It’s an icy February morning when I take the two-hour train ride up to Albany. From there, it’s another two hours by car to the tiny town of Poultney, Vermont, home of Green Mountain College, a picturesque campus that suddenly closed in 2019 due to lack of funding.
It’s here, in a town with one gas station and one bar, where I am to learn about Armagnac.
Yes, Armagnac hails from France — from the Armagnac region in the southwest. But you’ll find a lot of it now in Vermont, home to BHAKTA Spirits, which has taken over the shuttered college campus and turned it into a resting spot for what they call the “oldest, largest, and rarest collection of vintage spirits on Earth.”
And much of that is Armagnac (although BHAKTA is beginning to expand into a category-agnostic brand that specializes in vintage spirits of all stripes).
But I really came to the middle of nowhere (but admittedly picturesque) Vermont at the invitation of Raj Peter Bhakta, the founder of WhistlePig whiskey and an outsized — dare we say polarizing — personality in the drinks world. We met at a dinner in October back in New York — and even that hour-long chitchat and tasting had been something I had put off for over a year after I first heard about the BHAKTA project.
My hesitation? Partially because I thought I had no interest in Armagnac — a spirits category that takes up a minuscule “point oh-three percent” of the domestic spirits industry, at least according to BHAKTA’s founder.
And partially because of Raj himself.
I’d never met Raj Bhakta before. But I’d certainly heard about him. A former real estate investor, Bhakta had appeared on season two of The Apprentice. The son of an Indian father and Irish mother, he ran for a congressional seat in 2006 in his home state of Pennsylvania as a Republican, using an elephant and a six-piece mariachi band as part of a political stunt to make a point about border security and building a wall (he lost). He later founded WhistlePig, a highly-successful rye whiskey brand in Vermont that he later exited, in part, due to some pretty serious allegations (“fraud and criminal activity” were alleged; Bhakta sold his stake in 2017).
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Two people, separately, told me Bhakta was a “supervillain.” A local Vermont publication, in a fairly positive article, dubbed him a “fading reality TV goof,” while one Poultney local, upon hearing about Green Mountain’s sale, wondered if the town could handle “a Great Gatsby kind of a guy.”
(In a book you get with your purchase of BHAKTA 50, Raj does take some accountability for some of his prior antics. “Liquor has admittedly cost me greatly over the years: many lost mornings, occasionally my dignity; several friendships; and perhaps an entire company,” he writes.)
Add in his admittedly loose, Apprentice association with Donald Trump, and to use the former president’s parlance, that put up a serious (mental) wall as far as championing whatever spirits Raj had to offer.
A short dinner changed my mind.
Bhakta, 47, is charming, funny, a bit coarse and extremely well-educated on not just Armaganc but the entire spirits world (and world history). And a quick tasting through the initial BHAKTA Spirits drinks portfolio was eye-opening; the individual vintages of Armagnac were rich and superb. The BHAKTA 50, a blend of eight Armagnac vintages spanning from 1868-1970 finished in whisky casks from Islay, was a beautiful mix of fruit, praline and smoke with a lingering minerality. The 99% corn bourbon (a 2013 vintage), finished in French Oak barrels which previously held Armagnac vintages dating back to 1868? Nutty, spicy, fruity and I instantly wanted more.
“I’m looking to build a bridge from whisky to brandy,” Raj explained, while also laying out the idea of creating “the world’s most unique single-barrel products, one that breaks all the rules.”
“Nobody is doing what we’re doing in the spirits business, and I can say that with total confidence,” he said.
His big plan, however, takes a page from the wine world and applies it to luxury spirits. As he explains: “I’m all about drinking vintage, showcasing a spirit from a particular harvest or year. Let’s say you were born in 1985 — for $200, I could get you a 1985 vintage of BHAKTA.”
More interesting is that we didn’t actually talk a lot about spirits, or his business. We spoke for most of the hour about world history, religion, philosophy, mental health and even breathing exercises.
It was unexpectedly delightful. “Are there misperceptions of me?” Bhakta asked at one point, repeating back my question. “I guess that I’m an asshole, or that I’m some kind of cretin from an age that’s passed. I don’t know the percentage of people who love or hate me, but there are both. I’d definitely say I’m controversial. But I’m a straightforward guy who’s trying to make the world a better place.”
