Raj Peter Bhakta is the sum of all parts and then some — he is a son of immigrants who ran for US Congress, he was to join US Marines, and his appearance on the hit reality TV show ‘The Apprentice’ with current US President Donald Trump turned him into a star overnight. Recently, Spiritz’s New York-based correspondent Dharmvir Gehlaut caught up with this much-sought-after man to talk about his life, his work, his passion and plans for his farm-to-bottle whiskey WhistlePig which has created ripples .
“I would rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea” seems to be a saying that is meant for Raj Peter Bhakta. The man who successfully married romance with whiskey to create the world’s first ‘triple-terroir’ whiskey has been making waves in the liquor industry for a while now.
A man of mixed heritage — his father is Indian while his mother is Irish-English — Raj has run for US Congress in 2006, been on the current US President’s famous TV show The Apprentice, and is as eclectic as his whiskey WhistlePig.
Being grandiose is second nature to him: Raj’s campaign for the Congressional seat included riding an elephant across Rio Grande (the US-Mexican border) while a Mariachi band played on. Even though he didn’t win a seat in Congress, he raised more money that election than any other Republican candidate. He likes to think of himself as a cowboy farmer, dresses like one and lives in Vermont on the farm that is also the base for his product whiskey WhistlePig.
He is a thorough American with immigrant roots to boot. And Indians can claim him to be one of them, as he still has family in there and his parents celebrated his first birthday in India when he turned a year old.
He has fond memories of his visits to India, particularly the one trip in 1983-84, when he realised that India was still truly a third world country. “It was hard to make a simple phone call to America in those days. Now telecommunication has transformed India into a giant hub for the world economy,” he said.
A lot has changed for him, too, since then. Raj loves to travel WhistlePig distillery – promoting triple-terroir concept of growing, producing and aging it at the distillery itself (Image)
and drive, especially in India: “Driving in India is the most exciting activity for me because I love chaos and loose rules. In my youth, I enjoyed chaos, but as a father of three, I am unlikely to drive on the Indian roads now,” he added.
Raj is no stranger to travel in India. He has travelled extensively in India — to Leh-Ladakh, Sundarban in West Bengal, Kerala, across western and northern India, coastal Bombay, across Gujarat on separate occasions.
“Generally, I visit India every couple of years. My grandmother opened a school last year in Nansad — a sleepy little town in the suburb of Surat, Gujarat — which is my father’s ancestral place. Despite my best efforts, I could not attend the opening ceremony of the school,” he recollected. However, he plans to rectify that soon by trying to spend some time with his grandmother.
His ties to India run much deeper than just having family here. During the Indo-Pak battle in Kargil in 1999, Raj offered his services to the Indian Army, while hiking in the area.
Raj recounted his experience: “I was hiking in Ladakh-Kargil sector, which was around the same time when the unofficial war broke out. At night, we could hear artillery rumble. My American friends and I were in a restricted area. We saw a big military convoy. It must have been a division carrying 155-mm Bofors Howitzer cannons. Prior to this trip, I was all set to join the US Marines. The movement of the Indian Army must have been secret and we were pulled off the road. The military police, along with senior Army officers, enquired about our activities. I even tried to convince the officers to let me accompany them to the front and allow me to fire the cannon so that I could gain some experience before I joined the US Marines. I could have convinced him, too, but all of my friends kept saying ‘Are you crazy? You will get killed there. Don’t go’.”
He has stories galore to entertain from personal experiences, to family history, even the story of his business has an entertaining anecdote to it.
His father, apparently caused a scandal in the family when he married his mother — an Irish woman born in England whom he met in the US. Raj’s father, like hundreds of other Indians, had gone to America in the 1960s for a ‘better life’ with less than 100 dollars in his pocket.
Raj is proud of his parents and his heritage. His mother was a housewife who raised four children and his father was a typical immigrant. However that turned out to be a classic immigrant success story — in the beginning the senior Bhakta couldn’t even hold down a job and ended up becoming an auto- mechanic, a bad one at that. The same man ended up owning Chevrolet and Toyota car dealerships, and a hotel business. And from what is seen of Raj so far, he is a chip off the old block ‘never say never’ – a trait held by his father – is Raj’s motto as well.
