by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine It’s been a colorful life for spirits entrepreneur Raj Peter Bhakta, yet his greatest challenges lie ahead.
In rough order, Bhakta has been: A candidate on Donald Trump’s old reality show, “The Apprentice” (he lasted nine episodes before getting “fired”); a hotel owner in Vail; a failed Republican Congressional candidate from Philadelphia; the creator/founder of WhistlePig rye whiskey; forced out of WhistlePig; the man who bought and is trying to revive the campus of Green Mountain College; and the man now trying to fund the resurrection of the college campus by making — and selling, as an investment strategy — one of the world’s rarest brandies.
Throw in a lot of parties, a few DUIs, and now a wife, four small children and a new job as babysitter, and you just about have it. And he’s only 46 years old.
Photo: Raj and Danhee Bhakta sipping Bhakta Brandy. Photo courtesy Bhakta Spirits.
Let’s start with the campus.
In 2020, Bhakta, who is the founder of Bhakta Spirits, bought at auction the 155-acre campus of Green Mountain College, a private liberal arts college in Poultney, when it failed alongside a series of other small Vermont colleges such as Marlboro College and Southern Vermont College.
The estimated auction price was around $20 million. He bought it for $4.5 million.
His plan is to turn the college into “the premier resort in the state of Vermont.” He envisions a luxury hotel, a distillery, a library of spirits and a hospitality school, among other things.
“We’re putting up a destination resort,” Bhakta told me. “We’re converting some of the existing buildings. The pinnacle of this will be a food, beverage, hospitality, educational experience hub, where people experience a resort unlike any other in America. But it also has an educational component where students learn firsthand not just about the beverage alcohol business, but also about hospitality. Basically, part of Green Mountain College is going to continue to be a college.”
Bhakta also has plans for a spa, an antique car museum and a convention center in the old campus dining hall.
Photo: Raj Bhakta in front of Green Mountain College campus in Poultney. Photo courtesy Bhakta Spirits.
“We will also have a residential component, where I’m going to be moving with the family,” Bhakta said. “And then on the academic side, there will be housing for students and classrooms.”
Turning Green Mountain College into an upscale tourism resort requires a lot of money.
Some of the funding to support this new vision comes from Bhakta’s settlement with WhiskeyPig. Some comes by selling Bhakta 50, an uber high-end aged brandy made with a mixture of 100% antique French Armagnacs that get an extra two weeks of flavoring while sitting in Islay whiskey casks.
The “50” refers to the fact that none of the Armagnacs in the blends are less than 50 years old.
“After you taste it, for the rest of your life you’re going to be ruined,” Bhakta told me as we Zoom-talked. “It’s the only thing you’re ever going to want to drink.”
Considering that a bottle of Bhakta 50 costs anywhere from $400 to $900 on the shelf — if you can find it there — and is now being sold as an investment that could reach into the thousands of dollars down the line, I probably won’t be drinking Bhakta 50 exclusively any time soon.
But it cannot be denied that Bhakta 50 has attracted superlatives in the high-end whiskey world.
“This juice carries flooring complexity that keeps you coming back for more — from honeyed nose, to fruity-smoky interplay, to an almost minty finish,” said on-line booze reviewer Whiskey Consensus. “Throughout, Bhakta has included the perfect balance of Islay peatiness. This one’s for the bourbon lovers, the Scotch savorers: BHAKTA is the new ‘it’ spirit, and it’s time to swap your snifters with the finest and rarest.”
Attorney Leo Gibson has been one of Bhakta’s closest friends since college; he is now his counsel and partner in the campus renovation. He pointed out that Poultney has a long distilling history dating back to colonial times.
The Poultney Town Plan states: “Between 1771 and 1821 as the town was settled, the core of Poultney’s economic activity was agricultural. Many distilleries popped up, including the manufacture of corn and rye whiskeys and cider brandy, until at one point there were 10 operations within the Town limits. Then a large part of the town’s commerce, these operations swiftly disappeared in the 1830s due to the rise of the temperance movement.”
In olden days, turning crops into spirits was a way of preserving them, Gibson said.
“A big part of the reason for so many distilleries was that when you’re growing agricultural crops, and you’re not close to your market, the risk of spoilage is high,” Gibson told me. “But if you take the grains that you’re growing, and the fruits that you’re growing, and turn it into hard cider or wine or beer, the shelf life becomes much, much greater. It’s much more potable. So Poultney’s got a long and distinguished history of distillation. And it’s sort of neat to think that we’re going to be a part of bringing that back.”
It was Gibson who first spotted the college and brought it to his friend’s attention.
“I was driving north one day, stopped in a diner and saw the campus,“ Gibson said. “I saw the main street. I saw the town. I was like, ‘Wow, this place is actually pretty spectacular.’ Then, a couple of years later, in the midst of the pandemic, we had been spending most of our time on Raj’s ranch in Vero Beach, and I saw in an article that the school closed and that the campus was for sale.”
It seemed to fit with Bhakta’s primary interests, Gibson said.
“Raj has always been interested in taking old and broken things, whether it’s a hotel in Vail, or the farm or rye whiskey,” Gibson said. “He finds these forgotten gems and tries to bring them back to life. And so part of me said, ‘Wow, this is gonna be a lot to chew.’ But part of me said, ‘This is exactly the sort of challenge that Raj loves.’ It is a gem of a property — an overlooked gem. And we said, ‘We should take a serious look.’ So we did.”
According to contractors’ estimates, the school buildings need “north of $50 million” in renovation and restoration.
