A new Shoreham distillery is helping bring back rye
In 2006, after a failed yet entertaining Pennsylvania congressional campaign, Raj Peter Bhakta hit the road. First stop: India. Bhakta was on the hunt for the next Steve Irwin — the famed Australian wildlife expert who had recently met an untimely demise at the end of a stingray’s barb.
Though Bhakta, then 31, had just lost his first political race, he still had the entrepreneurial zeal he’d shown on the second season of Donald Trump’s mogul-making reality show “The Apprentice.” If he could find a tea-sipping, head-bobbling, tiger-taming Indian replacement for Irwin, he reasoned, he’d have a hit show on his hands. Who wouldn’t watch that show?
To find his star, Bhakta traveled to all of India’s national parks and interviewed gamekeepers and wardens. He held auditions in Bollywood. But he returned home empty-handed. His Bengali Steve was not to be found.
Back in the U.S., Bhakta floundered. The campaign had left him dispirited about the American political system. When a friend encouraged him to decamp to Vermont and plan his next step, he figured, Why not? That move was the unlikely setup for Bhakta’s next stage of life as a rural high-end whiskey baron.
Like so many well-heeled urbanites, Bhakta bought an old farm and moved to the Champlain Valley seeking respite and inspiration. After he’d spent some time hanging out in Vermont, taking in the clear air and bucolic scenery, two things happened to him.
“One: I didn’t come to any great level of clarity. And two: The financial reality of Holy smokes, I’ve got a 500-acre farm I’m carrying here hit me,” he recalls. “Then I said, ‘I have an idea — let’s make this farm profitable.’”
In Vermont, as in most parts of the U.S., making money from a farm is an exercise fraught with hand wringing and number crunching. But Bhakta is nothing if not bright eyed and confident. His farm wouldn’t do dairy or conventional food crops, he decided.
No, Bhakta’s farm would do whiskey. Or, more specifically, his farm, cradled in the hills between Shoreham and Cornwall, would grow the rye for the whiskey.
And Bhakta’s whiskey wouldn’t be just any well-grade tipple. In keeping with his blue-blooded bent toward all things posh, Bhakta wanted his whiskey — a 10-year-old, 100-proof rye — to be the most top-shelf domestic rye on the market.
So far, he seems to be making good on his resolutions. WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey  hit shelves this spring and has already garnered praise from spirits connoisseurs. New York City culinary hot spots such as Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café serve WhistlePig, as do upscale bars such as Death + Company and PDT.
For Bhakta, this is only the beginning. “We’re going to make the best whiskeys in America, full stop, all in,” he says.
That may sound like big talk from a guy who embarked on his new career with no experience in the spirits world beyond frequent imbibing. But Bhakta has a deadly combination of business acumen, entrepreneurial gusto and unflinching chutzpah to back up his claim.
Bhakta, 35, grew up in Philadelphia, the son of an Indian father and an Irish mother. He attended the prestigious Hill School, then studied history and economics at Boston College. After graduation, he took a job at a boutique mergers-and-acquisitions firm.
Two years later, Bhakta started his own company — a tech business that created online appraisal tools for the wholesale auto industry. After selling that company to DaimlerChrysler, Bhakta moved on to real estate, purchasing and redeveloping a hotel and condo complex in Vail, Colo.
His business savvy and sartorial flair — the bow-tied bon vivant could have penned the preppy handbook — caught the eye of the producers of “The Apprentice,” who invited him to compete on the show’s second season in 2005. During his turn on the show, Bhakta distinguished himself with his rapier wit and unabashed pursuit of beautiful women.
In 2006, Bhakta, a self-described libertarian Republican, took a shot at a House of Representatives seat in Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district. Though he lost to Democratic incumbent Allyson Schwartz in a midterm election marked by anti-Republican ire, he made a name for himself as an unconventional campaigner. To make a point about our porous southern border, Bhakta rode along the Rio Grande atop an elephant, accompanied by a mariachi band.
Bhakta’s résumé is, by his own admission, a little “ADHD.” He’s been a banker, an entrepreneur, a pundit and a TV personality. He’s dabbled in politics. Now he’s a farmer and spirits purveyor.
Walking the rugged track between his farmhouse and the distillery buildings, Bhakta looks every bit the gentleman farmer in his tweed blazer and Gucci loafers. His hair is slightly tousled, his tan trousers rumpled. All he needs is a spaniel or two and a walking stick, and the picture of landed gentry would be complete.
