As temperatures drop, there is something to the warming feeling you get after a sip of whiskey, as the spicy amber liquid flows along the back of your throat and tingles the rest of your body.
With that in mind, we recently had the rare privilege to visit the bucolic WhistlePig Farm in Shorham, VT – where the award-winning rye is grown and distilled. As we tasted our way through casks finished with Sauternes, Pinot Noir, and Port, we found our appreciation for the sometimes misunderstood spirit elevated to a whole other stratosphere.
The legendary distiller Dave Pickerell (who, sadly, passed away not long after our visit) credits the rise of cocktail culture, coupled with his time as master distiller at Makers Mark, as the impetus for his aspiration to simply make the best rye in the wold. WhistlePig remains a testament to his passion and innovation, which has contributed to the spirit’s robust comeback – perhaps as the craze for bourbon begins to level off. The farm’s triple terroir – rye grown from its fields, water from its well, and oak from the surrounding trees – as well as the on-site mill, distillation house, and bottling facility, are the essence of its success.
“Dave would always talk about our 12 Year Old World, with its triple finish marriage, likening it to a symphony,” recalls WhisltePig CEO Jeff Kozak. “The madeira finish, the bulk of the blend, acted as the bass and strings section, with bigger, spicier notes setting the tone for the show. The sauternes finish, with its lighter, sweeter notes, came in as the woodwinds and horns, lending complexity to the tune. And the port finish, with its big, fruity punch on the back end, was the percussion, adding cymbal claps at just the right moments to complement the melody.”
Having the opportunity, we asked Jeff Kozak and Master Blender Pete Lynch to enlighten us.
Five Key Elements of a Great Rye
Balancing the natural, bold spiciness of the grain with the more subtle herbal, floral and sweeter notes.
Choosing the right barrel profile and allowing enough time in barrel to hit the sweet spot of aging, where the barrel character is present but does not dominate the grain character of the rye. Rye can typically stand up to much longer aging due to the boldness of the grain flavor.
Blending the right barrels to find that proper union between all the flavors rye has to offer, presenting a whiskey that is not only complex, but well balanced.
Choosing the right finishing barrels, from ex-wine casks, to new oak, and even other spirits. We have a wide variety of flavor profiles in ryes from across North America, and each takes well to certain finish types. Our goal has always been to add a harmonic top note to the flavor we already have by using shorter finishing times and carefully monitoring the casks, so as to not overwhelm the base whiskey.
Patience, persistence, and experimentation. Experimentation was one of the hallmarks of Dave’s approach to Rye Whiskey, and can be witnessed in products like the 12 Year Old World or FarmStock Rye. Ever one to try new things, Dave’s vision seemed boundless.
Holiday Suggestions: for a seasonal cocktail, add mulled cider; with dinner, add a splash of 10 Year into your gravy for a spicy kick; as an after dinner toast, serve neat, on the rocks, or in a simple, classic cocktail like an old fashioned