WhistlePig 100% Straight Canadian Rye Whiskey

WhistlePig 10 year old Straight 100% Rye Whiskey

October 8, 2011

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On June 14, 2010, someone named ‘Thisiswaters’ updated Raj Bhakta’s wikipedia entry. At the same time, they also added WhistlePig to the list of American whiskies on the rye whiskey page. Reading these updates we learn that, among other things, at age 34, Bhakta is a former contestant on The Apprentice, is a notorious womanizer, is responsible for the resurgence of the bowtie, is a failed political candidate, is a former investment banker, sells Colombian aguardiente, and has a knack for publicity stunts, though not necessarily in that order. And believe it or not, he is also the founder of WhistlePig Whiskey. And that’s where ‘Thisiswaters’ credibility comes to a screeching halt. WhistlePig is not an American rye; it is 100% Canadian rye whisky distilled in Canada from 100% Canadian rye grain.

So let’s put Bhakta to one side for a moment and turn to someone whose whisky credentials are long standing. Dave Pickerell was the master distiller at Maker’s Mark for 14 years. When he left in 2008, he embarked on a whole new project to find the world’s best rye whisky. He spent 18 months running around the world talking to every reasonably large producer of rye whisky and tasting most of their products. After all this searching and tasting, he finally declared that the best rye whisky in the world is made right here in Canada. Dave Pickerell is a true icon of the American whisky industry so when he declares Canada as the source of the world’s very best rye whisky, that’s news to be shouted from the rooftops. “Hey world! We Canadians may be bland and accommodating but Dave Pickerell says we make the very best rye whisky anywhere, and he should know!”

So what’s the secret to making great 100% rye whisky? They may not tell you this, but most whisky makers know it’s all in the enzymes. Unmalted rye does have fairly good diastatic properties on its own. Still, most rye distillers add commercially produced enzymes to help quickly break the rye starches down into sugars that the yeast can turn into alcohol. Commercially produced enzymes are made by culturing Rhizopus or Aspergillus fungi which have been specifically selected to produce high levels of very effective alpha- and gluco-amylase. In fact, these fungi have been so skillfully bred that they produce enzymes that are virtually “programmed” to convert corn starches into sugars. After all, corn is less expensive than rye, which is why it is the primary grain used to make most North American whiskies. These corn-specific enzymes don’t do such a great job on rye though, which is one of the reasons distilling 100% rye, is such a pain in the neck.

Most whisky makers just accept the inefficiencies and all the extra cleanings that go along with using corn-specific enzymes for rye. Most American distillers get around the problem by using the minimum rye grain allowed and adding malted barley to help convert the starch.  But this, of course, is not 100% rye. In Canada, however, there are two distillers who have found a way to overcome the problems of sticky rye mashes and gummed-up equipment. Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario, has solved the problem by using malted rye. The perfect rye-converting enzymes, of course, are made by the rye grain itself as it starts to germinate. The other, Alberta Distillers, which uses 100% unmalted rye, has developed its own proprietary strain of Aspergillus fungus that specifically converts rye starches into sugars. (Incidentally, for those who are thinking “yuck”, yeast is also a fungus.)

Vendome Copper and Brass Works, manufacturers of stills, and leaders in supplying the burgeoning micro-distilling movement in the USA, thought that Bhakta, who is also an entrepreneur, skilled in arranging financing and marketing campaigns, and interested in whisky, should meet Pickerell, the veteran whisky maker who had just discovered the world’s best rye whisky and was looking for help getting it to market. A meeting was arranged for April of this year, and though their resumés couldn’t be more different, the two hit it off.

Bhakta, and Pickerell have launched WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey in just a few selected markets for 2010. 1,000 cases will be shared among New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and selected parts of Los Angeles. They apparently have bought enough whisky that double that number of cases will be available in 2011 and even more in subsequent years. With the profits they expect to make they intend to build a micro rye distillery on Bhatka’s Vermont farm, where he also plans to grow organic rye. But if, as Pickerell insists, Canadian rye whisky is “the best in the world,” it is because of those great big Canadian stills, and rye-specific enzymes. That’s a pretty hard act to follow with a micro-distillery, even one that plans to use organic rye.

