By Davin de Kergommeaux of www.canadianwhisky.org

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 rye whisky? They may not tell you this, but most whisky makers know it’s all in the enzymes. Still, most rye distillers in North America—and around the world for that matter—use commercially produced enzymes to break the rye starches down into sugars that the yeast can eventually 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 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. But in Canada, there are two distillers who have found a way around 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 fungi 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 www.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. For a full review and score come back to www.canadianwhisky.org in a couple of weeks.



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