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Raj Peter Bhakta has a somewhat checkered past.
Born in Philadelphia of a Hindu Indian father and an Irish mother, he studied business and economics in college, did startups of various businesses, got kicked off The Apprentice by Donald Trump, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican from Pennsylvania. He even made a public display of illegally crossing the border with Mexico to show how porous it is, something that even Donald Trump might be wary of doing.
In 2007, Bhakta bought a 500-acre ex-dairy farm (since expanded to 1,300 acres) in Vermont. He ended up becoming partners with one of the most revered whiskey makers in the world, Dave Pickerell, the genius behind Maker’s Mark bourbon. In 2010, the two decided to make a premium rye whiskey by growing their own rye — a long-term process.
In the meantime, they launched WhistlePig, finishing raw rye whiskey purchased elsewhere. It became an immediate cult darling, getting fantastic critical reviews and selling at what, for rye, are high prices — about $74 per bottle. Today, WhistlePig is moving beyond its original blend — the 10-year-old 100 proof — with its 12-year-old “Old World” rye which, like Scotch whisk(e)y, employs used barrels for finishing, starting with a blend of 63 percent Madeira cask, 30 percent Sauternes, and seven percent Port barrel at around $135 a bottle.
With a glass of “Old World” in one hand, I picked up the phone with the other to ask Bhakta a few questions:
Roger Morris: With WhistlePig, what’s worked out as planned, and what hasn’t?
Raj Peter Bhakta: I started with a dream in 2008 to build a distillery and make a great whiskey on our farm. Then reality set in, and we couldn’t make the vision come true immediately. We had to back into realizing our original concept of farm-to-bottle. But the general premise has worked out as planned.
What are you trying to achieve with Old World that you didn’t with the 10-year-old?
Our Old World is aimed at people who like Scotch and Scotch finishes. We see Old World as the place where New World boldness meets Old World elegance. So far, we have done three expressions. My long-range goal is to make a great single malt; a New World Macallan.
Have you received pushback for WhistlePig’s relatively high prices?
For years, whiskey prices were abnormally low. Production was ahead of the current trend, especially during the 1980s, and they [major distillers] are still working off the huge reserve they created back then. Whiskey is still underpriced, but pricing will go up, as the industry is now reversed and has shortages.
WhistlePig is not available in all markets. What is your distribution plan?
We’re taking a slower, hybrid approach to growth — we don’t want to go into a new market until we are sure we can sustain it longer term with product.
I recently was at The Glenlivet tasting a 50-year-old, single-barrel Scotch. Do you have long-term plans to have such old barrels?
Normally, older distilleries put barrels away by accident — they were “lost” or passed over and then found years later. We’re putting barrels aside deliberately, as Dave and I are taking a long-term approach. This is in contrast, I might add, to my previous ADD job résumé!