I can report that this first batch of WhistlePig is just excellent whisky, taking us back to the days before trade agreements brought an end to the production of Bourbon in Canada. Compared to big rye whiskies like Lot 40 or Wiser’s Legacy, there is barely a hint of rye-specific flavour in WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey.  But oh!  Is there ever some Bourbon! After 10 years in new oak, the vanillins have subdued everything else.

Tasted head-to-head with the hugely rye-forward Lot 40, a succulent vanilla toffee and hot, hot chili peppers rule the WhistlePig palate. In all my tasting, I have never encountered such rich tantalizing chili pepper before, except maybe in chocolate-chili ice cream. It’s no surprise, then, when next morning a hint of milk chocolate shows up in the air-dried glass. As a chaser to Wiser’s Legacy, WhistlePig starts with sourish gooseberries and then becomes slightly astringent before a vanilla-laden perfume envelops the palate.

In Canada, the palate, not the rulebook calls the shots; that’s why in order to be called rye whisky, Canadian whisky need only have the characteristics of Canadian rye whisky. In America, a whisky must be distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain in order for it to be called straight rye. WhistlePig is distilled from 100% rye grain. It is bottled in Vermont for the American market, where it is sold at 50% alc./vol. (100 proof) as straight rye whiskey. In order to meet the American Standards of Identity criteria for ‘straight rye’, WhistlePig must also have been distilled to an alcohol content of no higher than 80%, meaning that the spirit retained lots of rich congeners when it entered the charred, new oak barrels.

But unlike the robust rye flavours found in Lot 40 and Wiser’s Legacy, which American nomenclature would call ‘blended whiskies’ (despite their having been distilled in a single distillery) WhistlePig is overwhelmingly Bourbon-like. So if that’s the case, why not compare it to some other Bourbon-rich Canadians?

Crown Royal is known for its Bourbon-like qualities, a reputation earned in part because much of its whisky is made using a Bourbon sour-mash recipe. Crown Royal DeLuxe was a gold medal winner this year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and is the best selling deluxe Canadian whisky in the USA. It is also one of America’s favourite spirit gifts. It’s a light, sweet Canadian, though peppery and rich in the cloves-nutmeg end of the rye palate. It has just enough mashy notes and bitter lemon to balance an obvious, Bourbon-like vanilla. A high-end mixing whisky, Crown Royal De Luxe is equally good on ice, with cola or ginger ale, or in a cocktail.

I suppose you could make a pretty dandy cocktail with WhistlePig too, but why would you want to do that? If Crown Royal De Luxe whispers “sip me,” WhistlePig fairly screams it. Nosed after WhistlePig, the Bourbon notes in De Luxe have disappeared entirely, leaving caramel, something citric, café au lait, and hints of cloves. Going back to the WhistlePig, the vanilla still rules, but new aromas of ripe oranges, and, for the first time, rye spices, begin to raise their heads, especially on the palate, revealing some of WhistlePig’s subtlety which until now has been well-hidden. WhistlePig is hot, hot, hot over a caramel-like sweetness. There is a lot of depth there; if only the vanilla would let it through.

Let’s try it again, this time head to head with another new release: Crown Royal Black, which is a very spicy, Bourbon-influenced whisky and somewhat peppery. There is rye in Crown Royal Black all right, but also caramel, dark fruits, and a certain mintiness, although vanilla and charcoal dominate. This is great mixing whisky and a pretty good sipper too. It has been flying off the shelves since it was introduced earlier this year. If Crown Royal Black is the whisky you buy to impress your poker buddies or a first date, then WhistlePig is what you bring out when you sit down with your oldest friends to set the world to right.

