Friday, June 10, 2016

Thirst Boston: Distillers Round Table--Dave Pickerell of WhistlePig

"It doesn't get any more American than Rye."
--Dave Pickerell

Over the last six years, the category of Rye Whiskey has grown approximately 600%, and Dave Pickerell sees this as a trend rather than a fad. It isn't a trend he created, but rather one he recognized early and surged forward to become one of the top producers of Rye. I've met Dave a few times previously and he has always been a fascinating speaker, full of historical information and a deep passion for Rye.

At Thirst Boston, I chose to attend the Distillers Round Table: Dave Pickerell of WhistlePig, which was described as: "It seems like every spirit comes with age claims and descriptions of special barrel finishes on its label these days. So what do these designations actually mean, and how can they help you better understand what’s inside the bottle? Dave Pickerell, WhistlePig Whiskey Master Distiller, will break down the process of whiskey distillation and maturation. Taste a range of differently-aged expressions, including WhistlePig’s new distillate “White Pig,” direct from the new WhistlePig facility, and learn about the role casking plays in creating the final product. This is a chance to learn while experiencing and you’ll come out of the session with a deep understanding and personal appreciation for what goes into a single expression of whiskey."

This was an excellent opportunity to listen to Dave Pickerell speak about Rye and get to taste the WhistlePig products. Dave previously spent 14 years working at Maker's Mark and he now runs Oak View Consulting, assisting a number of other distilleries, such as WhistlePig, Hillrock Estate Distillery, and the George Washington's Distillery. He is nationally recognized as a whiskey expert, and his services are sought out by many distilleries. He apparently even has whiskey in his blood, as his great grandmother’s uncle was Colonel E.H. Taylor, said by many to be the father of the bourbon industry.

(I'll also note that I'm including in this article information from Dave that he provided in another seminar.)

In 1964, Congress passed a resolution, stating Bourbon was a "distinctive product of the U.S." but Rye never received such a distinction and Dave feels that's unfortunate as he believes rye is at the backbone of American history. Prior to the Revolutionary War, rum was hugely popular in the U.S. but with the revolution came an opposition to all things British. As Britain had its connection to the rum trade, American sought a replacement spirit and adopted rye whiskey as their drink of choice. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, American soldiers received daily rations of rye whiskey.

There are two main types of rye whiskey, Maryland and Monongahela, the primary difference being that Maryland includes corn in its mash bill but Monongahela contains no corn. With the repeal of Prohibition, Monongahela rye nearly died off with Maryland rye taking the prominent role. First, as Prohibition ended, Canadian whiskey, Caribbean rum and Scotch were ready to swoop in to supply Americans, while American breweries had difficulty in competing quality-wise as most of their spirits were very young, lacking aging. This led to the creation of large commercial distilleries, to benefit from economies of scale, as the only way U.S. distilleries could compete was through lower prices. Second, the Grain Subsidy Act provided subsidies for corn but not rye, so much more corn was planted.

Around 2002 or so, rye was "circling the drain," facing a slow death, and only a few large producers were making rye whiskey. Fortunately, the arrive of the cocktail culture helped to turn that around. While these mixologists were researching historical cocktails, they discovered how many were originally made with rye whiskey, fueling their desire for this spirit. In 2006, bartenders were primarily responsible for the growth of the rye whiskey category by 20% in one year. The trend was starting and opportunities abounded.

Dave, who went to West Point, is a chemist and chemical engineer. He spent about 14 years working at Maker's Mark, noting that they made one mistake, allowing him to volunteer at George Washington Distillery as that is how they ultimately lost him. When George Washington died in 1799, his distillery was producing about 11,000 gallons of rye, which was the largest known distillery at that time. There might have been a larger one elsewhere, but currently there's no known proof of such. In 1814, one of Washington's heirs apparently burnt down the distillery, a case of potential insurance fraud, though the insurance was ultimately paid out.

In 2001, the decision was made to rebuild the distillery and Dave was recruited to help out. At this time, few people were drinking rye but Dave was seduced by rye whiskey. Three years later, the first distillation was conducted at the new distillery. By 2007, the category of rye had grown by 30% and Dave decided to leave Maker's Mark so he could produce rye whiskey. However, he left without having any investors and he didn't receive a severance package. It was a very risky move but in December 2009, he made a contract with Raj Peter Bhakti, who had founded Whistlepig in 2006, to be their Master Distiller. They released their first product in April 2010.

