Raj Bhakta, Whiskey’s Most Polarizing Figure, Returns With a Bold Bet on Vintage-Specific Spirits

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Racing northward along state highway 22A in an off-white 1988 Rolls-Royce Corniche II, between thoughtful musings on the current polarization in U.S. politics and a favorite anecdote about his then-pregnant wife chasing him out of an Alpine chalet with a broom several years ago, Raj Bhakta says something that — to anyone familiar with the saga of Raj Peter Bhakta — absolutely goes with saying. “I did not write the book on how to live a chill life after selling my company for a lot of money,” he says as the verdant farmland of far western Vermont whips past. “That is not my contribution.”

Bhakta’s most recent contributions instead include bringing an impressively cohesive collection of Armagnac — one that includes every vintage year going back to 1868 — to market under his eponymous spirits label. Prior to that he was, at various times, an investment banker, a tech company founder, a hotelier, a contestant on Season 2 of Donald Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” and a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives (he lost). But Bhakta is best known as the founder of WhistlePig, the Vermont-based rye whiskey brand launched in 2009 that elevated American rye whiskey to the top shelf. WhistlePig continues to turn out a portfolio of popular, highly collectible rye whiskeys, though it now does so without Bhakta. (This is the aforementioned company Bhakta sold “for a lot of money,” though his 2018 divestment from WhistlePig was neither voluntary nor drama free, and involved a limited non-compete agreement that kept him out of the whiskey industry for several years.)

With the curtains fully down on the first act of his spirits career, Bhakta has thrown his ample energy into a new spirits venture headquartered in a defunct liberal arts college in Vermont, just a short drive from his old stomping grounds at WhistlePig. His non-compete now expired, Bhakta plans to grow his portfolio far beyond brandy over the next several months, bringing rum, bourbon, and rye whiskey to market under the “BHAKTA Spirits” banner. Like his Armagnacs, these new spirits will be vintage-dated, containing liquid distilled in a single year. Unlike his Armagnacs — which exist in very limited quantities — they mark the first offerings from what Bhakta envisions as a truly global spirits brand predicated on the unproven notion that mainstream consumers will embrace vintage spirits.

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“Vintages are the center of the wine world, but they’re virtually unknown in the world of spirits,” Bhakta says. “BHAKTA is the brand that’s aiming to change that.”

Vintage Bhakta

It’s fair to describe Bhakta as a polarizing figure in American whiskey. Part of that positioning stems from his stint in electoral politics, which have only grown more divisive in the years since his 2006 congressional campaign. His acrimonious parting with WhistlePig — “we had some partnership disputes,” Bhakta says; “WhistlePig founder thrown out of his own company” read one local newspaper headline — also unfolded like a messy divorce, with lawyers retained and accusations publicly hurled. His always-on energy and intuitive knack for self-marketing have no doubt proved assets when building brands like WhistlePig, but they’re also the kind of personality traits that can rub some people the wrong way.

But virtually no one familiar with the trajectory of American rye whiskey denies Bhakta’s impact on the category or his ability to persuasively tell the story of an overlooked or underappreciated spirit. “He’s had his run-ins along the way, and some people don’t love him, but you can’t deny what he built and what he accomplished,” says Blake Riber, founder of specialty craft spirits purveyor Seelbach’s. “I can’t think of another bottle of $100 rye before WhistlePig. He made rye whiskey a high-end product.”

With WhistlePig, Bhakta developed a rye whiskey suitable for sipping at a time when most drinkers considered rye a decidedly low-end spirit, one most often diluted in flavor-forward cocktails. And while he ultimately sought to create a grain-to-glass whiskey distilled from rye grown on his Vermont farm, the initial releases that put the brand on the map came via a tranche of quality Canadian rye whiskey Bhakta managed to obtain with the help of legendary distiller Dave Pickerell. By procuring high-quality stocks of an undervalued spirit, putting his own imprint on it via unique maturations and uncommon age statements, and building a compelling brand narrative around the entire enterprise, he quickly built WhistlePig into the kind of brand over which whiskey nerds obsess.

