For most of my adult life, I’ve been a beer guy. I was in heaven as the craft brewery scene exploded, and in a city like Chicago there’s no shortage of breweries. One of the most well-known is Revolution, who does an entire “deep wood” series of beer aged in barrels that formerly housed bourbon or whiskey. They also teamed up with one of Thirty-One Whiskey’s favorite distillers, Whistlepig, and together decided to play their Uno reverse card to see what happens to Whistlepig’s Piggyback 4-year Rye when it’s aged in a bourbon barrel that was used to age a Revolution V.S.O.J. (Very Special Old [Straight] Jacket) Barleywine.
Back in 2007, Raj Peter Bhakta purchased a dairy farm in Vermont and started thinking about business opportunities. After much soul-searching, he decided that the thing he really wanted to do was to open a whiskey distillery, and thus he set about creating one.
So why call his distillery ‘WhistlePig’? Well, according to the company, it was during these early years that Bhakta was hiking in Colorado. While there, he was nearly run over by a French cyclist, who apparently thought he had run into a “whistle pig” (as he called it). Bhakta was thoroughly confused, and the Frenchman disappeared before he could get any clarification. It was the oddest encounter of his entire life and, after telling a couple people about it, he decided that the absurd phrase would be his farm’s name. The company would officially be founded in 2008.
Bhakta would team up with Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark, to turn his dream into a reality. Dave wanted to focus on rye whiskey (something Maker’s Mark doesn’t really do), and by chance he had stumbled across a stock of high quality 10 year aged Canadian rye whiskey, which would become the source for WhistlePig’s flagship 10 year rye.
Since opening its doors, WhistlePig has focused on rye whiskey using spirits primarily imported from Canadian distillers (such as their original source) and blended to taste. In 2015, they opened their on-site distillery, using pot stills and locally raised grain to start bottling their own homemade whiskey in addition to the sourced and imported blends.
Let’s start with the beer, and talk about why this whiskey offering is unique. The Revolution V.S.O.J. Barleywine is:
A celebration of malt, oak, and patience, Very Special Old [Straight] Jacket is a cuvée of English Barleywines aged between two and four years in our favorite bourbon barrels. Lusciously sweet and colossally complex, V.S.O.J. is equal parts refinement and excess. Enjoy now or store cold.
Some whiskies are not even aged 2 years! And this is not just any beer, it’s a barleywine. For those unfamiliar, a barleywine is a strong ale from England that is brewed at a very high ABV — in this case, 15%. Its name is derived from an ABV similar to wine, but is brewed from grain instead of grapes.
We’ve previously reviewed the Whistlepig Piggyback Rye, which is the whiskey that was aged for a second time in the V.S.O.J. barrels, but here’s a recap of how that spirit gets made:
The whiskey starts with a grain bill of 100% rye, which is pot distilled in batches before being placed in charred American oak barrels for six to eight years. Once the batches reach maturity, they are blended together and shipped out for bottling and distribution.
This whiskey is bottled at 96.56 proof — an homage to the 1956 birth year of the late Dave Pickerell. The specific alcohol content was chosen because they determined that 97 proof was the ideal level of alcohol for a highball cocktail: providing just enough punch to make itself known without overpowering the drink.
What sets this Piggyback apart from its non-beer-barreled counterpart is the fact that it spent time in those former whiskey barrels used to age the barleywine – a beautiful ouroboros of beer and whiskey. When it was released, Revolution Brewing made the following announcement on their Instagram account:
Last summer, mere hours after we emptied our V.S.O.J. barrels, a hand-selected group of ex-Barleywine barrels was on a truck to the whiskey geniuses at @whistlepigwhiskey. They took those barrels, still redolent with extra-aged Barleywine sugars, and filled them with their six-year PiggyBack rye whiskey. One fortifying sojourn later, V.S.O.J. PiggyBack drops right at the very moment we could use a warming sipper.
It’s a slightly different take on the standard WhistlePig design, but there’s a good reason for messing with a winning style here.
