“It fires a core passion in me to find things rare and exquisite that happen to be overlooked and then bring them back to life,” says Raj Bhakta.
Bhakta famously started the WhistlePig whiskey brand in 2008, buying up more than 5,000 gallons of well-aged Canadian rye barrels well before most people knew that was a savvy play. Today, the Shoreham, Vt.-based company is considered the No. 1 producer of luxury rye, integral in reviving a once-forgotten category that now sells over 1.2 million cases per year. Unfortunately, Bhakta had always courted controversy over the years — which often led to plenty of press for his antics — but that finally caught up with him when WhistlePig’s board of directors forced him to sell off his share of the company in 2019. I thought that was the last time I would ever hear from Bhakta — who had even claimed he had retired from the spirits industry in 2017 — but this summer he is returning to the business with a most interesting play.
“For two years I was on the lookout for new opportunities,” he tells me. “Armagnac happened almost by accident.”
Bhakta first began paying attention to the esoteric spirit in 2017 when WhistlePig had taken The Boss Hog, its priciest and most limited-edition rye, and finished that year’s release in Armagnac barrels. Dubbed the Black Prince, it won best overall whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And, yet, Armagnac — think of it like Cognac’s earthier-tasting, more artisan little brother — was still not exactly something people cared about in America. “When I first started selling it, six, seven years ago, it was hard as fuck [to sell],” says Nicolas Palazzi, owner of PM Spirits, a Brooklyn-based spirits importer with several Armagnacs in its portfolio. Back then, he told me, it might take him 18 months to sell a single cask’s worth. “And it’s still hard; nothing really has changed when it comes to Armagnac,” he adds.
Last year Bhakta was on what he calls a “global tour of finding,” traveling the world, mainly looking for intriguing barrels of whiskey and rum. For six months, often with his family (wife Danhee and three small kids) in tow, he traveled to Scotland, India, the Philippines, and the Caribbean. Eventually he worked his way to the countryside of southwestern France. He asked BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac) if it knew anyone looking to sell casks. And from there?
“I basically started knocking on doors,” says Bhakta. Though, many of these farmers didn’t know what to make of the brash American who had shipped an Escalade over to France to use as the family car — and who claims he would arrive at these dignified chateaus jokingly blaring “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast” over his sound system.
Finally, he found a fifth-generation, family-run Armagnac house that may very well have had the oldest collection in all of the region — more than 100 casks they’d amassed over the last century and throughout many generations. It would be hard to link these casks to any specific producers, certainly none most people have heard of as they’d been purchased from hundreds of different farmer-distillers over the last hundred years. The owner had some health issues and needed to move them for some quick cash. “So I bought them all — lock, stock, and barrel — with the chateau to boot,” says Bhakta.
About half of the casks he sent back to his farm in Vermont, just a stone’s throw away from the WhistlePig farm. There, he plans to start growing his own grapes and producing his own brandy within the next year or two, using a refurbished, wood-fired still. Back in Condom, France, he is refurbishing the Hotel de Cugnac chateau and putting together some blends, though he plans for both these locations to be humble non-public operations, not like the “Disneylands” other distilleries eventually become.
Bhakta wouldn’t give me exact numbers, but he claims he has spent a “significant portion” of his WhistlePig nest egg on starting the new company, Bhakta Spirits. As you can imagine, it’s not cheap to refurbish 200-year-old chateaus and buy 150-year-old barrels; he claims just a single cask from 1868 would break down to costing him thousands of dollars per bottle. This whole selling Armagnac thing doesn’t particularly seem like an easy way to make money.
“I have definitely wondered, ‘Why do this?’” he says. “But I feel I have a very comprehensive view of the world of spirits and I’m very well placed to be able to deliver to consumers the very best value in the world of spirits. And that’s why I put my name on it.”
Bhakta 50, as his first release will be called, is a blend composed of barrels from eight different vintages ranging from 1868 to 1970 (the “50” refers to its age statement). The blend is then put into smoky, Islay Scotch casks and then finally into a fresh cask that has previously held young Armagnac. Bhakta feels that this technique “freshens up” the old spirit, adding some bright notes — though, technically, these finishes do make it lose its “Armagnac” appellation.
The 500 or so bottles of this first release will only be available online starting July 4, and only if you are personally invited to buy them. (Those interested can sign up for more information.) That certainly seems a little elitist during such turbulent times, but bottles are priced at a rather economical $250. Bhakta has the hubris to believe it will sell out overnight, but I’m not quite as bullish and neither are others in the industry.
“I believe older Armagnac will be a harder sell to casual whiskey drinkers in general,” says Mike Varcheresse, owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn. He does think Armagnac is becoming the next aged rum — in other words, a spirit that flew under the radar for a long time before people discovered its fantastic quality and value. But, he adds, “Right now Armagnac is still super geeky.”
Still, if any one can figure out a way to get press for Armagnac, it’s Bhakta — and his new brand is certainly no staid brandy company. In fact, each bottle of Bhakta 50 comes with a nine-page booklet written by Bhatka himself, whose picaresque prose reads like some lost pages from “Barry Lyndon” or “Tristram Shandy” (a sample: “On this global quest, my efforts were expedited by my wife’s ill temper during her fourth pregnancy when she chased me out of a chalet in the Alps with a broom. I dodged her blows and hopped into a hot rod Cadillac, the likes of which the French had never seen before, and sped across France towards the Armagnac region”).
“Whether Armagnac explodes as a category I’m not sure,” says Bhakta, when I wonder if Armagnac is on the precipice just like rye was before he started WhistlePig. Though he notes that he has no interest in turning his new company into some corporate behemoth. “My focus is delivering to the American whiskey drinker a product of great value and rarity, the best product they could possibly get their hands on,” he says.
He’s certainly focusing on the right consumer, as the few Armagnacs that have gotten any sort of buzz in America have been ones that taste more whiskey-like. L’Encantada releases, in particular, are noted for their “bourbon-y” flavor profile, which has made them a darling of whiskey geeks and stateside whiskey clubs. But, it’s still not like it’s anywhere close to becoming a household name on par with Pappy.
“It’s hot for the people it’s hot for,” says Palazzi, who imports L’Encantada and has even bottled a couple of blends under his PM Spirits label. “As for market share for L’Encantada, it’s nothing. The people that buy it really care for it, but it sells very little.”
Still, Bhatka thinks he can bridge the gap between Armagnac and whiskey by offering the best of both worlds. The exquisite, handcrafted nature of the former; the robust flavor profile of the latter, not to mention the limited-edition appeal so many whiskey geeks crave. Its price point is a key selling point for him as well, one that he believes makes it a surefire investment opportunity. “I can say with certainty that I find it to be the greatest value in the world of spirits,” he says, “and it’s only a matter of time before people realize that.”
Yes, in a world where Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old regularly goes for $2,000 and Louis Treize, considered the most baller of Cognacs, goes for $4,500, a 50-year-old Armagnac with liquid as old as 152 years for only $250 seems like a damn steal. Whiskey, Armagnac, Cognac, brandy, it doesn’t really matter to Bhakta what you call it, and, in fact, he’d rather you not classify it by any of the standard categories. He’s creating something all his own.
“I’m not selling Armagnac,” he tells me. “I’m selling Bhakta.”