Editor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a review sample by WhistlePig. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review.
“Usually when you make a whiskey, by the time it’s released you’re sick of it. The Piggyback is my go-to. I can’t figure out why I’m not tired of it yet.” This quandary is brought to you by Pete Lynch, Master Blender at WhistlePig in Shoreham, VT. Lynch and I spoke recently while he was spreading the word at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
Blending is key for this spirit operation. WhistlePig takes advantage of both sourced liquid and their own distillate. “People ask ‘when is the sourced stuff going to go away?’ Never. Where our source is in Alberta, Canada, has a totally different environment – bigger temperature swings, different humidity. It was never the goal to completely remove sourced [whiskey]. The shorter maturation seasons in Vermont change the product.”
WhistlePig Piggyback’s stated age is six years. In fact, it’s a combination of several batches from six to eight years old, with a weighted average of 7.25 years. “Six years is ages ago in this rapidly changing industry!” said Lynch.
WhistlePig’s Master Distiller was Dave Pickerell, whiskey expert and godfather of many craft whiskeys. In creating the Piggyback, “Dave wanted to give back to bartenders. He wanted to make a whiskey that could be enjoyed any way, and at a good price point,” explained Lynch. “Some people are making cocktails with the [Whistle Pig] 10 year, and that’s not necessarily good for their business.”
I pressed Lynch on an unfamiliar term I found on the bottle: “distiller’s strength.”
“[Laughs] Marketing put that in print so small I couldn’t read it! The Piggyback is 96.56 proof. That’s a nod to ’56, Dave’s birth year. We found in our tests that around 97 proof can stand up in a highball, has a great backbone of spice, lighter notes, a surprising amount of sweetness, so bartenders have that room to play with. The Piggyback was designed for versatility. Makers Mark went from 43% to 40% ABV, people weren’t happy with that. It definitely changes things.”
The whiskey matures in char three, American oak barrels with toasted and charred heads. “Toasting brings out more spice, then the surface is charred,” said Lynch. Many whiskeys aged in char four barrels. “With char four, you get a lot more carbon bonding. That strips harsher, but also good flavor notes.
“We want to clean it up enough but not too much, and still get great color. Our barrels are air seasoned, too. So you don’t get those pencil shaving notes, [and flavors of ] green wood with something that’s been dried too quickly.”
What lies ahead for WhistlePig? Expect to see single cask releases, including whiskeys finished in amaretto and sherry barrels.
Sadly, a vacuum distilled rum from maple syrup won’t be making it out of the distillery. WhistlePig will continue to experiment, with only the best and most logical outcomes becoming part of the lineup. “People love to innovate but they don’t ask why,” explained Lynch. “We don’t put that on the shelf. We want to give the consumer what they like.”
Tasting Notes: WhistlePig Piggyback Rye
Vital Stats: WhistlePig Piggyback Rye is 96.56 proof, made from 100% rye and aged for six years in char three American Oak barrels. Expect to pay $49 for 750mL.
Appearance: The whiskey is a very clear, medium gold that slowly forms medium legs.
Nose: A bit fiery on the nose, this spirit opens up to spice and more spice: white pepper and clove. Vanilla bean and jasmine follow.
Palate: On the palate, it’s thin, bracing and not without smoothness. The strong clove goes straight to the sinuses, with a clean dark cherry blooming on the mid-palate. There are glimmers of caramelized sugar here, counterbalanced with an herbal bitterness on the back-palate.
The Piggyback is surprisingly smooth neat for nearly 100 proof. I went with the intention of the bottling and made manhattans side-by-side with an another craft rye, and WhistlePig’s shone through spicier and richer than the other, lifting up and warming the vermouth.
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In 2014 I founded Portland Bitters Project with the vision to create the best bitters on the market. Now our bitters are enjoyed around the country and internationally to make expressive, delicious cocktails. I teach at two Portland colleges and visit private groups, distilleries and maker's spaces to spread the...