When WhistlePig’s Boss Hog IV “The Black Prince” rye whiskey won “best in show” at the prestigious 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, it dominated a field of whiskeys from around the globe.
Follow that $499 bottle back home and you’ll find a picturesque farm in Vermont, where country roads are lined with red barns and apple orchards. It’s an idyllic and mostly rural landscape, and a far cry from the whiskey powerhouses of Scotland, Ireland, Japan and Kentucky.
In recent years, Vermont has seen a quiet craft distilling revival, and the state’s bars are lined with locally made bottles. But they’re not always what they seem.
Distilling is just one part of a broader artisanal movement in the state, with seemingly every dirt road leading to a tiny brewery, bakery or creamery.
And throughout the Green Mountains, producers are firing up stills on farms, plucking ingredients from hillsides and crafting spirits using the harvest of the northern New England growing season.
It’s not the first time that fires have crackled under country stills here — Vermonters drank heavily through the Revolutionary era — but until recently, the art of distilling had all but dried up, left behind by Prohibition and a changing food system.
Twenty years ago there were no active distilleries in Vermont. Now there are 16 and growing, producing spirits using everything from maple syrup to pressed apples, milk and locally grown grain. Often self-taught and independently owned, these distillers are remaking a lost industry.
An early member of the distilling revival was Duncan Holaday, owner of Dunc’s Mill, who crafts small batches of rum in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom.
The anthropologist-turned-distiller builds stills by hand, and infuses the smooth Elderflower Rum with blossoms picked from his rolling property. Visitors step into his distillery-studio to find shelves packed with experiments in progress, bottles marked with a cryptic shorthand of dates and ingredients.
In the first warm days of early spring, he collects sap from the trees in the surrounding forest, boiling it into syrup used to spike the aged Maple Rum.
Tours of Dunc’s Mill are sometimes available upon request (622 Keyser Hill Rd., St. Johnsbury, Vermont, 802-745-9486, www.duncsmill.com).
Heading into the countryside
Even deeper into the countryside is Caledonia Spirits, a distillery that grew from a beekeeper’s efforts to make spirits using his raw, organic honey.
The Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin is infused with honey sweetness offset by a backbone of juniper.
Head distiller Ryan Christensen was the first of this generation of distillers to experiment with aging spirits in Vermont wood — a practice so outdated he had to find a stand of trees to harvest, send the timber to be specially milled then contract an upstate New York cooperage to make bespoke barrels.
Laid to mellow in the Hardwick, Vermont distillery, the barrels now hold the aged version of Barr Hill Gin, called Tom Cat Gin, as well as whiskey made from the founder’s own rye fields.
Visit Caledonia Spirits at their Hardwick, Vermont distillery for tours and tastings (Log Yard Drive, Hardwick, Vermont, 802-472-8000, www.caledoniaspirits.com, open daily 12pm-5pm).
Tempest in a tumbler
When WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” started the company on a sprawling farm in 2007, the view from the road was postcard Vermont. And these days, the farm is home to a heritage herd of Mangalitsa and Kunekune pigs, who graze alongside waving lines of rye and oats.
But there’s an important difference between WhistlePig and its distillery neighbors — this isn’t where the winning whiskey was made from bushels of grain.
While the company has now begun distilling some spirits onsite, WhistlePig came to the world stage with “sourced” whiskey, spirits made in places like Canada and Indiana, then finished and bottled on the Shoreham farm.
It’s a common practice in the whiskey world, and one that inspires periodic screeds from purists, who point out a lack of transparency in labeling and marketing. And for some Vermonters, WhistlePig seemed to be trading on the state’s reputation for artisans and agriculture without making anything from scratch.
In many ways, Vermont’s small distillers couldn’t be more different from operations like WhistlePig, with vast gaps in financing, culture and process.
But Reid Mitenbuler, the author of Bourbon Empire, suggests that the varied ways of making spirits aren’t necessarily at odds.
“I think there can be a symbiosis,” he said, “for consumers, the best thing would be creating an environment where both can thrive.”
“Two hundred years ago, it was all just farmers distilling their surplus grains,” said Mitenbuler, who argues that the final product of those early distillers may have been downright undrinkable.
Following the Prohibition years, the needle swung the other way entirely.
“By 2000, you had about a dozen big distilleries producing 99% of American spirits,” Mitenbuler noted, adding that consolidation meant that there was less variety available, and less of a push to innovate.
The resurgence of craft distilling restored some balance, a transformation led by places like Dunc’s Mill and Caledonia Spirits.
Meanwhile, sourcing and aging great whiskeys requires a nuanced palate and creative vision.
Dave Pickerell, the lead distiller at WhistlePig, has a resume that includes a long stint at Maker’s Mark, and he’s revered by many in the spirits world.
And these days, WhistlePig is selling the product of their own farm. WhistlePig FarmStock Rye Whiskey blends the first crop of their Shoreham grown- and distilled-rye whiskey with sourced, aged vintages.
It’s a step in the direction of the farm-focused movement that’s driven Vermont’s distilling revival. But it hasn’t garnered the same attention as WhistlePig’s older bottles of sourced whiskey, which are at the heart of the company’s rise.
Which raises a spirited question. Is there room in the Green Mountains artisan-loving culture for sourced whiskeys to coexist with farm-based craft distillers? What if the whiskey is really good? Like, really good.
The proof is in the pour
Back at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the judges didn’t visit the picturesque WhistlePig farm and didn’t weigh in on the sourcing controversy. In the subjective world of flavor the competition strives for objectivity, with a panel of expert drinkers undergoing a marathon of blind tasting.
Wearing snowy white smocks, they sat before a line of tiny glasses, each labeled with a randomly-assigned letter.
WhistlePig’s rye was one of dozens of whiskeys the judges tasted that day. But even in a crowded field, said judge and whiskey writer Fred Minnick, the WhistlePig rye was a standout.
“It was complex,” he recalled, “and it had nuance and fun flavors to it — it just really stood out in the whiskey category.”
A Kentucky-based bourbon expert and veteran whiskey drinker, he’s not the only one to fall for WhistlePig’s silky smooth rye whiskeys. The bottles are aged for up to 15 years, far longer than the average rye.
The whiskeys themselves vary widely, from an “Old World” version finished in port, Sauternes and madeira casks to a spicy, 10-year rye that’s redolent of oak and caramel.
That time in the barrel lends WhistlePig rye complex flavor and aroma. It’s the kind of spirit that inspires long-winded odes, or at least a satisfied silence from appreciative drinkers.
And as Minnick remembered tasting WhistlePig’s competition-winning whiskey, he kept it succinct.
“It was perfect,” he said quietly. “In every way.”