To start that journey, Bhakta purchased Green Mountain College in 2020. His first order of business: Transporting barrels of Armagnac from a France chateau he’d purchased a few years prior back to Vermont, where he stores them in the old school library (“Who has a library of spirits going back to 1868 in an actual library?” he asks.)
And he’s started inviting people up to campus — industry folks, friends, buyers. He tells me about the three-day “course” he’s planned. “You should come up,” he says. “You’ll leave, physiologically, feeling like a million bucks.” He outlines the agenda: A spirits-tasting, a party, a blending class, campfires, a hike and “sauna stuff and an ice dunk.”
It’s spiritual, he says. I’m not spiritual, I say.
“You don’t have to be!” he yells, albeit good-naturedly. “It’s a fucking spirits-tasting experience with a bit of self-care and a little time to think in our busy lives, what our aim is. You can go down how far you want to.”
So now it’s February and I’m in the old Green Mountain library (on the now-monikered Griswold campus), sipping on some 1943 Armagnac straight from the barrel — housed in a row of books, magazines and newspapers from 1943 (it’s a cute touch). Outside of the casks — and the raucous drinking and loudspeakers that offer a playlist tailored to each year of spirits we’re drinking (no idea what the ‘43 track was, but we did get “Like a Virgin” during our 1985 tasting) — the library and even the entire campus could reopen for students tomorrow. The preservation of past student life, circa 2019, is a bit chilling.
“It’s like everyone was raptured,” one Bhakta exec admits. “We found half-eaten lunches in some rooms like everyone just left all at once.”
Raj is telling the story of the company’s launch. Like most drinking tales, it feels slightly embellished. “This all begins in the summer of 2018 in France,” he says to a small group of media, liquor store buyers and bartenders. “I was doing a sabbatical with my three kids and my wife. My wife got pregnant with baby number four, gets kind of angry with me and throws me out. So I get into a car and drive off to the French countryside. And I pull into a chateau and this song comes on.”
On cue, the entire Bhakta team breaks out into “Be Our Guest.” The whole song.
Raj continues. “Anyway, the French guy at the chateau, I can tell he’s disgusted by the loud, brash American guy who has the car with Florida plates. His family’s been collecting five generations of the world’s oldest spirit, and I drive up. He’s horrified.”
That “French guy” eventually succumbed to Bhakta’s charm and sold him the Armagnac estate. “He had every single vintage from 1868 to present day; it’s the most comprehensive collection of Armagnac, and spirits overall in the world,” says Raj. “No other house exists where you’ve got barrels lying of that kind of continuity and history.”
From here, Raj regales us with the history of Armagnac (it’s the world’s first reported spirits category, circa 1310) and reminds us that his love of the spirit dates back to his days at WhistlePig, when that Vermont rye brand racked up a ton of awards for its Boss Hog IV release finished in Armagnac casks.
Then, he lays out his big idea: “BHAKTA is not just Armagnac,” he says. “We are a house of vintage. People don’t drink vintage in the spirits world, but it drives the entire wine world. There are significant differences between vintages, based on things like terroir and weather. Why not bring that to the world of spirits?” (Yes, a few other spirits brands do vintages, like Pinhook, but admittedly no one has a stock of spirits that date back to 1868.)
Now he’s on a roll. “What you want in a good friend is what you want in a spirit,” says Raj, who pretty much ends up describing himself. “Normally character and smoothness are inversely related. Huge characters, not very smooth. Very, very smooth, not much character. But we, as people, tend to like people who are smooth but also have character. The trick is to unite both of those ideas.”
Bhakta walks us through different vintages over two library floors and also lets us try a 35-year-old rum. Throughout, he’s throwing out historical trivia with each year’s tasting (“1981, Reagan sworn in, Iranian hostages released …1991, Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait”). Eventually, we try our birthdays to see if our year aligns with the spirit; sadly, I end up preferring the 1971 and 1985 casks, neither year having a real significance in my life.
