The last decade witnessed an American Whiskey exploding in popularity. WhistlePig was the most celebrated brands to come of age during this Boom. The Vermont darling made a name for themselves by creating an elite spirit utilizing sourced whiskey (and, now in-house distilled also) and an innovative use of rye. WhistlePig’s Master Blender Pete Lynch provided a deep dive into these practices in Part II of our interview.
“It took a long time for distilled spirits to become an industry in the United States,” explained Chuck Cowdery, Kentucky Colonel and whiskey writer. “You bought your whiskey or other spirit directly from the person who made it, or from a local retailer who did. It was only around the middle of the 19th century that it became an industry. The railroads made it possible to get that product to distant markets quickly and economically.”
When distribution did become a national affair, virtually all whiskey was sourced and bottled for local markets. The practice persisted when the industry was resurrected following Prohibition.
Sourced whiskey is either purchased in bulk (already aged and ready to drink) or on contract meaning that a new distillate is acquired and aging is the buyer’s responsibility.
Well, long story short. As the industry contracted when bourbon sales collapsed in the 1970s, there was a lot of excess distilling capacity. Because sourced whiskey tends to be a low margin business, most distilleries operating under that model were early casualties. The lean market also meant that the remaining distilleries had excess capacity that were happy to devote to bulk production.
Of course, times have changed and the whiskey market is now booming. In fact, bulk giant, MGP actually just purchased their own portfolio of brands. However, the vanguard of the contemporary, blended whiskey scene is indisputably led by WhistlePig.
Under Lynch’s guidance, the Vermont producer pioneered a new level popularity for sourced and hybrid American Whiskeys. Lynch provided us
Like journalists, producers rarely reveal their sources. WhistlePig is no exception. Lynch argued that most customers are not concerned with provenance.
“Nevertheless, we’re not just sourcing whiskey from one distillery. It’s multiple distilleries from North America and each of those distilleries have their unique flavor profile. We’re sourcing from one Canadian distillery,” explained the Master Blender.
“The bulk of our whiskey is coming from not that many distilleries. So for pulling a lot of volume we don’t want to diversify too much because that’s going to diversify the flavor profile. Whiskey that is going to our WhistlePig Rye 10-year-old is not coming from 15 different distilleries but from probably 3.”
Let’s dive into the topic a bit deeper. How much control is there on the actual flavor profile ?
“I am the guy coming along at year four, year six. Then I say, ‘OK, it has this flavor profile and it probably extrapolate into will probably go into XYZ flavor profile.’ So I pulled whiskey from Alberta Distillers at 4 years old of the past six years. I know that after two years of aging it will exhibit these really nice spicy qualities. In a more four years it will tame down a bit to this nice oak character. And, it’s really this idea of knowing how your whiskey was when you purchased it, knowing this distillery how they distill, what their production is, what their yeast strains are really like and what kind of flavors that’s going to exhibit at year 6, year 8 year 10 time.”
So, WhistlePig maintains an active role in exactly how their sourced whiskey is produced?
“[Yes.]Then [for example] we knew we were going to buy or continue to buy stock from Alberta Distillers. We prefer this spicier profile, with #char 3 that’s been seasoned in Mid-Western America for a year and a half. So we’re specifically going to say: we want you to use this specific varietal of rye—instead of Musketeer use Rifle—ferment it for 6 hours longer or for 12 hours longer because we like this fruity flavor, distill for us 100% rye in this profile and put it in these wood types just like you had for our past purposes. That gives us so much more control. Our PiggyBack Rye whiskey is a great example of us having a bit more control on that sourced aspect of business.”
Is this what you call terroir ?
“Yeah, we love terroir. We have two sides of our business: the sourced side and the in-house distill style and we are all about terroir, not just in the Vermont sense but also in acknowledging and using for the best of our abilities the terroir of our sourced distillery. If we source whiskey from somewhere in Alberta Calgary it’s probably going to have a different terroir aspect than whiskey from British-Columbia or whiskey from Quebec because the climate is going to be different, the varietal of grain might be quite different. Alberta Distillers actually sources a lot of rye from within a 100 miles of their distillery. So their whiskey has a lot of that loathed earthy terroir influence. And it’s really that idea of terroir of a distillery.”
Rye is King
Speaking of rye, the grain plays a key role in many of WhistlePig’s signature expressions. What considerations are involved with selecting rye?
“The rye varietal we use does have an effect on the final outcome of the spirit, but even more important is the yeast and the cuts we make. Both are even more important than the rye varietal we go for. The US is famous for its corn: Yellow Demp and Jimmy Red. Rye has this spicy connotation, these bacon characteristics, cinnamon and cardamom even dark chocolate. Then we have this full, rich mouthfeel. When rye is active in the barrel it’s more dominant than corn and barley. This is also due to the yeast that release these fruity tones and which we don’t pick up right from the start.”
The bold flavor of rye is hard to work with. Lynch characterized rye with a boy running around the room with a tomahawk. How do you approach this unruly kid?
“Rye is a pain to mash, it’s very gummy, it foams up, it’s quite thick and and viscous when you’re cooking it and last but not least the yield on terms of alcohol is much lower. But the flavor profile is so worth it. So try to mitigate the issue. For instance, over the years we have learned how to mash rye without creating foam, not going to create a viscous a thick mash and it’s going to create a more yeast stable environment. And secondly we’ve managed to de-nature the foaming aspect. Some people put a 100% rye mash put in the fermenter, come back the next day and it’s all over the floor. The compounds really cause the foaming actions. The distillation foaming is the last step. So distillates slow and on a low temperature’. Here’s the answer for a lot of parents, ‘Be patient in finding the right approach.’”
“But I think in terms of overall percentage basis, you should see and you will see the split from our sourced whiskey to our in-house whiskey skew quite a bit to our in-house whiskey.”Lynch
Is sourced whiskey here to stay?
“I would say yes and no. We’re absolutely looking for expanding our in-house line. We’ve been distilling now for five years and putting out some really fine whiskeys. In terms of bulk wise we’ve been holding on to most of our whiskey. We want it to have an appreciable age statement to it when we put it out and really reflect the WhistlePig name. So I would say expect the in-house line to increase and I wouldn’t necessarily expect say the sourced line to decrease because that would mean we were selling less cases, which is a bad thing. But I think in terms of overall percentage basis, you should see and you will see the split from our sourced whiskey to our in-house whiskey skew quite a bit to our in-house whiskey.”
What challenges does future hold for WhistlePig?
“We will stay aggressively challenging. It’s a balancing act really. We want to be as accessible as possible on the one hand and on the other hand we just want to make the best whiskey ever. It’s all about quality and the best rye there possibly is. And we owe it to our customers to find new combinations like The Boss Hog VII we just released: an Amburana finish, a very rare South-American teak wood. Our focus will be on innovation and everything rye has to offer.”