It’s been several years of transformative change for Vermont-based rye whiskey kingpins WhistlePig. As the company came into a new identity following the ouster of founder Raj Bhakta and the opening of its Vermont farm distilling operation—not to mention the pains of growing rye on site—it was struck by another blow in 2018 with the passing of Master Distiller Dave Pickerell last fall. Pickerell, a true legend of the whiskey industry, had worked with many different brands over the course of his lifetime, but was intimately associated with the WhistlePig product in particular, and received much credit for its trophy case of awards. His passing was a blow to many in the industry, but few more than WhistlePig.
Now, though, the distillery is honoring Pickerell’s memory with the release of the final product he designed for the company—Piggyback Rye. Designed to be a more accessible, more affordable version of the company’s flagship 10-year, 100 proof, 100% rye, Piggyback is a bit younger (6 years), a bit weaker (96.56 proof) and a bit cheaper ($50 MSRP), functioning as more of a gateway entry to the brand’s ultra-premium rye portfolio. For sake of comparison, the flagship 10-year rye has an MSRP around $75, while the 12 and 15-year special editions typically range from $120-200. The cask-strength WhistlePig Boss Hog, on the other hand, can reach well beyond $200. So with that said, yes, Piggyback Rye seems like a much greater value.
Like the brand’s classic flagship rye, this is a 100% rye whiskey sourced from Canada, and does not contain any of the juice distilled in Vermont—most of which is still being aged, except for the portions that make their way into the brand’s Farmstock Rye. It sports a 6 year age statement, which still makes it a good deal older than a lot of rye on the American market, although the $50 price tag still marks it as a fairly premium product as well. Let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this is quite rye forward as you would no doubt expect, with big rye cereal grain notes and rye/pumpernickel bread, plus tons of cracked black pepper. Slight smokiness seems to indicate a good level of “char” character, while there’s also big suggestions of caramelization and light baking spice, especially cinnamon sticks.
On the palate this is quite peppery and spicy, with an up-front rush of caramel sweetness and light brown sugar, backed by respectable heat, although the overall assertiveness is dialed down a little bit from the flagship 100 proof version. Green apple fruitiness and hints of grass permeate the spice, but this is a very rye grain-forward example of the style, which I happen to like, closing with lingering holiday spices.
All in all, Piggyback seems to be just about exactly what you’d expect it to be: A serviceable smaller version of what we’ve always thought was a very good rye from WhistlePig. It’s not quite as characterful as its big brother, but it might serve as a better introduction to rye drinkers, and it’s still plenty bold enough to stand up in classic cocktails. Multi-purpose and versatile to the max, there’s no shortage of ways you could use this.
Distillery: WhistlePig Rye Whiskey
City: Shoreham, VT
Style: Rye whiskey
ABV: 48.28% (96.56 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.