Rich as it is in vanilla, Crown Royal Black smells more like dark fruit when nosed right after WhistlePig. On the palate, Crown Black is weighty and robust with black fruit, caramel, burnt sugar and lots of pepper. Both are slightly salty. In reverse order, WhistlePig just keeps on with the vanilla though it is toned down considerably, and underneath there are lilacs, caramel, and the ever-present chili pepper. At 45% alc./vol., Crown Royal Black is more than just a beefed-up version of De Luxe, but tasted head to head, the Black can’t break through the taste barrier created by the hugely expressive WhistlePig. It’s kind of like comparing a Cadillac to an Aston Martin. Pickerell has done a masterful job selecting the barrels that make up this WhistlePig, and though there is an aura of simulacra to the carefully managed buzz around it, the only thing that really matters is the marvelous dance it does on your tongue.

WhistlePig is available for US$70.00 at a few selected retailers including Binny’s in Chicago and Borisal Liquor & Wine in Brooklyn, New York. You can also order it online from Binny’s or from DrinkUpNy.com.* With a whisky this good and only 1,000 cases available, you have to wonder if we may have another Bush Pilot’s in the making. WhistlePig is only now working its way through the distribution chain, but I’d suggest grabbing a couple of bottles (a case even!) before someone else gets them.


Comments

47 Responses to “WhistlePig 10 year old Straight 100% Rye Whiskey”

  1. Great article Davin.

    Do you know where they got the whisky? Reading between the lines, I’m guessing Alberta Springs.

    I’d love to try it, but I doubt I’ll ever see it in Oregon.

    • Davin:

      I do not know where the whisky came from. Obviously there is one distillery that intentionally makes lots of rye whisky to sell to others, but sometimes inventories build up at the other distilleries and they also end up with rye whisky to sell. Wherever they got it, they really picked some good stuff.

  2. thisiswaters:

    Pretty thorough detective work.

  3. Roscoe:

    My mouth waters… Why are all the good things never available at the CURSED LCBO!!! Even when they are, this will retail for 100-150 bucks…. *grumble*

    Guess it’ll be another business trip to NY.

    • Davin:

      It’s worth the trip, Roscoe, worth the trip.

  4. George Jetson:

    Davin, another great article. I haven’t seen WP at Binny’s yet, but maybe it has already come and gone or was only at the South Loop store. I like the backgrouund in your picture above. I’m curious about the 100% unmalted rye statement for Alberta Springs. I had thought it not possible to make enough sugars in raw rye using the industrial enzymes alone, but I am sure you have done the research.

    I would love to see your review in a future edition on the Canadian Club Founder’s. I have only a few mls left of my last bottle, but it still remains one of my favorites from recent CW production history.

    • Davin:

      George, As far as I know they are still waiting to take delivery at Binny’s. They told me it was still working its way through the distribution chain.

    • Davin:

      Hi George,
      Sorry, I missed the middle part of your comment. Alberta Distillers grow their own enzymes on site. These have been specifically selected to prefer rye grain. Commercial enzymes are more corn specific. Corn starch (broadly speaking there are two kinds of starch in a kernel of corn) is different from rye starch, so yes, commercial enzymes are not so great for making rye and people sometimes use enzymes plus malt.

    • Davin:

      George, Binny’s shipment of WhistlePig has arrived.

  5. When you say “order from drinkupNY”, what happens with customs and taxes ? Can we order from Canada ?

    • Davin:

      Hi André,
      Unfortunately, customs will not change their regs, even for WhistlePig. I wanted readers in the USA to know where they can find it, but frankly, I advise against getting whisky shipped into Canada from abroad. When I order, I get it shipped to an address in the USA then go pick it up and declare it at the border.
      Davin

      • Trevor:

        Davin… How much do you get dinged for bringing liquor across the border if you haven’t been there for 24 or 48 hours? I’m doing a 30 minute crossing soon for some other goods and would like to add a bottle of WhistlePig to the list of things I’m bringing back… unless the import fees are obnoxious.

        Thanks in advance for any insight on this.

        • Davin:

          Hi Trevor,
          On a short turn-around I generally pay about 100% of retail, possibly a bit less.

