An Interview with Liz Rhoades, Head of Whiskey Development at WhistlePig.

Bordeaux Index

13 November 2023

Liz Rhoades, WhistlePig's Head of Whiskey Development, took the time to sit down with us ahead of the release of The Library Series.

We took the opportunity to ask Liz about her love of whiskey, the brilliant female leadership at WhistlePig, the importance of diversity in the industry, and of course, we picked her brains about The Library Series.

Please introduce yourself. Can you tell us about your journey at WhistlePig Distillery and how you came to your current role?

Hi, I’m Liz Rhoades and I’m Head of Whiskey Development at WhistlePig Whiskey. I started at WhistlePig almost three years ago as a consultant in the November of 2020 and started in full last January 2022. I came to work at WhistlePig because I fell in love with the three ‘P’s’: people first, the products of course, and the place. We’re a farm distillery so we like to consider our products as being a taste of place.

Bordeaux Index WhistlePig Library Series Liz Rhoades Interview
Volume One Bottles: Shoreham, Stowe and Woodstock

What is your first memory of whiskey? Is there a standout memory which inspired you to work in the industry?

I’m very fortunate and excited to be celebrating my 16th year in the alcoholic beverage industry, academically and professionally, next month. Both of my degrees, my Bachelor of Science and Masters are in food science. I’m a self-proclaimed right side of the brain scientist so I’m led more by creativity, curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit and then fall back on my technical chops to execute. Food science was my first passion and that’s why I went into food. As a foodie, it really is art and science put together. In my junior year as a university undergraduate, I had a food development class and the goal of the semester was to create a product. I had to form concepts, commercialisation and create the business plan, marketing model et cetera. As a college student, I was like, I’m going to make a beer! I decided to make a nutraceutical beer, discovered the biochemistry behind it and fell absolutely in love with learning that process, working with raw materials, learning about cereals and grains, and then the mashing process, fermentation – all of it! I was, so to speak, bit by the bug.

I went on to do my master’s work in beer, did food and fermentation science with an emphasis in brewing for my master’s work and then worked at a craft brewery while I was in grad school. From there I went on to work at Diageo at the North American Technical Centre. I was there eight years, so I’ve spent most of my career so far there. My very first project was in beer however in North America there wasn’t a lot of beer happening at Diegeo’s so I quickly had to learn a new skill which I affectionately like to refer to as the beer afterlife. This is the world of distillation. I was very fortunate to have had a lot of great mentors whilst I was there and had the opportunity to work across categories. I did some beer but also vodka and rum. However, it was whiskey that became my main squeeze, my bread and butter.

I got to work on the technical process and quality support for Northen American distilleries, and with several key brands in the Caribbean and South America. Whiskey is an execution of patience. The very first whiskey I laid down at scale turned 10 this year and it’s still in the barrel. However, I did have some other whiskeys launch over the past couple of years and some are in the queue to launch this year with some other brands I’ve worked on. It’s exciting to see your ‘babies’ come to fruition. Some have won awards! It’s such a passion of mine and it’s a super exciting industry to be in.

WhistlePig has been recognised for its commitment to female leadership. Tell us about the leadership at WhistlePig.

I guess it’s a novelty to be a female in the industry. I think there have been a lot of opportunities and I’ve seen it progress. I’ve been in the industry with beer and whiskey for quite a few years now and it’s been tremendous to see how far it’s come since I first stepped foot inside a site in my steel toes. I think WhistlePig is one of the brands leading the charge in this space.

I always say, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a female.” As I said, I lead whiskey development and that’s weird for a lot of folks. Our head blender is a woman, but also across the team in marketing and HR there are lots of women, so we’re a very female team. It’s good and I like it. I think there’s a camaraderie around that and it’s a great example to set. It’s not just that there are lots of women, but there is also diversity. We have a lot of people who’ve come from different backgrounds that are shedding light into the industry as well.

