye-spice and mint flavors. Butterscotch and dark chocolate dominate later for a crisp, yet creamy finish.
To obtain this result, the distillery starts aging the product in new American oak barrels, finishing the process in ex-bourbon barrels that add just a hint of sweetness. The perfection of the end result is only achieved through time.
WhistlePig Distillery produces about 4,000 cases of rye whiskey a year. They are in the process of planting 90 acres of organic rye for future batches. Their hand-bottled product can be found at most Vermont state liquor stores. It is also available throughout New England, New York and select mid-Atlantic cities, as well as Illinois, Colorado and California.
Bhakta tries to start most days with a quick walk around the farm. With both a farm and distillery to run, he realizes that each day is unique. He and his dedicated team are leading a revival of rye whiskey, while working hard to catch up with the changing face of sustainable agriculture.
1030 Palmer Rd.