Dave Pickerell, bourbon legend, takes on another classic whiskey.
by Wayne Curtis
As Maker’s Mark’s master distiller, 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 ($70; whistlepigwhiskey.com). 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. But until their own rye makes it to market, Pickerell is bottling a like-minded spirit — a 100 percent, 100-proof rye that is distilled in Western Canada — and slowly rolling it out across the country this spring.
When will WhistlePig’s Vermont rye be ready to sample? “When it’s ready,” says Pickerell. And don’t expect the Vermont grain to taste like its Canadian predecessor — no more than French cabernet tastes like its Californian counterpart. “There’s no real discussion about terroir and American whiskey, but that’s mostly because everybody is using the same grain suppliers, the same water, the same aging climate,” he says. “You’re going to start seeing all the micros, which are using grains from around the country, change that.”
WhistlePig joins a rivulet of rye that has turned into a river. Five years ago the choice of ryes ranged from slim to none, 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.”
Authenticity packs potency. WhistlePig is aged 10 years and is a fierce, forward rye that’s both flinty and full-bodied, at once subtly complicated and extreme. And, according to Pickerell: “It has a finish so big it needs its own zip code.”
Click here to check out three recommended ryes.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.