Bordeaux Index WhistlePig Library Series Liz Rhoades Interview
Tasting The Library Series with Liz Rhoades

Outside of what’s happening at WhistlePig’s ‘command centre’ if you will, we stay involved. On the sales side or brand ambassador side, we’re heavy on the female side which is great especially when we show up to events. We’re being inclusive and trying to lead the charge on that. We’re heavily involved with Women of the Vine and Spirits, and we’ve run an externship for young women where we hosted them in Vermont. Again, it’s really to provide an opportunity for females especially as there is a bit of a barrier currently in the industry.

Outside of that work with women, we have an open-door policy with folks that I have personal connections with in the industry. They’re invited on site to spend a few weeks with us, learning, getting in the lab, getting on the floor. It’s been great.

That’s wonderful to hear and a credit to you. Could you elaborate on how these initiatives and the leadership you have positively impacts the business and impacts the overall brand reputation?

For me personally, I think I’ve had the freedom to do more outreach. I do a lot of external speaking and lecturing. So that’s great from a brand ambassadorship standpoint, especially on the technical side or the distilling cap side. It allows folks, be it consumers or in the industry, to see that there’s a female force at WhistlePig. Always preach the pig! We do some other collaborations as well which are good for the brand in terms of how we’re doing things differently and how we’re being more inclusive.

Moving onto the reason that you’re here with us today: The Library Series. This is a project we’ve been hugely excited about over the last four or five years since we partnered with WhistlePig. It’s an absolute thrill and pleasure to now have it landed, have it here physically in the office with us. It’s gone down brilliantly with our team and with some of our clients too. Tell us about how The Library Series came about.

It pays homage to how we started as a brand. We started in 2007 with the late, great former Master Distiller Dave Pickerell and the 10-Year-Old. Back in the day, rye whiskey wasn’t really in fashion, but rye was the original American whiskey. There were a lot of events such as World War II that changed that. Bourbon started to become more in vogue and more popular. Many years later, Dave pioneered the rye revolution. Or, as I affectionately like to term it, the ‘rye-volution’. So, to start this rye renaissance, Dave picked out and sourced some amazing rye whiskeys and that was the 10-Year-Old. It’s the pinnacle or ethos of what WhistlePig is – a revolution of rye whiskey. We make big age statements. People thought we were crazy to launch with a 10 Year. It was 50% ABV with high rye content. Building on that for The Library Series, we wanted to take it to the next level and provide a new consumer experience. So, we’re starting The Library Series with the 11-Year-Old.

Bordeaux Index WhistlePig Library Series Liz Rhoades Interview
Volume One: Londonberry

It's big, bold, in your face, unapologetic rye. What we wanted to showcase with The Library Series was the way we could take this to the next level and age it a little bit longer, and then a little longer. And this year is only the 11-Year-Old, which is a collection of 22 whiskeys. Over the next couple of years, we’ll be releasing the 12-Year-Old, the 13, the 14. There’s a lot more to come!

What I love about The Library Series too is that it is individual casks, as we mentioned there are 22. We hand selected some unique barrels to really showcase the liquid. No two barrels are the same, especially as we’re using new wood and fresh char #3. Each one is a little different. That’s why we have 22. We selected each barrel to represent a different town that was unique to either Vermont or the surrounding areas. The ones we’re currently tasting in this interview are Shoreham, which is where the farm is and where it all began. Then we also have here Londonberry – fitting as London is where we are having this interview!

Could you tell us a bit more about the individuality of some of the other casks. What flavours could we expect to get?

Let’s start with Stowe. It’s a place very true to Vermont – you think of skiing, maple syrup, snow, flannel. In fact, we have a maple forest on site at our 500-acre farm from which we make our barrel aged maple syrup. But Stowe is quintessential for skiing and so it was a special pick because it felt very much a part of what Vermont is as a place. With Stowe, we saw more tannins coming out in the liquid, a little more oakiness, a little more woodiness. Then take Woodstock, the party at the end! With Woodstock we saw more of that caramelised orange, a little more fruitiness and dried fruit of fig specifically. Those are some of the different flavours and notes on the spectrum.