Dave's ultimate goal to is grow rye and produce whiskey from that rye. However, initially they have had to source the rye and whiskey. Vermont hasn't been the friendliest place for their distillery and it took nearly 6 years for them to get everything approved. That can be contrasted with the opening of Hillrock Estate Distillery in the Hudson Valley of New York which only took 9 months! Dave wanted to produce Monongahela-style rye, generally using 100% rye, though with a little allowance for 1%-2% malted barley to enhance the consistency of his product when needed.

Rye that you purchase in the U.S. generally doesn't make good whiskey at it is mainly a cover crop, which is why WhistlePig purchased rye from Canada. They have imported 2 varieties of seed from Western Canada for their own fields. They still can't legally harvest, partially as they can't afford the cost of a harvester, but have been following all the rules and look forward to changing that in the near future. The price of rye is currently high, especially as some places don't have enough rye. They opened their own distillery last October and are moving forward with their original goals. There are even oak trees on their property and they have started sending some of the wood away to be made into barrels.

Dave feels that rye should be spicy and not sweet as it becomes with the addition of corn. He also poetically waxed that rye whiskey is like a great first date. It has "lots of character, is full bodied, well rounded, has a long finish, and no aggression." Dave stated that they wanted to "make good whiskey at a good price." They seek to reach a certain taste point, not a price point, and want to control the category of rye over 6 years old. In addition, Dave feels that alcohol is present to deliver taste so the last thing they do is set the proof, believing there is an ideal proof for each type of alcohol.

When making rye, you must be careful of high tannins and such tannins don't work well. If you leave rye in the barrel too long, the tannins will get out of control. You need to balance the wood to decrease the aggression of the rye without raising the tannins too high. Dave does this with a two barrel system, placing the rye first in a new white oak barrel until the tannins reach a certain level and then placing the rye into a second barrel, a used bourbon barrel. The rye will spend about 5-7 years in the first barrel. The cost of barrels is the single largest cost of making whiskey. Wood, water and grain form their triple terroir.

For the tasting component, we got to sample four products from WhistlePig and I resampled some of those products last weekend at TasteCamp Vermont. First, we began with The White Pig, which hasn't yet been released. This is a white rye whiskey, essentially the distillate straight from the still. It is made with 100% rye, give or take, and presents with some interesting fruity notes and a hint of sweetness, along with some underlying spice notes.

We then moved onto the Whistle Pig 10 Year Old Straight Rye, which I first sampled back in July 2012, having then been very impressed. I nearly always have a bottle of this at my home bar and often use it when making Manhattans. Though the label says it is 10 years old, the rye's age varies from 10-12 years. On the nose, it will remind you of an aged bourbon but the taste is different, presenting plenty of complexity with delicious spices notes, smooth tannins and a sweet & spicy kick. It possesses a lengthy, smooth finish and I continue to highly recommend this rye whiskey.

Scotch producers, such as Glenmorangie, started gaining popularity for their use of various  finishing barrels, from Sherry to Cognac. Dave decided to experiment on his own, purchasing a large variety of barrels until finally deciding on five types: Madeira, Sauternes, Port, Cognac, and Sherry. He produced some limited editions and eventually decided to create a more unique rye, marrying the finishes of three different barrels. That led to the creation of the 12 Year Old "Old World (about $115)

Dave views this rye as like a cocktail with four ingredients, and knowing that you should be able to taste each individual ingredient. The Port barrels were very dominant so it needed to take more of a minimal role in the final blend. In the end, the Old World became a blend of 63% Maderia, 30% Sauternes and 7% Port. At 86 proof, this is a "straight-up dessert" with a delectable diversity of flavors, with plenty of fruit flavors, especially some ripe plum and figs, with plenty of pepper and spice, caramel and honey. You can taste the influences of the three barrels and it works well in a harmonious blend. A lengthy and satisfying finish will make you crave more. Highly recommended.

Just released on the market is the amazing, albeit pricey, 15 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey ($199). The base of this rye is the 10 Year Old except it sits in the barrel for another 4.5 years and then is finished for anther 6 months in barrels of Vermont White Oak with a #4 char. At 92 proof, only 6000 bottles were released in the U.S. though more will be made available in September. This is a massively impressive rye, with such a phenomenal, complex melange of aromas and flavors. There is plenty of spice, caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, citrus, and even a touch of smoke. Every sip seems to bring something new to your palate and you won't want to quite sipping until the bottle is empty. It is a liquid aphrodisiac, decadently delicious with a sensual mouthfeel. I can't recommend it highly enough.

"Friday is Rye-day"
--Dave Pickerell

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