But Bhakta used modern business savvy to plan his cash crop. To get a return on his substantial investment, he knew he needed to produce a value-added product that would fetch a high price. He entertained the idea of starting a craft brewery, but decided against entering an oversaturated market. Ditto for craft vodka, he says.
But other pockets of the growing artisan-distillation movement, such as rye, weren’t tapped out. So Bhakta settled on whiskey, a beverage he knew a little something about.
“I’ve always been a whiskey drinker. I’ve conducted a decades-long and thorough due-diligence process, at the hazard of my net worth and liver and good reputation, in pursuit of learning more about whiskey,” he says. “So, I should make a return on this.”
The first step was settling on a name. Bhakta had no trouble there, since the term “whistle pig” had lodged itself memorably in his head years ago. As the story goes, he was hiking in Colorado when he ran into a helmetless mountain biker with wild hair and a heavy French accent.
“Could it beee, could it beee a wheestle peeg?” the man shouted at Bhakta.
While “whistle pig” is actually a colloquialism for groundhog, Bhakta prefers the words’ porcine connotation. Hence the whiskey’s mascots, Mortimer and Mauve — the juvenile kunekune pigs from New Zealand that share his farmhouse with him.
After choosing a name, Bhakta needed a still and a distiller. While researching equipment, he met Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark in Kentucky. Bhakta pitched Pickerell his idea of starting a single-estate rye whiskey company — the first of its kind in the U.S. — on his farm in Vermont. Pickerell was sold and came on as WhistlePig’s master distiller.
For now, though, the whiskey labeled as WhistlePig is crafted at a distillery in western Canada from Canadian rye. Bhakta is up front about why: “To build a distillery, you have to buy the still and the barrels, which are not cheap, and then sit on product for years,” he says. “Most people can’t afford to sit on product, so they put it in the market, and it sells because it’s cute, or it’s from this or that small distillery. But they do long-term detriment to the brand, because the whiskey isn’t ready.”
Bhakta views the whiskey he’s selling now, which is hand-bottled in Shoreham, as a teaser of what’s to come — a “halo for the brand,” he calls it. Next spring, the certified organic farm will see its first rye harvest, and the distillation will begin.
Eventually, WhistlePig rye whiskey will be pro-duced entirely on Bhakta’s farm. The barn and milk house are being converted to hold the distillery. Bhakta will join a small group of local distillers — at present, Vermont has seven distilleries in operation and six whose applications are pending.
At nearly $70 for a 750-milliliter bottle, WhistlePig’s current offering is the most expensive rye sold in Vermont. But it’s worth it, says George Bergin, co-owner of the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski.
“I think it’s the best rye we sell. It’s really smooth, but you can still taste the complexity,” he says.
Chris Maloney, bartender at Bluebird Tavern in Burlington, loves the whiskey for its full-bodied flavor.
“It sings like a rye. It’s bitey and edgy with a slight vegetal cleanness to it,” Maloney says.
At Bluebird, WhistlePig rivals Chartreuse V.E.P. for the title of the restaurant’s most expensive pour. But people increasingly choose quality over quantity when it comes to spirits, Maloney says. Accordingly, they are willing to pay more for artisan liquors. The restaurant is on its third bottle of WhistlePig since the bar staff discovered it a few months ago.
It’s not just local bartenders and whiskey aficionados who are talking about Bhakta’s whiskey. The Wall Street Journal recently named WhistlePig one of its top five new whiskeys of the year, while the Spirit Journal awarded it five out of five stars. Wine Enthusiast gave WhistlePig 96 points — its highest rating ever for a rye whiskey.
The accolades don’t surprise Bhakta.
“We said we were going to have the best rye out there. That was the mandate,” he says. “You can disagree as to whether we’re the best or the second best or the third best. But we’ll always be associated with the best.”
That might sound a little Trumpian, but Bhakta doesn’t mind the comparison. Much of The Donald’s success as the most famous real-estate tycoon in the Western world can be attributed to his unapologetic showmanship and relentless marketing. Bhakta doesn’t see anything wrong with employing those tactics in the whiskey business.
“Your drink should have flavor. And WhistlePig is the most flavorful of all of America’s whiskeys,” Bhakta says, as if stumping for office. “There’s no need to contribute to the trade deficit any more when you drink. The most discerning drinkers in America should be drinking WhistlePig; they’d be doing their country a favor ... in these troubling times.”
Bhakta may not have won his seat in Congress, but he’s still determined to serve his country, one pricey dram at a time.