That experience was not lost on Bhakta when, not long after departing WhistlePig, he came across a chateau in France’s Armagnac region containing stocks of vintage brandy representing every single year going back to 1868. “I was stupefied by this find, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I look for: rare, under-appreciated liquid assets, like rye whiskey was back in 2009/2010,” Bhakta says. “It opened my eyes to a whole other level of history and authenticity and craft — all of it vintage-based.”

Bhakta bought Maison Ryst-Duperyon in Condom-en-Armagnac along with the collection of Armagnac brandy in its cellars in late 2019. Under the BHAKTA Spirits brand, he created “BHAKTA 50,” a $450 blend of vintage Armagnacs dating from 1868 to 1970 that spends two weeks finishing in a French oak barrel seasoned with peated Islay Scotch before bottling. BHAKTA Spirits also periodically rolls out single- vintage Armagnacs from its stores at relatively reasonable prices given the age of the liquids (consumers can acquire 1980s-era brandies for less than $300). Current offerings date back as far as 1946, with more (and much older) vintages to come.

Each vintage tells its own story, Bhakta says. Liquids that go into the barrel in different years will have spent different amounts of time in the barrel, and the difference in maturation period impacts flavor. Environmental factors change from year to year as well, meaning that one vintage may have experienced a particularly long, hot summer that a younger vintage did not, impacting the interaction between the distillate and the wood during that time. Then there are the barrels themselves — no two are exactly the same — and additional factors like variations in the blends of grapes used to create each distillate, which can change depending on each year’s grape harvest. Any or all of these factors can nudge the ultimate flavor profile of a brandy in one one direction or another.

But when we talk about vintage spirits we’re essentially talking about terroir, and the role of terroir in spirits is by no means settled science. For every seasoned distiller who believes as an article of faith that coastal barley produces a single malt distinct from that made with inland barley, there’s another who will argue that any difference would be undetectable to the palate. And while most might concede that brandy — made from fruit rather than grains — can differ from vintage to vintage based on variations in the base wine from which it’s distilled, the notion that grain-based distillates express the environmental fingerprint of their harvest year tends to receive greater pushback.

“Corn is going to be the least affected year to year, especially, say, industrially grown Midwest corn,” Bhakta says. “But then you have rye within the grain category, and if you’re growing it on a single farm it will vary significantly in its taste from year to year. So it depends on the type of spirits and the mash that’s going into it.” In other words, in the kinds of rye whiskeys and high-rye bourbons Bhakta favors, terroir matters.

Bhakta believes he’ll find an audience receptive to the notion of vintage spirits broadly and vintage variation in whiskey specifically. And while it might take some time for drinkers and collectors to come around, there’s evidence he may be right. For instance, Pinhook’s vertical series draws annual releases from a specific group of rye and high-rye bourbon barrels, and will do so until the liquid reaches 12 years old. The series has garnered an enthusiastic following among whiskey drinkers interested in following the maturation of this liquid as it evolves from one year to the next. It’s not explicitly a series based on a vintage, but it demonstrates a consumer interest in the evolution of spirits from year to year and an appetite for liquids anchored to a specific point in time.

“We’re simply taking something that is well understood in the wine world — that some vintages are better than others,” Bhakta says. “And we’re saying that same thing is true in whiskey.”

Spirits School

Before Griswold Library served as the headquarters of BHAKTA Spirits it served as the actual library for Green Mountain College, a small private liberal arts school in Poultney, Vt. Following a long stretch of dwindling enrollment, Green Mountain College graduated its last students in May 2019, about the same time Bhakta was discovering — and eventually buying — his trove of vintage Armagnacs at Maison Ryst-Duperyon. When the 120-acre college and its two dozen buildings went to auction the following year, Bhakta won the bidding with a roughly $4.5 million offer.

Bhakta has big plans for the campus, including an on-site distillery and bottling line along with a 120-bed resort-style accommodation, a bar and restaurant, a retail shop, and a spirits library where visitors can sample pours from BHAKTA Spirits’ ever-growing collection of rare vintage casks. But it’s early days yet, and for now, Bhakta and his staff run the company from offices formerly occupied by the library’s administration. Casks of rare spirits and a collection of bonbonnes line the walls of the building’s first floor, lending the space a feel that’s more rickhouse than library despite the continued presence of an old check-out desk complete with a large slot labeled “book return.”

