WhistlePig is a name that I’ve heard before, but not one that I’ve had a lot of experience with. Their products are normally a little out of my price range, making it something I usually reserve for special occasions. However, their latest release is a direct target at consumers like me. This release, dubbed PiggyBack, is a whiskey that is designed from the ground up to be a more approachable (read: affordable) spirit, while also serving as a love note to their late Master Distiller.
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 ‘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.
Master Distiller Dave Pickerell passed away in 2018, but not before finishing his latest creation that we are tasting today. Where the typical WhistlePig bottle commands a rather high price tag, this version was designed to come in at a significantly cheaper price point. It’s intended to be more approachable for new drinkers, as well as bar owners looking for a good well rye.
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. (Further proof that this whiskey was designed for the well, destined for mixing and cocktails.)
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, and 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 slightly, 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.
My favorite thing about the label is that it doesn’t take up the whole bottle. It’s just big enough to get its point across, and its strategically positioned at the bottom to mask if the whiskey is running low (which would make it less appealing on a bar shelf).
I know that this is a 100% rye spirit, but the notes I’m getting from the aroma are things I usually associate more with a bourbon. There’s a hearty helping of brown sugar, butter, and vanilla coming off the glass, but also some fragrant citrus, like an orange peel, thrown into the mix. And, true to a rye whiskey, there’s also some peppery spice making its way into the experience.
The whiskey has a good weight to it, which is what you’d expect from something that’s nearly 100 proof. It feels thicker and more viscous in your mouth than a scotch, with more power and complexity backing it as well.
The flavors are decidedly darker and richer than I expected, with dark chocolate being one of the first notes I get. It develops quickly, with some cherry flavor, along with nutmeg and cinnamon spices joining the party before a little bit of caramel adds some needed sweetness. The spirit finishes with the peppery spice that we know and love from a rye heavy whiskey, and it’s a smooth and delicious experience overall.
When you add ice to a spirit, things tend to tone down a bit. The more powerful flavors aren’t quite as bold and any imperfections like bitterness are removed, but it comes at the expense of the lighter and more delicate aspects.
But in this case, there really are no delicate aspects.
Instead, what happens is the dark chocolate flavor that I had been getting right off the bat is moved into more of a supporting role, mixing well with the cherry and baking spices. What I get more prominently now is caramelized sugar and vanilla, which develops into a nice mixture of the other flavors, bringing in the cherry and dark chocolate at just the right time like a conductor giving the cue for the accompanying instruments to join in.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I have no doubt whatsoever that this is what this whiskey was born to do. It’s damn near perfect for me.
There’s just such a great balance of flavors going on here, with the dark chocolate in the whiskey complimenting the angostura bitters and the inherent cherry flavor of the whiskey only being accentuated by the cherries in the garnish. It’s sweet yet savory, spicy but smooth. A great balance achieved by a great spirit.
(And yes, I mixed it in a cocktail shaker. Stop judging me.)
In a mule, I’m normally looking for two things. First, for the bold flavors of the whiskey to come through and make a statement despite the power of the ginger beer. And second, for the whiskey to add some uniqueness to the cocktail that I wouldn’t get if I used vodka.
In this case, the spirit absolutely comes through with flying colors. The darker and richer aspects of the flavor profile are a great contrast to the brightness of the ginger beer and add a sense of balance to the drink, and the peppery spice from the rye content comes through loud and clear to add a depth and complexity that you otherwise wouldn’t get.
I think this might be a little wasted in this format, since not all of the complex flavors of the whiskey necessarily make it through that ginger beer. But it definitely works.
The only thing that comes close, in my opinion, is the Hudson Manhattan Rye which has a lot of the same flavors that WhistlePig is showing off here. But where the Hudson whiskey is a craft distilled product that’s locally sourced and produced in New York, this is a blended Canadian import. That said… the distinction between the two is well-reflected in the price of each, making this a great alternative to Hudson if you’ve got a tight budget.
It’s a great whiskey at a great price. They set out to make a truly great well rye whiskey and they hit the nail on the head with this one.
|WhistlePig Piggyback Rye Whiskey|
Produced By: WhistlePigProduction Location: Vermont, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: 6 Years
Proof: 48.28% ABV
Price: $45.49 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 5/5
This ain’t piggybacking off anything — it’s great all on its own!