I often go out for whisk[e]y tastings not just to experience new things but also to learn from the distillery representatives (aka “ambassadors”) about the history, the process and the aesthetic behind their wares. This helps me understand and appreciate the work they’ve put in. Sometimes I get bombarded with too much marketing during these sessions, as is the case with some pretty big names out there, trying to sell me their “story” versus what I’m actually paying the money for to enjoy. On other occasions, the “teachings” and the secrets behind some of my favourite brands are absolutely captivating, and I learn a lot more than if I would have researched all that online. This writeup is about one of the latter, where I have experienced a tasting from WhistlePig, and so I’ll try to share what I’ve learned (or how much I remember of it) plus compare the two of their core range whiskeys. So let’s get to it, but first, we need music! Now playing: Głós – Synoid Broadcast.
The history behind rye (as a grain and distillate) is intriguing. I’ll try to be brief here, otherwise, it will take me more than an hour to summarise. It all goes back to the immigrants coming to America who brought with them this stubborn grain to use for food. The excess crop was “converted” into whiskey to be consumed during those long and cold winters in the Northeastern area of the newly found land, where barley and wheat would not survive. Needless to say, rye whiskey (100% rye) became the choice of drink for all the settlers. As the colony expanded and corn (aka maize) was discovered, they began moving towards this grain because it was cheaper and easier to harvest. But it had no flavour. So, blending corn and rye whiskeys became the norm for hundreds of years. Until the prohibition. At this point, only the Canadians legally produced rye whiskies and sat upon an enormous stock waiting for this terrible and failed experiment to end. And when it did, they literally flooded the US with rye. In fact, based on Canadian law at the time, it didn’t even have to have any actual rye in it – it could just be all corn, while the label still said “rye”. Soon, bourbon started catching up, pushing the Canadian product out of its borders. The straight or even 100% rye began to disappear as an actual product and was mainly used to spice up the cheaper blends. And so it sat in barrels in the warehouses of Canada until the bartenders started experimenting with cocktails, substituting rye into an “Old Fashioned” for a unique taste. This was when WhistlePig was born, to focus on experiments with rye and produce the best-tasting rye whiskey out there. Or so the story goes…
And yet, the most fascinating thing I learned is that this award-winning 100% American rye whiskey is not American at all! And does that even matter? Not really – focus on the liquid! Most likely, it’s a better thing! You see, although WhistlePig’s official distillery is based on a farm [with pigs] in Vermont, most, if not all of its [current] stock comes from an Alberta-based distillery in Canada. The 10-year-old whiskey is not only distilled but is aged in oak barrels on Canadian land, and it is then shipped to Vermont, where it is further “finished” in unique barrels for an additional 9 months. The 100 Proof (50% ABV) 10-year-old is a little harsher on my palate and requires more than a drop of water to bring it down to a tasty sip. It’s absolutely wonderful in a cocktail (with WhistlePig maple syrup, no less!) and is much easier to drink when diluted and slightly chilled. The 12-year-old is smoother, bottled at 43% ABV. It started its life in new American oak and then was split into three barrels: Madeira (63%), Sauternes (30%) and Port (7%) and then finally married in a single batch for the final product. This is an absolutely lovely dram, with a full-flavoured yet satin profile, caressing my senses with various spices, dried fruit, and honey. It’s a bit pricey for a 12-year-old, to be honest, clocking in at about £175 in my favourite retailer, while the 10-year-old is more than half-priced at £82. I’m not sure why that is, and I did not want to put the ambassador on the spot in front of everyone in the tasting room. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic whisky, which I’d gladly grab for about £100. I wonder if import costs are adding up here. The 15-year-old is eye-watering at £250!
So there you have it, folks – two gorgeous ryes from WhistlePig, plus a little history lesson to accompany your dram. As you have probably already guessed, the high price is a bit off-putting for my reasoning. Perhaps it’s cheaper in the US, and I’ll ask some friends to bring it over from a duty-free shop. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on sipping on my Masterson’s Straight Rye until the bottle runs out. Of course, we can’t conclude without a winner here – and in my mind, the 12-year-old absolutely takes the prize! And if you find it hiding on the menu, grab yourself a double.
[Update 7/30/2022] With a “rye-burning” desire to continue and explore straight whiskies I dig through my shelves in search of a bottle I have stashed away. To my surprise, I find a 12-year-old WhistlePig! Yes, folks, when you have a collection of 150+ bottles, sometimes it’s hard to keep track. And to a bigger surprise, it’s an entirely different bottle of a 12-year-old altogether. This one is simply called “Old World“, it is distilled in Indiana (not Canada – the label confirms this), it’s a “straight rye whiskey” (so not 100% rye as above – probably just a bit over 51%), finished exclusively in French Sauternes barrels (not a combination of three), and bottled at 45% ABV. Again – a very different liquid than an “Old World Rye“. The lesson here is to read the label very carefully!