As the master distiller of Maker's Mark, Dave Pickerell spent 14 years making one of the softest, tastiest American whiskeys on the market. He took the brand from 175,000 cases a year to nearly a million and introduced a generation of discerning drinkers to the joys of premium whiskey. Did you really think he'd just go quietly into retirement?
Instead, after leaving Maker's in 2008, Pickerell turned his passion for whiskey to a less-heralded American spirit, rye – bourbon's older, spicier cousin. Then Pickerell went to work: He found an eager partner in Raj Peter Bhakta, a former investment banker, onetime Apprentice apprentice, and erstwhile congressional candidate – and launched WhistlePig, a premium small-batch rye named after the humble groundhog. WhistlePig is now growing fields of organic rye on a 500-acre farm near the shores of Vermont's Lake Champlain, where they're also building a distillery.
WhistlePig joins a rivulet of rye that has turned into a river. Five years ago the choice of ryes ranged from slim to none in the form of dusty bottles of Old Overholt or Wild Turkey Rye. But a growing number of established and startup distilleries now embrace this rustic, spicy whiskey. Why the resurrection? "It's a perfect storm of trends," says Pickerell. To wit: Drinkers want more flavor. "And there's a trend toward authenticity," he explains. "The first Mint Julep, the first Old-Fashioned, and the first Manhattan were almost certainly made with rye." With that in mind, here are six other revivalist ryes to try.
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey
Rye, the backbone of the original recipes for the Manhattan, Sazerac, and Old-Fashioned, spent much of the last few decades losing ground to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Now, the most American of liquors – George Washington distilled the stuff at Mount Vernon – is having a resurgence, thanks to a modern mix of nostalgia and craft. One of the leaders of the rye charge is Raj Peter Bhakta, who founded WhistlePig in 2007 on a farm near the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. His goal: Establish the nation's first farm-to-bottle single-estate distillery.
And he's making progress. Though the whiskey currently bottled on the WhistlePig premises is distilled in western Canada, all production takes place under the auspices of legendary whiskey distiller Dave Pickerell, who, after a 14-year run at Maker's Mark, chose in 2008 to focus on a less-heralded spirit. The inaugural batch of WhistePig 100/100 was introduced in 2010. Wine Enthusiast gave it a 96, its highest score to date for an American whiskey. Similar accolades followed.
What makes a rye like WhistlePig so spectacular is, well, the rye. Technically, one can blend a 51% proportion of rye with corn or other grains and still call the whiskey rye (the same proportion applies to bourbon, with corn being the majority component). WhistlePig's 100/100 is 100% rye, which leads to a more assertive and complex flavor devoid of the sweetness of corn.
Another factor in high-end rye production is the attention to aging. Ten years minimum in a barrel is required, but many mass whiskey producers age both their bourbon and rye in the same barrels, resulting in a conflation of flavors that compromises both products. The finest producers of rye, including WhistlePig, produce only rye, in limited amounts, insuring the flavor is not informed by disparate elements. It's American rye – simple as that. [$80; drinkupny.com]