Appearing on ‘The Apprentice’ was an amusing experience for Raj as he went from relative obscurity to being a reality TV star in his country overnight. “I received many opportunities to interact with Donald Trump off and on air. Recently, I spent some time with him when he was campaigning in Vermont before the elections,” Raj said.
Following the success of his WhistlePig whiskey, Raj was nearly removed from own company by his board of directors. The topic is a sensitive one, and something that Raj would rather not discuss, but shows what persistence means to this man.
His WhistlePig story is also unique. This amber elixir has earned the reputation of being the ‘only triple-terroir’ whiskey in the world. It is fermented from rye grain and water in oak tree barrels — all three crucial ingredients coming from his farmhouse in Shoreham, Vermont. Raj’s plans include making WhistlePig the most famous farm-to-bottle whiskey made entirely in the United States since Prohibition in the 1920s.
People love to visit the intriguingly –named farm distillery(Image)
Then there is the name, and the mascot of two pigs, itself. According to Raj, the name came to him in an unusual manner. “It happened as I was hiking in the Colorado Rockies. A Frenchman basically popped out of a bush, and started asking me if I had seen a “whistle pig”. It was one of the most unusual interactions in my life. I remembered the phrase name and thought it was a special message. After buying the farm in 2007 in Vermont, we named it WhistlePig. We were planning to produce whiskey and this name struck,” he said.
And that name goes with the way the brand conducts itself. Although it is a luxury brand, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. “We were not appointed by Queen Victoria as special purveyors of
Raj riding an elephant across the Rio Grande into Mexico, accompanied by a mariachi band, to make a show of border security.(Image)
spirits, nor do we have the desire to be one. We must leave that to the Scots. Yesterday belonged to them, however, the future is our whiskey because of its qualities,” Raj boasted.
Raj Peter Bhakta has had grand plans to enter the Indian market, but they have been on the backburner as the demand for his ‘triple-terroir” whiskey is growing in the US at breakneck speed. The company is finding it hard to meet the demand of brand lovers. The latest WhistlePig’s Farm Stock Corp1 brand has been more expensive than other whiskeys — a bottle of WhistlePig sells for $100 or more — yet new products from his production are flying off the shelves across the country. “Despite being expensive, we are unable to keep enough products in stock in highly sophisticated markets like London,” Raj informed.
Like a proud father showing off his newborn, Raj got excited about his farm produce whiskey. “WhistlePig is unique and the only whisky of its kind in the entire world. We grow our own grain, we distill it in our own barrels made from our own oak trees, and we have our own water, all accessed from the natural
sources flowing through the fields at the Shoreham farm which is why it is called “triple terroir”. Recently, we released our first product and called it ‘WhistlePig Farm Stock’. Of course, I am biased, but it is widely considered to be the pre-eminent rye whiskey in the world,” he claimed.
The whiskey is also exclusive because of their aged portfolio line up. Rye, which is a different type of grain, is best in testing. “We scored 96 points from Wine Enthusiasts for the last 10 years, 97 points and double gold for aged whiskey. If you love whiskey, then WhistlePig offers the best balance between character, flavour and smoothness without a burning sensation,” Raj added.
“I would say that our 10-year-old whiskey is the mainstay of the brand. It is a rich, robust creamy, long finishing whiskey with tremendous balance. The old world whiskey, in a nutshell, is American boldness meeting European elegance,” he proudly claimed.
Even though the business was bought in 2008, their whiskey has been aged 15 years. How? “Good question! In the beginning, I outsourced whiskey and bought some barrels from Canada.
Our brand, WhistlePig is my own creation. We released our first product in 2009,” Raj answered. “If you want to make great whiskey, then it must be aged.”
The exclusivity of production somewhat limits the reach of the whiskey but Raj does not really see it as that. WhistlePig is currently being sold in 30 states within the United States. Internationally, they sell in the UK, France, Australia and Hong Kong. “The clear majority of our products are being sold in the US in high-end restaurants from New York to San Francisco,” Raj clarified.
This means that they don’t have enough whiskey to enter the Indian market. “We will conquer the Indian whiskey market with force and style. We don’t have any immediate plans but when we go there, we will have poise and elegance. We will have enough brands and products for a country as big as India. Maybe I will ride the elephant entering the India Gate with our brand WhistlePig Whiskey,” Raj mused. WhistlePig, the company, sells over US $15 million of products over the year, but they intend to grow at a pace. “We are a small, yet valuable company,” he said.