  6. George Jetson:

    Davin, a bonus when I went to the drinkupny website. They have stocks of the 40 Creek Double Barrel Reserve for a very nice price. I very much enjoyed the WhistlePig and after tasting it, it has the hard brittle rye that I notice in the Alberta Springs. I know that the origin is not disclosed, but this seems more the product of a column still than a pot still to me. Well worth the expense from my perspective.

    • Davin:

      Hi George,
      That is a bonus indeed. Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve really is great whisky. How much were they selling it for?

  7. Davin,

    While the use of so-called ‘commercially-produced enzymes’ is permitted in American distilleries the practice is not universal. Most, in fact, convert their mash to a fermentable substrate using endogenous enzyme systems only, i.e., the enzymes produced by malting barley.

    • Davin:

      Thanks for that clarification Chuck.

  8. dbk:

    I managed to pick up a bottle of the WP, just on the other side of the border, in Buffalo. I look forward to opening it up someday soon.

    • Davin:

      Do you remember where you got it? I’m sure there would be a line-up if readers here found out.

      • dbk:

        Apologies for not having responded to this sooner! I found some in Buffalo, at one of the Premier Wine & Spirits stores.

        • Davin:

          Thanks very much for this information. Did they have many bottles?

  9. John:

    Will this ever be available in Ontario? i’d love to try it.

    • Davin:

      Hi John,

      Very, very doubtful. They made only 1,000 cases and have focussed on just a few markets in the U.S. I understand they are planning a larger release next year. Last I heard they were also planning to release a high-rye American whisky.

      • John:

        are there still some available in the US? my brother is comming from the US soon. maybe I can ask him to buy one and bring it back to canada. :)

        • Davin:

          Hi John,

          As far as I know they still have some at Binny’s and at DrinkUpNY. Your brother could order one from them for delivery to his home and then bring it with him when he visits. WhistlePig is not widely distributed in the U.S. as there were only 1,000 cases to start with. Good luck!

  10. Greg:

    Davin – I just discovered your site. As a bourbon enthusiast myself, I can appreciate the passion you have for Canadian whisky. While my experience with bourbon and American rye whiskey goes fairly deep, Canadian whisky is new to me. My first WOW moment with CW was WhistlePig and I was very impressed (bottle en-route as I comment). I look forward to reading through your site and beginning my education on whisky from the north.

    • Davin:

      Thanks Greg,
      Yes, Bourbon is pretty easy to like. In idle moments I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Civil War had not so disrupted American distilling and Prohibition had not practically destroyed it. Would the single malt phenomenon have even happened if it had had to compete with Bourbon toe to toe?

      Glad you like WhistlePig. There’s lots of good whisky up here.

      • Greg:

        “There’s lots of good whisky up here”……that’s what I’m afraid of. As a collector/drinker, I have many out of production and limited release whiskey and recently I’ve begun to expand my whisk(e)y horizons to include Scotch, Irish, Indian and Japanese. Canadian is yet another facet of whisky yet to be explored.

  11. What a great story! I’d love to sample it.

  12. Tim:

    WHISTLEPIG IS MADE IN.
    Whistlepig Whiskey Distillery in Shoreham, VT.

    It is not canadian.
    Please see article
    http://www.domaineselect.com/PDFs/ProductPDF4529.pdf

    great whisky though.

    You should have all figured it out by the wording of WhiskEy alone. In Canada we write it like they do in Scotland without the e :-)

  13. Tim:

    Ooops.
    Davin is correct. The whisky is produced in Canada but shipped down to Vermont, where it is then filled and sold.

    I sit corrected. (too lazy to stand at the moment, sorry :-)

  14. Nick:

    Up until I tried Whistle Pig I was mostly drinking bourbon and blended whiskey. Last summer my girlfriend and I took a trip to NY and we ended up at a restaurant called the Dutch (highly recommended) where they had an extensive whiskey menu. It was there that I tried Whistle Pig at the urging of our waiter. Needless to say I LOVED it and couldn’t stop talking about it. Then, last month we were in San Francisco and there was a high-end liquor store called CASK beside our hotel that had Whistle Pig on its shelf. Normally $80 is a lot of money for me to spend on a bottle, but for this stuff I knew it would be worth it. Reading your article I now realize how unlikely it is that I have stumbled upon this stuff on 2 occasions. I have less then half the bottle left… I’ll keep savoring every drop.

