In addition to whiskey, WhistlePig has peddled audacity to great success. When it launched in 2010, the unknown brand from rural Vermont daringly dipped into a sluggish rye market with an $80 bottle. Virtually forgotten since the days of pre-Prohibition, rye had come to be seen as an inferior swill, hardly worth taking up valuable shelf space that could be otherwise devoted to bourbon and scotch. With little more than elegant packaging and a mature juice supposedly sourced from Canada, WhistlePig’s Straight Rye was quick to garner significant praise. Whiskey enthusiasts were intrigued by its elevated price point more than they were deterred by it.
Fast-forward five years and we’re in the midst of a modern rye revival. All of a sudden, an $80 premium rye isn’t such an outlier. To stay at the forefront, WhistlePig just unveiled its first-ever permanent brand extension. Their wine-barrel-finished Old World heads to the city this week, collared in a $130 price tag. What can you expect in return? Let’s peer inside that pretty bottle to find out.
A blend of whiskeys aged in sauternes, madeira, and port barrels, Old World is a game-changer. As master distiller Dave Pickerell explains, “WhistlePig is the first American spirit to be finished with a marriage of European wine casks, and the result is a complex and balanced flavor never before seen in an American whiskey.”
He is, of course, paid to say that. But it’s hardly hogwash. Only a handful of people on the planet boast Pickerell’s technical dexterity when it comes to producing spirits. To hear him speak about whiskey is like sitting in on a college lecture. And for good reason — in a former life, he was a chemistry professor. The teacher was eager to become a student again, devoting three years of research to the optimal combination of flavors and blends to apply to a twelve-year-old whiskey base with a 95 percent rye mash bill. Ultimately, he landed on a union of 30 percent sauternes, 63 percent madeira, and 7 percent port.
Although the whiskey spends less than two months in the former wine barrels, the impact is difficult to ignore. The finished rye wears an unmistakable mahogany hue and comes with a deep sweetness at its core. The port barrel, minimized in the blend, is still discernible, with surprising staying power in the finish. The sauternes, a delicately sweet wine from the South of France; and the madeira, a Portuguese dessert wine, bring a subtle lightness to the whiskey’s body.
WhistlePig’s newest release is a rye tailored to a wine connoisseur’s palate. If you jump at the chance to take home exclusive vintages from Bordeaux, Tuscany, and Sonoma, there’s little reason to balk at this high-end whiskey. For the more frugal imbiber, treat yourself to a dram as it becomes available at bars across the city. It’s an unexpected glimpse of what rye is capable of. Sure, it seems audacious now, but given WhistlePig’s track record as an industry innovator, in five years’ time expressions like Old World will be old hat.