But that’s ok. The Bhakta team had framed this trip as “finding your spirit,” and while that was meant a bit metaphorically, they do offer a blending class on the second day where I did, indeed, find my ideal spirit (a rye and Calvados blend with a touch of three different Armagnacs).
Walking around the campus (note: I stayed at the former campus inn; most others stayed in actual converted dorm rooms) and hearing Bhakta’s vision did get me wondering if the initial plan — to sell Armagnac vintages and blends to a luxury market — was getting a bit out of focus.
“It’s all a big undertaking,” admits Leo Gibson, a longtime friend of Raj and BHAKTA co-founder. “We not only have a massive campus redevelopment, but we’re also entering more spirits spaces, we’re managing a 900-acre ranch in Florida, a 500-acre orchard, a 700-acre farm, a chateau in France, a brandy business… conversely, when we did WhistlePig, it was basically just a farm and a rye whiskey company.” (He also adds, laughing: “Life’s short. Let’s err on undertaking too much.”)
And that list doesn’t quite cover everything that Raj or BHAKTA is planning. Phase two of the campus rehabilitation will include a hotel, and eventually, condominiums. There’s a gin in the works and a blend of all the world’s best whiskies. And the week after my trip, Raj and a small team flew down to Colombia in search of an aphrodisiac fruit to use in a drink he wants to call…Strongcock (rumors of Raj Bhakta’s newfound maturity may be overstated).
“Raj is a larger-than-life character,” Gibson adds. “He’s a visionary who dreams big and won’t take no for an answer. A lot of that is from his parents; his mom is a storyteller and a visionary, and his dad is a hard-headed first-generation immigrant businessman who knew how a balance sheet works. Take those two strains together … look, I’ve known him since I was 18. Even then, he was so funny and charismatic. But there really has been some maturity and some lessons learned along the way. He’s always going to be a polarizing figure, but I think a lot of people see the good and joy and excitement he brings to each project.”
Sean O’Rourke joined BHAKTA just before my trip. A veteran of Sazerac, Davos and Fedway, O’Rourke is now the company’s CEO and “Chief Minister of Spirits.” Taking on the role meant spending a lot of time getting to know Raj. “Before I joined, Raj and I spent six weeks together, two days each, in each property, getting to know each other and meeting his family,” he says. “He’s certainly a character, and he embraces that. He’s loud, he makes noise, but there’s a lot of mischaracterization about him. A lot of people, even people in the bottling line, followed him from WhistlePig to where he is now.”
He adds: “He’s a mentor and a great father; my politics and other beliefs are not necessarily aligned with some of his, but that’s the beauty of this company, hiring people with different backgrounds and beliefs. We’re in a polarizing world, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s the beauty of this campus; you can sit around the campfire with a couple of drinks and talk about things.”
So, did I find my spiritual side? No, but I did embrace some solace and peace during a hike and had some good late-night conversations (and political back-and-forth with Raj). It was too icy for a good campfire, but I did try an ice bath followed by a sauna break on my final morning as part of the trip’s restorative agenda. I listened to Raj discuss his “seven principles of Griswold” (#4 “Seek truth and temper your feelings”) and did some morning breathing exercises, inspired by the monks in Tibet and led by Raj in the old campus gym…which is next to the old campus basketball court, where Bhakta keeps his collection of vintage cars.
“These exercises … it’s a simple, cheap, free way to get high on your supply,” says Raj, before a bit of self-reflection. “I used to get high on my own supply at WhistlePig, that didn’t work out too well. But this one will work out for you.”
While I didn’t find serenity, I did try some amazing spirits and I understood a bit more about Raj (who I ended up quite liking, even if we’ll never vote the same way) and his mission.
“I wanted to be rich and famous,” he told me back at our first dinner. “And then I got rich, I realized what I was after was not to say empty, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I needed to reorient myself; I walked away with money from WhistlePig, but instead of being happy I had a profound sense of emptiness. I was like, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Shit! This is what I was waiting for?’ Look, I’m extremely sensitive to sounding a phony, whatever you call me I’m not that. This transfer to finding a mission, finding your spirit, it’s not just for drinks but our eternal spirit within us.”
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