    Nick in Toronto

    • Davin:

      I’m with you, Nick. WhistlePig is great whisky.

  15. Marc:

    Ordered my bottle from DrinkupNY last year, had it shipped to my mother in laws then back up to Ontario. Very nice stuff.

    • Davin:

      Yes indeed. Very, very nice. I see they are using it for Christmas Hog-Nog! Gotta laugh at their sense of humour.

  16. mr booze:

    I’m pretty sure that rye whiskey must be 80% rye.. Bourbon must be 51% corn.. just sayin’

    • Davin:

      51% last time I looked.

    • Alex:

      You may be confusing it with the U.S. regulations for corn whiskey, which state that it must contain at least 80% corn. But the remaining regulations for bourbon and rye are 51%.

  17. [...] For various reasons, including the fact that rye grain is considerably more expensive than corn, but also because a straight rye distillation is very tough on equipment, gumming it up with sticky residue, few distillers have bothered with pure rye whiskey. But the Canadians solved the sticky problem with two solutions, using malted rye and by developing a special strain of yeast-like fungus for distillation (for much more detail on this issue, check out this article from a great site devoted entirely to Canadian whiskies).  [...]

  18. CBrown:

    Nice shout-out to Whistle Pig from the makers of Breaking Bad (Season 5 ep 2) as it is prominently displayed when the DEA boys pass it around during a bull session.

    Wonder what tiny percentage of the viewers had a clue as to what it was or if it was even a real whisky….Nice to see the smaller guys getting the product placement for a change.

    And I hear that a new (if somewhat gimmicky) expression is on the way as well.

    • Davin:

      Yes, I heard and good for them. The owner is big on gimmicks but the whisky is so wonderfully good that we can smile good naturedly and appreciate his bringing it to market. I am quite excited about the new WhistlePig 11 year old.

  19. [...] More information about WhistlePig here. [...]

  20. Andy:

    I work at a small craft distillery and we produce a 100% rye whiskey. We deal with the gummy viscosity of rye Davin mentioned by using a combination of different enzymes, and we deal with the difficult clean-up through a liberal application of the two universal solvents – water, and hard-work.

    • Davin:

      And I’ll bet when people taste it they appreciate all your hard work and your honesty in telling them what they’re drinking.

  21. portwood:

    I’ve been anxiously awaiting an opportunity to purchase a bottle of this whisky since I read Davin’s review. After listening to this: https://soundcloud.com/radiobdc/whistlepig-rye?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=twitter
    B*LL SH*T from Dave Pickerell, Whistle Pig “Master Distiller”, regardless of how good it is, I will NEVER buy a bottle, no matter what the price!!!!

    Canadian Distillers should WAKE UP, stop selling mature whisky in bulk to these scum independents, and bottle the stuff themselves.

    /rant

  22. Franklin Newhart:

    I have been reading this article with a lot of interest because I sit here in South Scatch and am in the process of opening a Craft Distillery. Within a very short drive I have available to me Organic Grown Rye which is the only Rye I will be using and the only grain I will be using. It is my plan however to be malting the rye and in the drying process, Peat Smoking it. As a result it will be a “Peated Single Malt Straight 100% Rye Whisky”. There is no requirement on Craft Distilleries in Saskatchewan concerning Alcohol Content. As it will be aged at 160 proof I would appreciate some input on what sort of proof the discerning public would like to see when it hits the market four years from now. I will note that the initial production will only have 25% made available in four years. The rest will be held over for longer aging. This is sadly a financial expedient. Three year whisky is just that. Whisky that has met the required minimum but I do have to live.

    • Davin:

      Proof it to taste but remember the higher the proof the more you have to sell it for. People say they like high proof, but the also like low prices. These are business decisions.
      Rye is not easy to work with and does make mych whisky compared with some other grains. You might want to diversify.


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