Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whistle Pig Rye, Vermont Edition vs. Masterson’s Rye

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition – straight rye, 10 year, 51%, $70
Masterson’s – straight rye, 10 year, 45%, $70

Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both produced at the same distillery; Alberta Distillers Limited, of Alberta, Canada. While they both fall into the category of companies whose marketing strategy is based on a pretense intended to obfuscate the true origins of their whiskey, which outfit is the more egregious offender is a debatable point.

If you just look at their websites, Masterson’s looks like the worse of the two. They mention “our artisans”, how they choose only the best rye grain, and pitching yeast themselves. And there is Bat Masterson, an iconic figure of the American Old West who has nothing to do with the whiskey that bears his name and likeness on its label. But that does give the company something to talk about other than the fact that they don’t actually distill anything.

While the Whistle Pig site talks a lot about their Vermont farm and the rye grain they grow there, they at least mention the barn they are restoring, which will eventually house their distillery, making it obvious that they have distilled nothing themselves as of yet.

But if you look for a consensus among whiskey enthusiasts, journalists and bloggers, Whistle Pig is generally considered to be the more deceptive of the two. As far as I can tell this is because Whistle Pig was very secretive about the source of their whiskey when they started in 2010 and that they continued to dance around the subject to some extent in the ensuing years. On the other hand, the producers of Masterson’s (the Sebastiani wine family) have been pretty upfront about the source of their whiskey when pressed with questions on the matter since they started the brand in 2011.

In the last six months, Whistle Pig owner Raj Bhatka, who has a history of being somewhat of a walking public relations nightmare, and master distiller Dave Pickerell have started to become more forthright about the origins of their whiskey. I believe there is good reason for this. Whiskey consumers basically break down into two groups; the general public who buy into the marketing tales they are fed and are generally oblivious to the realities of the industry, and the whiskey geeks who really care about the truth behind the products and are quite offended by the deceptive practices that run rampant in American whiskey.

As someone who lives in Vermont and works in the service industry, I can tell you that it is truly astonishing how many people (tourists and locals alike) seek out Whistle Pig, thinking it is a locally made craft product. But the latter group mentioned above has become more vocal and is now even taking an activist stance. In my opinion, the owner of Whistle Pig has seen this coming and is trying to adjust his strategy. Well, at least enough to keep the critics off his back, but not so much that he can’t continue to fool the general public.

In just the last month, there have been some very interesting developments. Almost all of the deceptive non-distiller producers buy their bulk whiskey from one of a few big distillers in Kentucky or from MGP of Indiana. If you read through the Federal Code of Regulations for alcohol (they seem straight forward at first, but quickly become mind numbing), Title 27, Part 5.36(d) says that if a whiskey is not distilled in the state given in the address on the brand label, the state of distillation must be listed.

There are currently countless violations of 5.36(d). The activist consumers that I mentioned have been informing the companies directly of their wrongdoing, as well as notifying the TTB of the violations. That action has resulted in a damning piece being published in the Des Moines Register about Templeton Rye. Now there is a class action lawsuit in the works against Templeton. Some of the many flagrant 5.36(d) offenders in Colorado and Texas are likely to be targeted next.

Bottles of Masterson’s clearly state that is a “product of Canada” (albeit on the back label and in small print). The same was true of early Whistle Pig bottles, but the statement is absent from more recent bottles. When researching such matters it doesn’t take long to come across Title 27, Part 5.36(e), which states:

On labels of imported distilled spirits there shall be stated the country of origin in substantially the following form “Product of ______”, the blank to be filled in with the name of the country of origin.

The owner of Whistle Pig would be wise to pay attention to the regulations and not attract the ire of the activist whiskey enthusiasts.

Regardless of whether they carry the “product of Canada” tag, many pundits also wonder how these whiskeys can legally be classified as Straight Rye Whiskey, rather than Canadian Whisky.

I did a little digging and I thing I came up with a reasonable answer to that one. Title 27, Part 5.22(b)(9) says:

“Canadian whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Canada, manufactured in Canada in compliance with the laws of Canada regulating the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Canadian whisky” (Canadian whisky—a blend).

But if you look at Canada’s regulations, Canadian Whisky must:

possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.

Since 100% rye whiskey is not normally bottled on its own in Canada, but rather used as a flavoring component in blends, one could make the argument that is doesn’t fit the definition of Canadian Whisky and shouldn’t be labeled as such. Some might view this as a bit of a stretch, but I suspect that it is the loophole that is being used.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the Whistle Pig I tasted for this review is a 102 proof version that is only available in Vermont. It’s a strange situation, they mentioned its introduction on their Facebook page back in February along with a launch party for it, but there is no mention of it on their website and almost no one in Vermont even knows about it. They seem to have replaced all of the 100 proof bottles in the Vermont state liquor stores with 102 proof bottles, so you don’t see them side by side. As far as I can tell there is no difference between the two aside from the 1% increase in abv.

nose: the nose definitely has an element of sweetness, which is well integrated with the floral spice notes. very aromatic, but not in an aggressive way.
palate: rich mouthfeel, with some sweetness and vanilla up front, hot spice note start to appear next and they continue to build. it really starts to expand as it moves toward the finish.
finish: floral spice notes emerge, but at the same time fiery spice notes (cinnamon red hots) take center stage. A subtle hint of Teaberry and an underlying element of sweetness keep things in balance. The intensity of the builds and lingers for some time before it slowly fades off.
overall: plenty of backbone, but not unruly.

Whistle Pig, Vermont Edition:
nose: slightly less aromatic, surprisingly. there is a detectable sweetness, but it is minimal. All of the rye spice notes are present, but mingled in with a clay-like earthyness.
palate: full bodied. caramel up front then it moves into the spice and dry, earthy, clay-like notes.
finish: there’s a little heat as it moves through the finish, but the spice notes are definitely more floral and earthy in nature. It gets a little hot late in the finish as the other flavors drop off.
overall: big, but in more of a weighty, chewy way and only getting a little fiery at the very end.

They are both very good, but the differences between the two are notably more significant than I expected. Considering that Jefferson’s sells a 10 year old rye which is also sourced from ADL (at 47%) for about $40, I think it’s safe to say that Whistle Pig and Masterson’s are both turning a very tidy profit with their whiskey.

1 comment:

Andrew M said...

I've been doing research for my own blog post on Rye and got sucked into the wormhole that this discussion about labeling, marketing integrity, and individual brands can become. I've come to all the same conclusions as you, I just wish I could have found your post in the first hours of of reading rather than days later!

It would be nice to see labeling laws catch up with just a few of the plethora of loopholes producers can utilize to falsely build value into their products.

I saw a great comment on another page discussing Raj from Whistle Pig comparing himself to PT Barnum. The commenter noted that Barnum's most famous quote is "there's a sucker born every minute."