Raj Bhakta, a larger-than-life personality who dreams, plans and enacts his vision at an astonishing scale, is hoping for lightning to strike twice. The entrepreneur—who founded WhistlePig Rye Whiskey in 2008 and steered it toward success from his Shoreham, Vermont farm until selling it all in 2019—launched Bhakta Spirits in 2020. This new luxury brand finds Bhakta himself blending (through a process of trial and error) rare, historic armagnacs (a distinct regional style of French brandy), which he acquired through the purchase of an estate in Condom, France. It’s a deeply personal venture for Bhakta, who’s already established himself as a legendary figure in the liquor world.
With the sale of WhistlePig, Bhakta took to the road on a quest to uncover a new passion. “Rye whiskey had been played out,” he tells us. “The bourbon market was over-saturated. There was no real value or sense of discovery with either. The motherload of discovery, I found in [the region of] Armagnac, France. There was a chateau for sale there, where the family had been collecting armagnac for five generations. I pulled in wrong-footed.” In fact, Bhakta arrived blasting ‘”Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. His entire family was singing it at the top of their lungs.
At one stop on the tour of the chateau, everything changed. “I was showed into the cellars,” he says. “My jaw dropped. This guy had more than 100 barrels of liquid that started at 50 years old and went back more than a century. I was blown away. I realized that armagnac was what was next.” After two years of negotiation, Bhakta was able to buy the chateau, and all the barrels and armagnac. Some of that stock he shipped to his farm in Poultney, Vermont (not far from WhistlePig) and the nearby defunct campus of Green Mountain College, which he also acquired.
Bhakta began to design a premium brand—and blend his historic liquid. “I am a big believer in age statements,” he says, underscoring that this would drive his new creation. “There is something metaphysical about sipping something from this far into the past. If you are drinking this, you can transport yourself back into the time of its production.” In many ways, the products so far released by Bhakta Spirits are like a road map through history.
The cornerstone for Bhakta Spirits is the Bhakta 50, a limited edition brandy—drawn from 38 barrels, which each produced 350 bottles. When it’s sold out, it will be impossible to recreate. “The 50-year-old is 1868 to 1970,” Bhakta explains. “It’s all in there. In that period we go from railroads to landing on the moon.” Specifically, what he means, is that the blend is composed of eight armagnac vintages, ranging in age from 52 to 154 years old. As Bhakta is quick to mention, “This includes liquid from three years after Lincoln’s death, when Napoleon the Third was the Emperor of France, to the Gilded Age, to the Roaring ’20s, all the way through the ’60s.”
Deliciousness isn’t always guaranteed with liquid this old. And yet Bhakta 50 succeeds with an approachable upfront sweetness that sits in a wisp of smoke, thanks to time spent in Islay scotch barrels (it’s this “finishing” process that prevents Bhakta 50 from being called an armagnac). Bottles from three barrels of the Bhakta 50 are currently on the market: Barrel 38, named “Washington;” Barrel 31, entitled “Thatcher;” and Barrel 29, referred to as “de Gaulle.” The blend for each is different (and thus the enticing flavors within vary), though all of them adhere to the 1868 to 1970 range. As for why he put out a series of 50 Years instead of one or two 100 Years, he quips, “We’re saving that.”
There’s also the more accessibly priced Bhakta 27-07 brandy, a 1,000-case release. “This is armagnac and calvados [an apple brandy from Normandy] blended together and finished in an Islay scotch cask,” he explains. “There is no drink quite like this. It doesn’t fit into any particular category or flavor profile but the taste is magnificent and complex. This is the most versatile drink I’ve ever made.” On the palate, there is the bright apple flavor from the calvados, caramel from the armagnac and a pinch of smoke from the scotch cask. We can comfortably agree that nothing else tastes like this.
“We are also releasing single vintages. Vintages are the apex of spirits,” Bhakta says of a 1982 vintage that we sampled. Because it’s a vintage that hasn’t been modified, Bhakta can legally call these armagnacs. “This is barrel-strength,” he says. “It is single-estate, single-year of distillation, single-grape type.” Regardless of how magnificent the products are, Bhakta is now immersed in an educational process because most Americans aren’t familiar with brandy, let alone armagnac. It’s much like what he went through with rye in 2008, which Bhakta says, “used to be your old uncle’s drink.”
Many consumers need to know when a spirit, wine or beer should be consumed—or how to pair it. “A good spirit is multi-occasion,” Bhakta counters. “You can sip 27-07 neat or on ice or put it in any kind of cocktail, whether it’s a mid-summer day drink or an Old Fashioned. A bottle of Bhakta 50 is to be shared with friends. Or if you’re sitting by a fire and want to transport yourself into a thoughtful state of mind with a bottle that has 150 years of history, that’s also a Bhakta 50. For the vintages, these are for moments of celebration.” Storytelling aside, the liquid is so tantalizing that spirits aficionados will savor each sip and novices will simply enjoy the bountiful flavors.
Images courtesy of Bhakta Spirits