Looking into the future, where do you see the distillery and brand going in the next decade?

We are a rye whiskey company, but we are diversifying! We launched Bourbon last year which is going very well. It’s our Piggyback Bourbon. We also launched into the single malt category last year, so I think we’ll continue to expand and diversify into those categories. We’re always innovating. That’s something that we really take pride in. We do a lot of finishing as well which is a huge lever of our innovation portfolio. We’ll put anything into any barrel at least once, just to see what happens. It may be a success which is great, or we’ll learn something from it. There’s much more innovation to be happening and that’s part of the joy of what I get to do and what the team is involved in. It’s a lot of playing around! We are quite a young team and we threw out the rulebook for whiskey with a polite ‘no thank you.’ We said, let’s see what can happen because whiskey should be fun. We want to see what whiskey can be.

Bordeaux Index WhistlePig Library Series Liz Rhoades Interview
Tasting The Library Series

How do you see the way that you’ll approach sustainability in the next 10 years?

As we’re a farm distillery, we need to take care of our crops. That’s one of the things that I love the most about our industry and being in whiskey is that it’s rooted in agriculture. I grew up in central Illinois in cornfields, so agriculture is really important to me and I think that’s really important to invest in. We ask questions like what sort of rye are we planting? What does the crop rotation look like? How are we thinking about our supply chain. Those are all the things that I think are critical to WhistlePig. We have a commitment to sustainability. We are 100% solar powered. And we’ll keep continuing on this journey as we grow in scale. I think sustainability is a key player to the growth of our company, especially as a leader in the industry. Everyone needs to keep an eye on sustainability.

We’ve spoken about diversity in your company, but could you expand on that in the broader sense of the industry?

In terms of diversity and inclusion, we’ll keep having brand ambassadors and keep being stewards and leaders supporting other organisations as well. We do a lot of outreach, not just from a female perspective. For the past 2 years we’ve been participating in Dry January. Speaking of inclusion, there’s no space for this in the market. We’ve done non-alcoholic versions of our products. Last year we did our Piggyback Rye and were the first ever to make an age declared non-alcoholic beverage. We took our 6-Year-Old and dealcoholised it via spinning cone column vacuum distillation. Then we took 100% of the proceeds and donated them to the USBG, the US Bartenders Guild. This year we did a riff on our maple orange old fashioned, also using our 6-Year-Old, dealcoholised it and created a ready-to-drink format. We partnered with the American beverage company Sunkist and 100% of these proceeds went to an organisation called Turning Tables which is a New Orleans based organisation who support minorities in getting training and education to get into bartending or the hospitality industry. That’s just another way we’re supporting diversity and inclusion and giving back.

WhistlePig also partnered with The Black Bourbon Society in early 2023, a group that bridges the gap between the spirits industry and African American bourbon enthusiasts, to launch a version of WhistlePig's Bespoke Old World Rye, Aged 12 Years to their members (over 25,000 nationwide).

Bordeaux Index WhistlePig Library Series Liz Rhoades Interview
The Library Series

We are so grateful for your time Liz. For the final question, if you could choose just one, which is your favourite WhistlePig whiskey?

That’s hard. We have a huge portfolio of course but if I had to choose just one, I would always fall back on 15-Year-Old. It’s very special. It goes back to taste of place and that’s one of our key ethos. We finish in our own Vermont Estate grown rye casks. We grow Vermont oak ourselves as well which goes back to the ways in which we’re being sustainable. I really think it’s special in that regard because it gives very particular notes and I think that’s awesome. It also has a very cool pewter top which is created by a local Pewterer with whom we partner with. It really is the full Vermont package.

Thank you, Liz, for all your time. We can’t wait for our customers to try The Library Series and to experience a true ‘Encyclopedia of Rye’. We’re incredibly happy with The Library Series and are looking forward to the next few years of the partnership between WhistlePig and Bordeaux Index.