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How WhistlePig Staked Their Claim As America’s Most Beloved Rye Whiskey

Uproxx

Whiskey lovers are always looking for the best sip possible. From the Bulleits to the Jacks and the Wellers to the Pappys, the bourbon explosion of the last half-decade has proven that craft beer has strong competition when it comes to our fetishization of alcohol. Now, the palates of whiskey aficionados are pivoting towards bourbon’s spicier cousin: rye.

This shift isn’t as much about taking a new step forward as it is about reclaiming the past. In colonial times, everyone drank rye whiskey — especially in the Northeast, where one half barrel of rye was reportedly sold per person each year. Then, with prohibition, it nearly disappeared from sight.

What sparked our recent renaissance? The craft movement has certainly helped. So have the many accolades various ryes seem to be collecting at competitions across the country. Then there’s the idea that whiskey fans have evolved — drinkers who got hyped on whiskey during the boom of the late 2000s are ready to level-up their palates. A quick look at the data supports these three theories. Over the past five years, ryes have seen their volumes grow by 536 percent.

With the hype comes feverish excitement to try “the best” and in that regard, one brand has put itself front and center in any rye conversation: WhistlePig. The small Vermont distillery has as much buzz as any tiny Vermont farm could ever hope to have. They produce the one brand that every aficionado longs to own. They’re the “Supreme t-shirt” or “Father John Misty secret show” of alcohols.

In April, WhistlePig’s Boss Hog won “Best Whiskey” at the San Francisco Spirits Competition — marauding through a blind taste test field of 2,200 very expensive whiskeys.

Judge Fred Minnick said this about Boss Hog:

The rye was so powerful that I had to eat three pieces of cheese, rinse my mouth out four times just to get its finish out of my mouth for the other whiskies. My colleagues agreed that its complexity was leaps and bounds better than the other whiskies, albeit many believed the bourbon stood toe to toe. And so when the rye won best whisky, the judges cheered and screamed. We all knew the flavor was unbeatable. Since we taste blind, I had no clue for whom I voted, but I was stoked thinking an American distillery just won.

For the average consumer, WhistlePig has cornered the market on “age statement” rye. Even if you can’t afford Boss Hog’s Dark Prince (it’ll run you over $ 400, if you can find it), you can get “mini-Boss Hog,” WhistlePig’s 10-year flagship bottle for about eighty bucks. For those who enjoy rye, it’s worth every penny.


WhistlePig’s Steward of the Brand, Doug Ward, was elated, but not surprised by their latest high-profile victory. This is a company that has always seen excellence as their #brand.

“We started with sourced whiskey,” he says, “and we continue to have sourced whiskey. We didn’t start with the vodka or gin to get the WhistlePig name out there. We started with what we believed could be the pinnacle of rye whiskey — aged ten years, 100 proof.”

The whole “sourced” whiskey thing seems to be a contentious point among a section of passionate whiskey lovers (WhistlePig just released their “Farmstock” blend that will eventually be sourced completely from the farm), but the reality is that most of the rye grass in bottles currently on the market come from Indiana where it is turned to “juice” and distilled. WhistlePig’s magic is in how they age and refine the spirit. Their attention to detail is that of doting parents — the brand’s website has a whole section just on their famous Vermont oak barrels.

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The word you hear most about WhistlePig is “complicated.” Rye is powerful stuff but the 10 years of aging mellows it out. The age rings in the Vermont oak add depth. It’s a rocks drink (although whoever put it in that plastic cup for the Getty photo above is a monster). It’s also perfect for cocktails of the historical variety.

“Years ago, when the craft cocktail game blew up, all these bartenders went back to fresh ingredients,” Ward explains. “They picked up these pre-prohibition cocktail books and it turns out, your first Manhattan, Old Fashioned, first Sazerac all had rye whiskey at the base.”

Now that those damn expensive cocktails in dimly-lit corners of metropolitan areas have brought rye surging back, WhistlePig isn’t the only brand focused on the spirit. Besides the young ryes we’re seeing from Bulleit and various other, small distilleries, the big boys are doing their best to ride the rye wave.

“Jim Beam is making one now,” Ward says. “Crown released one two years ago. Jack Daniels is making one. Everyone is making one now. But, anything over six years old, we’ve cornered the market. We have more stock privately than any one company in the world of rye whiskey.”

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So WhistlePig is in it for the long game. They’re literally years ahead of the competition, and they have Dave Pickerell — the man who elevated Maker’s Mark from a small distillery to a household name — as their master distiller. Even with Pickerell’s genius, Ward knows that modern craft spirits are all about being straightforward.

“We just took it in its purest form 100 percent rye and put it in these bourbon casks and let it sit for ten years, bottled it at 100 proof and said, ‘this is what whiskey should taste like.’”

It’s hard to find a complaint with that, though “should taste like” is a loaded statement. Rye is a step that drinkers typically take pretty far along their palate-development timelines. It’s high proof, loaded with character. As such, it’s a natural transition for Scotch drinkers ready to try an American spirit, something Ward sees often.

“Scotch drinkers have always wanted to support American whiskeys,” he says, “but never had a flavor profile that they’re accustomed to.”

And when these drinkers switch, the aficionados are going to WhistlePig. In this relatively new era of American rye, its name is excellence incarnate.

“Above six years old, age statement rye whiskey, we created the category,” Ward says, pride blooming in his voice. “We are the category. Now there’s a luxury rye whiskey.”

That’s a lot of confidence — a Vermont oak-aged barrel full — but every indication is that WhistlePig is here to back up their boldness.


Real Stories – UPROXX

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