WhistlePig, a Vermont entry in the new age of small-production whiskey, is paying tribute to Old World Scotch and wine makers with a trio of limited-release ryes that sport extra wood finishes.
The new whiskeys, all 12-year-olds, include French Sauternes, Madeira and Port finishes. The whiskey is made at a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where WhistlePig has been sourcing their rye while awaiting production of its own spirit on a farm in western Vermont. The whiskey has a slightly less rye-forward mashbill (95 percent rye, 5 percent barley) than the 10-year-old WhistlePig, which has a grain formula entirely composed of rye.
Master distiller Dave Pickerel says the finishes were inspired by Scotland, where the practice of extra aging in alternate casks has been used for decades. The particular casks used are all from the Old World as well. "We want to be the dominant player in rye whiskey over six years old," he adds. "If you're looking for a bold, alternative beverage and you've graduated from Bourbon, but don't want to move on to Scotch, it means having to behave a little like the Scots do."
The project has been three years in the making, according to Pickerel. "I'm amazed we could keep it under wraps," he says. That time period included a great deal of experimentation. Casks that were previously used for Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso Sherry and Pierre Ferrand XO Cognac were sourced and tested, as well as the wine casks that were ultimately used. The Sherry finishes were rejected as "uninteresting," and the Cognac casks were difficult to work with, he notes.
The distiller describes the finishing time frames as only three to six weeks. He also notes that they were the most challenging aspects of the project to get right. "It's literally one week too long, and you're screwed." Port, a fortified wine from Portugal, needed the shortest finish. Sauternes, a sweet, white wine from Bordeaux, took the longest. Madeira, a fortified wine made in the islands of the same name, occupied the middle ground. The casks all came to Pickerel wet (a small amount of wine still in the container).
Even as the whiskeys will have temporary and limited release this spring (California, Colorado, Illinois and New York), a marriage of the three is planned for a July debut as a permanent entrant in the WhistlePig fold. That mix (which we have yet to taste) will include approximately 63 percent Madeira, 30 percent Sauternes and 7 percent Port. According to the creator, it is blended to activate the entire palate. "It took a long time futzing with the proportions to get them right. The individuals are getting to know each of the participants before they get married," Pickerel says, pauses and then laughs. "Forget that it's a three-way."
For all the talk of the whiskeys being a nod to the Old World, the distiller doesn't forget their New World origin. Despite Bourbon's recognition as "America's native spirit" (because its main grain, corn, is indigenous to this country), Pickerel says that "rye was America's original whiskey. ... They started drinking it as soon as tea was thrown into Boston Harbor."
The long-awaited production of WhistlePig-distilled whiskey may have a patriotic connection as well. After a four-and-half-year wait to get approval to build the distillery on the Vermont farm where it will be made with local grain and water, construction is well underway, says Pickerel. "We really want to be making a batch on July 4."
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey Old World Series: French Sauternes (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $117.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber and copper color, snail-pace legs.
NOSE: Grape and candied-fruit aromas at the start, followed by an underlayment of toffee and honey.
PALATE: Rich fruits (particularly orange) with a bit of spice and a brandy component arrive first, and are followed by the more savory elements of bread dough and honey that uncork a heartier side to the whiskey.
FINISH: Spice returns at the end, with some caramel barrel notes and lingering fruit.
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey Old World Series: Madeira (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $117.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Not unexpectedly, a similar appearance to the Sauternes finish, although a slightly deeper color.
NOSE: Sweeter fruit notions here, with cherry, orange and tropical fruit. An undercurrent of spice livens up the bouquet. Some mint and chocolate linger as well.
PALATE: An interplay of sweetness and spice. Cherry shows up first and is counterbalanced with a surge of licorice. The cocoa/mint from the nose also puts in an appearance as does orange, lemon and the spice of rye.
FINISH: Resounding, long finish with all of the above components, plus some honey and hard candy.
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey Old World Series: Port (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $117.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Again a deeper color—this time with a ruby cast to it.
NOSE: The Port influence is immediately evident with a strong red-wine character, which also contains Vermouth-like botanicals. Some rich barky notes, caramel and maple candy.
PALATE: Red wine, grape and chocolate all wrapped in licorice. Bready spices also appear. Other fruits include black cherry, orange and pear. The mouthfeel is a tad syrupy and recalls the maple-candy notes from the nose.
FINISH: Brown sugar intermingles with a long finish that reintroduces most of the palate as well as coaxing out the Vermouth hinted at on the nose.
CIGAR PAIRING: Illusione 888 (6 3/4 inches by 48 ring gauge, $9.20, 89 points, Cigar Aficionado June 2015) The first puffs of this dark, oily Churchill are notably sweet with toffee and dried fruit. Black pepper and an earthy finish make this a sweet-and-spicy cigar. The reasoning behind this pairing is fairly straightforward: both cigar and whiskeys share that same final quality.
With French Sauternes finish: The spice on the whiskey develops quite quickly under the influence of the cigar, with resounding pepper notes as well as the expected rye. The WhistlePig gives back with voluptuous fruit becoming more apparent on the Illusione.
With Madeira finish: The cigar perks up straight away, gaining caramel as well as getting a boost to its toffee flavor and inherent spice. The whiskey shows off its wine finish in particular, as well becoming fuller and rounder.
With Port finish: An immense explosion occurs on both sides, with the cigar's woodiness taking on barrel flavors of caramel, vanilla and maple. The whiskey's syrupy tendencies develop, even as its fruit is temporarily dampened, only to burst right back with a huge cherry note. The Illusione seems to rest on its spicy laurels, but then gathers leathery charms. The Port finish shows itself off with the nutty quality so desired from its source. The winning combination of the trio.