Given that Vermont’s WhistlePig already makes my favorite straight rye whiskey in its flagship, 10-year, 100-proof rye, this is a special treat. To taste a new, even more polished and refined version of WhistlePig is quite the heady experience, but first—a note on the liquid itself.
There are some in the whiskey community, and those who simply enjoy whiskey, who have a problem with WhistlePig and whiskeys like it simply because they aren’t “made” quite where the label might imply. In short, the juice for all the WhistlePig products comes from either Alberta Distillers (ADL) in Canada or MGP Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, essentially whiskey factories that do initial aging on products for many in the whiskey industry. However, the juice for all their products is still bottled at the WhistlePig Farm in Vermont, and even if it doesn’t spend it’s whole life there, it’s still exceptional, regardless of its provenance. Moreover, this new Old World series undergoes further aging in Vermont, being finished in a variety of wine casks. So even more than the base WhistlePig 10/100, this one displays the skills of the company’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell. So let’s get that whole MGP question out of the way, shall we?
WhistlePig’s new Old World series represents the company’s first foray into wine barrel-finished whiskeys, a process common in scotch, where a variety of barrels such as sherry are commonly used to impart finishing flavors on spirits that have already been aged for many years in neutral oak. But more specifically, the official Old World 12-Year Rye Whiskey (which just hit store shelves) is a blend of juices finished in three different types of wine casks: madeira, French sauternes and port in order of percentage. The three different finishes were sold individually in very small quantities in order to build hype for the final product, which will now be available as a permanent addition to the lineup—although it will probably cost you at least $120 for a bottle.
In evaluating the final blend, then, let’s individually examine each finish and the flavors they impart to the finished product. After tasting each of the finishes, we’ll evaluate how they come together as a harmonious whole.
WhistlePig Old World Madeira Finish
Madeira was the second of the Old World finishes released, but it makes up the biggest portion of the final product at 63%. This is understandable, as it is probably the closest in profile to the original WhistlePig 10/100, although still quite unique. This finish is a bit sharper and more boozy than the others, with uniquely prominent red fruit flavors in particular—cherry and raspberry are easy to pick up, with aromatics that are distinctly cherry cola-like. There’s vinous wine/grape flavors as well, along with dried fruit and darker flavors of prune and brown sugar/caramel. Of the three, though, this is also the finish where the rye itself punches through most strongly—its peppery spice and rye bread flavors are still a major component. You know that you’re drinking rye, but it’s fairly obvious, even blind, that there’s some other kind of fruit-driven element in play. It’s the backbone of the final product.
WhistlePig Old World French Sauternes Finish
The first Old World finish released and second most prominent in the blend at 30%, the sauternes finish is probably the most complex of the three as a single drinking experience. It’s richer than the 10/100 original but still the lightest of the three finishes, but what it lacks in weight it makes up for in a wide palette of flavors. A honey-like, floral sweetness is certainly prominent in this one, as is a buttery, green apple/chardonnay wine character. Digging deeper there’s peach and some nutty, almond-like flavors as well. It’s also herbal, while toning down the spiciness of the rye slightly from how it pops in the madeira finish. This finish feels like it’s meant to add threads of complexity and “hard-to-put-my-finger-on-it” flavors to the final product.
WhistlePig Old World Port Finish
At only 7%, port makes up quite a small overall portion of the final Old World product, and as such I thought it might be the most assertive or in-your-face of the three, but the opposite is actually true. That’s not to say it’s not flavorful, but the port finish is so rounded and so SMOOTH in its presentation that it actually becomes the easiest drinking of all three when enjoyed on its own despite its level of richness. It’s a shade darker in color than the sauternes and softer on the nose. Flavors are predominantly dark fruity—like stewed plums, blackberry and vanilla. The experience honestly reminds me of drinking brandy in that it’s very sweet, rich, robust but smooth. The rough edges and prickly quality of the booze and rye spice are just sanded away. I’m not entirely sure, but I get the sense that its presence in the final blend is meant to add a certain body, heft and roundness to the Old World—a weightiness.
WhistlePig Old World 12-Year Rye Whiskey (final blend)
The final blend, which is now on store shelves, comes from juice aged two years longer than the basic WhistlePig 10/100, but cut to 90 proof rather than 100, presumably for the sake of smoothness and showing off the character of cask finishes rather than alcohol heat.
It’s complex, powerful, heady stuff that shows both the individual character of the finishes and a synthesis that sets it apart from them. It shows honey sweetness and minty herbal character, along with some of the madeira red fruitiness and a leathery quality I didn’t really get in any of the finishes individually, except maybe the port. A moderate amount of classic rye spice makes its presence felt, but the impression you get here is an increased complexity over any of the individual finishes, which was presumably exactly what was intended. The parade of flavors continues with a grassy note, and then grape, green apple, apricot and plenty of vanilla custard in the finish. As in the port finish, it’s very smooth. Compared directly with the 10/100, this difference is very apparent—the 10/100 seems wild and brash, while the Old World is supple and velvety by comparison.
All in all, it’s absolutely outstanding whiskey. One imagines that it would make a fantastically complex Manhattan, but any dilution would be a criminal waste of 12-year, wine-finished rye. Sip and savor, as nature, and presumably Dave Pickerell, intended.
Distillery: WhistlePig Farms
Location: Shoreham, VT