Overall, the bottle looks pretty similar. There’s the lopsided oval shaped body with rounded corners that we’re familiar with, along with the “WP” initials embossed into the glass on the rear of the bottle. What’s changed here is the neck — instead of a short neck (like the smokestack on Thomas the Tank Engine), this is a longer neck that’s designed specifically to make it easier for bartenders to grab and pour. Usually, there’s a swell in the neck to make handling a little easier but in this case the neck is as straight as an arrow.
Another small but noticeable change is the labeling. Instead of a straight, squared off label, this version is tilted at an angle, perhaps indicating that it’s a little bit rebellious and less stodgy than its counterparts in the WhistlePig lineup. The iconic pig is also slightly altered, wearing a stetson cowboy hat (another nod to Pickerell, who had an affinity for the hats) instead of the customary top hat on the other labels.
There are only slight differences between this bottle and the base Piggyback. The first is the bold red fist and star of Revolution Brewing in the bottom right corner. The second is a small sticker indicating that this is a barrel pick from Binny’s Beverage, a local distributor here in Chicago.
Revolution Brewing V.S.O.J. Barleywine
To really appreciate the uniqueness of this rye, I decided to start with the beer. One Saturday afternoon, I took a stroll down Milwaukee Ave to try it at the source.
My initial reaction as soon as I took the first sip: this is a big, boozy beer.
The flavor starts with rich molasses and brown sugar and quickly opens up to a lavish earthy woodiness from the whiskey barrels. It’s deliciously smooth, and I had to remind myself to go slow and sip this 15% behemoth more like a fine wine than a pilsner.
The foundation spirit, Piggyback, is a 100% rye spirit. Without the aging, its flavor surprises with notes more commonly associated with bourbon, such as rich brown sugar, butter, and vanilla, along with a hint of fragrant citrus.
After some time in the V.S.O.J. barrel, the whiskey acquires additional complexities, offering delightful hints of anise, raisins, toasted almonds, and creme brulee. Thanks to the influence imparted by the magic of Revolution’s Deep Wood, it gains a comforting richness and fullness, evoking a warm embrace in every sip.
Introducing ice to a spirit tends to temper its intensity, causing the bolder flavors to mellow and smoothing out any bitterness or harsh edges, resulting in a more approachable taste. However, this cooling effect comes with a trade-off, as it can also diminish the subtler and more delicate nuances that are present in the neat form of the spirit.
Regrettably, this step proves to be a letdown, as the flavor lacks excitement and depth. The rye imparts a mild heat, but the once vibrant flavors of anise, raisins, and almond now appear as a bland and indistinct botanical. Moreover, the sweetness that once complemented the profile has all but vanished. I imagine that this is the flavor of water used to rinse lettuce.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Not surprisingly, the issues that appeared on ice continue to plague the flavor in an old fashioned. The spirit is still uninspired, but the bitters and sugar are doing their best to breathe life into it. Honestly, the bitters are the biggest flavor here, doing all the heavy lifting.
It reminds me of a cocktail made with a barrel gin rather than a whiskey.
I am torn here. Piggyback is a great rye. It got five stars from the main man Nick, and I concur that it’s a great rye. I also love the collaboration and willingness to experiment with flavor.
All of that said… this is only viable when taken neat. When taken neat, the flavor profile is a definite upgrade from the Piggyback bottle — it’s like a hug in a glass, and who doesn’t love that? But to its detriment (and knocking off one star), this bottle is a one trick pig that does not hold up on the rocks or in a cocktail.
I hope that we see more collaborations between Whistlepig and Revolution, let’s not stop at one.
|WhistlePig PiggyBack 6 Year Old Rye Finished in Revolution V.S.O.J. Stout Barrels
Produced By: WhistlePigProduction Location: Vermont, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: 6 Years
Proof: 48.28% ABV
Price: $59.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
It’s not a downgrade, it’s just a very specific upgrade.