Redevelopment of the entire campus will likely take a decade to complete, BHAKTA Spirits CEO Sean O’Rourke says. Formerly the general manager for Bond & Royal, spirits giant Sazerac’s craft spirits arm, O’Rourke came aboard in August to oversee day-to-day operations and bring some Big Spirits know-how to the BHAKTA operation. After all, if things go to plan the company could have half a dozen new SKUs in the market by mid-year, with several more in the pipeline. “It’s not just a vision or a dream,” O’Rourke says. “We’ve got the properties, we’ve got the trademarks on a ton of brands, we’ve got a real team. We’re so much further ahead than most startup spirits companies.”

BHAKTA will initiate the rollout of its new spirits portfolio with a single vintage BHAKTA 2013 Bourbon (MSRP $149) slated for release in March, followed by BHAKTA 1985 Rum, BHAKTA 2018 Rye, and an older, more limited bourbon in the months following. To bring things full circle, the 2013 bourbon — sourced from Indiana (though BHAKTA also sources rye from Tennessee) — underwent a finish in casks that formerly held BHAKTA 50 Armagnac, a process inspired by one of the most sought-after releases in WhistlePig’s popular Boss Hog series.

“The idea for this 2013 release came about from one of our best releases at WhistlePig, which was ‘Boss Hog: The Black Prince,’” Bhakta says. “That was release No. 4 [in The Boss Hog series]. It was the last one that I did, and was finished in Armagnac casks.” Bhakta describes The Black Prince as his crowning achievement at WhistlePig, and the high-rye 2013 BHAKTA bourbon as “the best product I’ve ever created.”

Bhakta should have many more opportunities to top this new personal best. Beyond the distillery at the campus in Vermont and Château BHAKTA in France, Bhakta has also acquired a 900-acre farm in Shoreham, Vt., currently planted with grapes, grain (including rye), and fruit trees; 500 acres of Vermont orchard land on Lake Champlain that produce a variety of apples fit for brandy-making; and a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in Vero Beach, Fla., that happens to produce sugar cane. Bhakta holds the necessary license to build a distillery on the Florida premises, he says, and plans to begin producing whiskey and rum — both molasses- and cane-juice-based — as soon as 2025. “All spirits go back to farms, farms are all about harvests, and harvests translate into vintages,” Bhakta says. “We’re distillers, but we’re also farmers. And soon, probably in 2024, we’ll release some of our Bhakta single-estate products, which are fully estate grown.”

In this vintage paradigm, every release is special, limited in quantity — there’s only so much of any given spirit made in any given year — and defined by the calendar year. But some will be more special than others. In the vein of WhistlePig’s Boss Hog bottlings that have become highly sought-after by whiskey collectors, Bhakta has a number of whiskey maturation and finishing experiments ongoing, some of which will eventually release as very limited barrel-finished editions of BHAKTA Bourbon or BHAKTA Rye. The working title for this highly allocated series? “Hogsworth.”

Whether you snicker or shake your head at this kind of symbolic middle finger toward his former company, it demonstrates why Bhakta remains a divisive personality within the spirits industry, one with devotees and detractors. The latter would argue — and have argued — that Bhakta is an outsider who happened to be in the right place at the right time rather than a visionary who saw something the established players overlooked. The former continue to vote with their pocketbooks, shelling out thousands of dollars on the secondary market to obtain specific rare releases of the Vermont rye whiskey he created.

“It’s not easy to build something in the spirits world,” Riber says. “You can say [WhistlePig] was good timing or good luck, but that’s still just a small factor. You still have to be able to execute it and get people to get behind it. I think the genius of Raj is that he knows the product has to be good but also that you have to grab people’s attention, you have to tell the story. And that’s where I think he does a really good job.”

Bhakta’s betting he can tell a good story, or — better yet — that drinkers and collectors will cotton to the idea that each individual vintage has its own great story to tell. It’s a sizable gamble, but Bhakta has never been afraid to back himself.