WhistlePig is a company built on evolutions and long term plans. For example, Vermont whiskey house famously transitioned from using 100% purchased juice; to opening their own distillery; to adding grain-to-glass expressions to the range. Today, the whiskey darling’s latest evolutionary turn draws on this past for HomeStock, a collaborative crowd-blended whiskey with Flaviar.
The concept of crowd sourcing is not new to spirits. In the past, other distilleries employed gimmicky polls, and producers–like Plantation Rum (OFTD) and WhistlePig (FarmStock) themselves–consulted carefully selected groups of experts. But, HomeStock takes these ideas to the next level.
The project involves everyday whiskey drinkers and eschews virtual distilling animations, instead sending participants samples of the component juices to actually blend and taste themselves. Given our quarantined lives, there is also plenty of online guidance and plenty of fundraising to help furloughed bartenders.
The Fall & Rise Of Blended Whisk(e)y
Blending is at the core of both HomeStock and WhistlePig’s ethos. Yet, the current popularity of the practice would be shocking to industry insiders even ten years ago.
In the early days of whisk(e)y, blending was the norm. For a couple centuries, the delicious juice reigned through the land, but during the Cold War era things went awry. Quality dipped to the point where vodka mixed with small portions of powerful “flavoring whisk(e)y” began to dominate the markets.
By the 90’s, new single barrel and single malt expressions hit the market. Quality returned to the category and blends were either forced out or stigmatized. But after the Cocktail Renaissance arrived, a return to well produced blends followed.
WhistlePig was conceived on the forefront of this rebirth. Their initial expressions proudly sourced and blended whiskeys. During the company’s mercurial rise amongst the whiskey faithful, WhistlePig moved much of their distilling in-house, but continued to blend. Other houses like Smooth Ambler, High West, and Milan & Grene followed with critically celebrated expressions. Yet, the WhistlePig team is aware that there is still some stigma around the practice.
“Blending has a bad wrap. There’s a good reason—blending normally means bottom shelf. But in reality, blending is how our whiskeys taste the way they are,” WhistlePig Master Blender Pete Lynch told Neat Pour. “You need to champion the importance of blending. We’re basically making a cocktail I’m the bartender: my cocktail is 10-year-old whiskey, but instead go using a sweet component like amaro, I’m using other whiskeys.”
Most bartenders and spirits enthusiasts likely noticed a push to re-legitimize blended whiskey over the past few years. The marketing push has been unavoidable with everyone from Buffalo Trace to local startup distilleries putting out their own digital simulation.
Characteristically, WhistlePig took a different approach. They decided to let their customers experience blending for themselves. The concept was not a quarantine experiment, but a logical next step.
“FarmStock was our first big foray into crowd source blending,” noted Lynch. FarmStock, a unicorn amongst collectors, is an annual release featuring a blend crowdsourced to over 500 bartenders, influencers, and assorted other industry folk.
Likewise, WhistlePig was already exploring digital connections with customers when the pandemic hit. WhistlePig’s Vermont farm does not receive the massive flow of pilgrims enjoyed by their peers on the Whiskey Trail.
“We’re located in a pretty remote part of the country, it’s not easy to get here. So, we worked at bringing the product to the customers,” explained Lynch.
HomeStock, er, blends WhistlePig’s existing concepts like they were one of Lynch’s liquid creations. “HomeStock is an evolution of this we want to bring our whiskey to you mentality.”
Available through Flaviar, members receive a handsome wooden box stocked with cordials of wheat, barley, and rye based whiskeys along with a graduated cylinder and a pipette for measuring. (Plus, there’s also a Glencairn style glass.)
While common in Scotland, the wheat and barley bases are relatively rare in American Whiskey and a first for WhistlePig. Whiskey nerds actually get a twofer from the wheat and barley which are also aged in Dechar/Rechar Vermont barrels, a rarity in the category.
To explain this all, Lynch recorded a YouTube video that begins with a sort of ‘Whiskey Blending 101’. After explaining the tools, general concepts, and particulars of the of the whiskey involved, the recording walks home-blenders through a couple basic combinations.
With the basics down, the aspiring blenders were then encouraged to play around with the components and create their own blends. WhistlePig polled the participants about their favorite combinations. The winning blend will be put into production as HomeStock and bottled in May.
“It sounds lazy, it sounds easy, but it’s amazing! It [HomeStock] appeals to a palate,” exclaimed the Master Blender.
A Symbiotic Synthesis
Lynch said that for the project is a win for all parties involved. “I can’t wait to see the data,” he elaborated. “This is how we make the whiskeys that people want to drink, by asking them!”
The pro was insistent that the choice was not his to make, but he admitted that he had some guesses about the people’s picks.
“I know what my preferred blend is, but I don’t pick it,” he stated. “As a blender, I do know the blends are probably going to be in a certain realm.”
Lynch also noted that the project is for a good cause. 20% of online sales will be donated to the USBG Bartender Emergency Relief Fund and the live event featured several additional opportunities to donate.
“This is not a position what we want to be in, but we’re going to make the best of it,” Lynch opined. “My only fear is that we people are going to like HomeStock too much and we’ll need to pivot [and change our plans.] But, that’s what we have done, that’s we do, and that’s what we’ll continue doing.”