April 10, 2014 – After more than a year of fighting with Vermont state officials over its plans to build a farm distillery, WhistlePig Farm in Shoreham has finally received state approval to start construction on its distillery. WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta told WhiskyCast Wednesday night at Whisky Live New York that the regional environmental commission’s permit was granted on Monday, and “the cranes are moving as of 8am this morning.”
Vermont Department of Natural Resources officials opposed WhistlePig’s plans to build a distillery at the farm on the grounds that WhistlePig’s whiskey could not be considered an agricultural product. That argument centered on the department’s opinion that water was the main ingredient in whiskey, not grain, and the state’s laws require that at least 50 percent of whatever a farm makes must come from that farm. Without the designation as a farm, WhistlePig would fall under more stringent “Act 250” rules for commercial developments. The objections also focused on WhistlePig’s current practice of importing bulk whiskey from Canada’s Alberta Distillers and using the farm for maturation and bottling. In a 2013 Vermont Public Radio interview, Natural Resources Board chairman Ron Shems noted that “WhistlePig right now is not growing anything that goes into its whiskey.”
Bhakta told WhiskyCast that the Vermont debate over whiskey as a farm product has not been resolved. “We have a commercial permit, not a farm-based permit, but a commercial permit to grow our own grain and to build a distillery and get that going,” he said. “That’s a legal question at the end of the day, but for us, most interestingly, is the actual realization of something truly unique that we’ve been working towards for years.” The former reality show contestant (“The Apprentice”) expects to begin distilling on the farm by the end of the year, assuming no major delays in construction. Veteran distiller Dave Pickerell is WhistlePig’s Master Distiller, and has been responsible for developing the distillery plans while selecting barrels from Alberta Distillers for the current WhistlePig expressions.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Raj Bhakta:
The distillery also drew objections from neighboring farm owners worried about the potential impact on their crops from so-called “black mold” fungus caused by alcohol vapors. The environmental commission’s permit allows WhistlePig to store up to 6,000 barrels of whiskey on-site, and WCAX-TV reports that commission members do not expect any mold issues as long as the distillery stays within those limits. WhistlePig is currently maturing several hundred barrels on the farm. However, opponents have 30 days to appeal the commission’s ruling in court.