I remember buying my first bottle of WhistlePig 100/100, shortly after it hit the shelves near me in 2011. The word Vermont appeared five times on the label. It was only after I brought it home and spent some time looking at the bottle that I noticed the word Canada also made an important appearance, but only once. It was Canadian whisky, after all, merely bottled in Vermont after Dave Pickerell stumbled onto it. Canada Canada Canada Canada Canada Vermont. Marketing at its most deceptive.
Another common rumor surrounding WhistlePig, is that it’s the flavoring whisky from Alberta Distillers. They’ve been making a well-known 100% rye-mashed whisky there for longer than ten years and in a fashion that allows some of it to be marketed in the US as straight rye. Another Canadian spirit bottled and sold as 100% straight rye in the US, Masterson’s, comes from Alberta Distillers and boasts a familiar description, so Alberta becomes the obvious target for speculators.
The difficulty of mashing with solely rye is what makes it a rare style. Commercial enzymes that whisky distillers typically use to boost their mash don’t work very well with rye, and without any help, cooked rye turns into a foamy, sticky, hard to distill clump. Not only that, but unlike corn mash, which leaves relatively little mess in the still which can be removed by running a light caustic or acidic solution through, rye mash leaves a film on the walls that requires actual scrubbing to remove. Proteins and excess glucans are the main culprit behind the stickiness and enzymes that attack the small number of starches in corn and barley don’t find enough familiar material to break down in rye.
Alberta Distillers, one of the big two Canadian operations to find a workaround, took a page from sake and shochu producers in Japan who were tasked with fermenting difficult starches like rice, awamori, sesame or chesnuts. Those manufacturers use a variety of aspergillus mold called koji to break down difficult starches. The mold creates unique enzymes that help with that specific type of grain and make clumpy porridge, like mashed rice, turn into a usable soup that flows more freely through the still. In like fashion, Alberta Distillers bred their own variety of aspergillus that feeds on rye and creates enzymes especially suited to helping break down the grain. These customized enzymes do more to the mash than traditional enzymes, turning cell walls and other non-starch parts of the grain into fermentable substances, increasing the yield.
Now, whether or not WhistlePig’s whisky is really from Alberta Distillers is still unconfirmed, and official sources are forbidden from mentioning the source. There are other 100% rye whiskies older than 10 years in the US, right now, so it’s not an impossible feat or a completely extinct style even. There are even other, younger Canadian distillers running 100% rye mashes. It’s not unlikely that a distillery might play a few cards close to their vest, either. There may have been another Canadian distillery quietly running a 100% rye all along.
However unlikely it is that WhistlePig is not Alberta Distillers’, I’d hesitate to argue with the real authority on Canadian whisky, Davin de Kergommeaux, when he points out that Alberta Distillers and Hiram Walker are the only two distilleries in Canada that could possibly be the source. To play Devil’s advocate, though, Hiram Walker, like American brewer-distillers Anchor in California did for their Old Potrero line-up, chose the easy path and used rye malt in the mix. The enzymes produced by the grain itself are perfect for their purposes and there’s no complicated mold-breeding involved. If the solution were that easy all along, it’s entirely possible that someone else may have been distilling a 100% rye mash elsewhere.
Playing devil’s advocate to my devil’s advocate, with less than a dozen distilleries in Canada, the options are limited and the likelihood that it wasn’t Hiram or Alberta becomes less plausible. But enough waffling. WhistlePig ultimately needs this kind of confusion to make pushing its feigned American identity a little easier.
According to brand ambassadors, we may see an actual distillery up in Shoreham, Vermont, by 2014, though I’m skeptical, myself. Assuming it does happen, we’ll still have to wait however long it takes to mature after that before we see a true Vermont product with the WhistlePig flag on it. They may end up releasing a 5 year old, or judging by the small size of the farm and their insistence that they’ll be a farm-to-glass distillery, they may back-peddle and not release anything at all. By all accounts I’ve heard, it can take up to a year or longer to contract a still to be built for you, so the clock is definitely ticking for a 2014 setup.
My only hope is that WhistlePig doesn’t fall victim to the siren song of the mini-cask, like a few of Pickerell’s other projects have. When you put a profit thirsty businessman like Raj in charge of a distillery, it’s not unlikely that smaller casks might make an unfortunate appearance, and judging by the likes of Pickerell-led small-caskers like Sons of Liberty, King’s County and Hillrock, it’s a distinct possibility. We’ll see if the distillery he and Raj build will be able to carry the torch that anonymous distillery x has lit for them.
Nose: Much bolder and richer than the 10yr 100/100. Coca cola and wintergreen. Dank honey and dark nutmeg roll over star anise and pho dac biet. Delightfully complex, like wandering through an old person’s home and discovering waves of lived in smells; medicated menthol, musk, french fries in peanut oil, orange zest, and roasted acorn squash.
Palate: A little musty and very effervescent. Oatmeal cookies with cashews. Orange oil rubbed furniture. The spice takes the form of a strong pho broth; allspice, star anise, ginger powder, coriander and fennel seed. Bright amplified finish that lasts. Exactly what I thought a cask strength WhistlePig would taste like.
I like cask strength and I love rye, so this new release is a no-brainer.
The Boss Hog bottlings will be single cask releases from the same stocks that the flagship 100/100 rye come from. At the moment, official sources are saying they hope to release new bottlings yearly.
Until then, thank you, Dave Pickerell, for finding some fine rye whisky, and thank you to Connor Burleigh for the sample!