“The campus doesn’t look bad,” Bhakta said. “But underneath the surface, everything needs to get redone. The power system, the heating system, the cooling systems, insulation, the single-pane windows, the whole thing needs upgrades. This is 500,000-square-feet worth of buildings. So $50 million sounds like a lot of money. But that’s 100 bucks a square foot, which isn’t that much from a renovation standpoint.”
Currently, between his properties in France, Shoreham and Poultney in Vermont, and his cattle ranch in Vero Beach, Bhakta employs approximately 30 people. He estimated that his yearly revenues are “somewhere around $5 million.”
Many of the employees are involved in blending, bottling and marketing the Bhakta 50 brandy. It is also being marketed to “stockholders” who will hold most of the bottles in the hope they can someday sell them for thousands of dollars. This is an idea Bhakta first developed when he was at WhistlePig.
But other funding for the project is in the works, Gibson said.
“We’ve got some friends with relatively deep pockets who are interested in the project.,” Gibson said. “Also, we’ve got some experience dealing with lenders, both locally and nationally. When we put our business case together, they’ll see the value of the opportunity and what we’re trying to do. And then part of it, frankly, in this day and age, has got to come from public-private cooperation. When you’re trying to redevelop a campus that’s got a lot of deferred maintenance, the campus is beautiful but it’s not very green.”
With the government’s interest in “green” building, Gibson sees the possibility of federal partnerships.
“With the good work that’s being done in Washington right now, there’s some opportunity to tap into resources that’ll allow us to ‘green-up’ the campus and bring it into the 21st century,” Gibson said. “This is not only good in its own right, but from a business perspective it helps you manage your costs. So we’re exploring opportunities with federal, state and local governments to see how, through public-private partnerships, we can show potential investors that the town and the state of Vermont are committed to making this work. We think we’re going to get there.”
The college was an economic engine for its small town, and its closing left natives worried. Many pin their hopes for the town’s revitalization on Bhakta and his wife, Danhee, who has already opened a small private K-6 school on the campus.
Real estate broker Nancy Liberatore is the owner of Rutland County’s Lakes and Homes Real Estate, which recently opened a branch in Poultney. She is a Green Mountain College graduate and an enthusiastic Bhakta supporter.
“I find him very entertaining and charismatic,” Liberatore said. “He certainly is a man who in a soft but subtle way commands your attention when he enters the room. He has a delightful wit and humor. He’s a very pleasant man to be around. Obviously, he’s a very good businessman. But I think he’s got a very gentle presence about him that makes it very accommodating to the folks who work with him.”
Liberatore likes Bhakta’s plans for revitalizing the campus.
“I think he’s a gentleman that pours his heart and soul — at least from what I can see — into everything that he takes on,” she said. “He doesn’t go about it frivolously or lightly.”
Poultney has to get behind Bhakta, Liberatore said.
“People with concerns have come to me, because we’re small-town Vermont and we don’t like change, or at least we don’t like a lot of change all at once,” she said. “But quite honestly, we feared that Poultney was just going to shrivel up and die. We’ve lost our bank. We’ve lost our drugstore. Over the years, there’s been so many things that were just gone. As a town, we need to come back again. And I just think that over the next five to 10 years, Poultney could be just like a Manchester or Woodstock. Raj has the knowledge and the business acumen to really make that happen. My prayer is that Poultney gets behind him and rallies behind all the fabulous things that he wants to bring to Poultney.”
Bhakta is often described as charming, but when we Zoomed he was unsmiling, introspective and recovering from COVID, a mild case of which, he said, he and his whole family had caught from a visiting relative during their Christmas break in Florida.
Still, he remained an entertaining raconteur with a dry wit and engaging honesty that presented himself, warts and all.
And I love this story.
Bhakta was born in Philadelphia, the son of two immigrants; his father came from India and his mother from England. He has three younger sisters.
“So I grew up in a — let’s say — interesting environment, which fused an agnostic Hindu with a medieval militant Irish Catholic mystic,” Bhakta said. “I said medieval because there was a mystical strain to my mother. So if I dropped something, gravity was one explanation. Another was a curse from the second century that all the males of this house will let things slip out of their hands — reliably. She was definitely into alternative explanations for things that involved the supernatural.”
His father was just the opposite. “He’s going around the house with an Indian accent, saying, ‘What kind of crazy things are you telling these kids?’”
Bhakta’s father was a businessman who thrived in America.
“He started out pumping gas,” Bhakta said. “Then he became a mechanic. And then he became basically a businessman in the car business. He developed his own company, called Raj Motors, which he opened the year I was born. Then he got into car dealerships and hotels. Basically, it’s a classic American dream story. Like so many Indian Americans, despite their bronze skin and funny accents, almost all of them did very well in this country, because it’s open and free to all people.”
The family eventually moved to suburban Blue Bell, PA.
“But since my dad’s business was in Philadelphia, I would go into the city all the time with him,” Bhakta said. “I don’t think my parents had any kind of specific financial education plan. But the example that I saw was one of my father — and all of his siblings who came to America with nothing — all basically hustling to achieve the American dream. My dad would teach me basically simple, fundamental things like trying to go to bed with one more dollar in your pocket then you woke up with. Or, ‘Don’t buy things that you can’t afford.’ He was a great example of the hard work and risk-taking that entrepreneurship is about. It was basically buying businesses and growing it. He actually went near bankrupt on a couple of occasions. So he was always in aggressive expansion mode, and that worked when the economy was growing, but during recessions he was always, you know, in a pinch.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bhakta started working when he was 11 or 12 years old.
“My first job was a paper route,” he said. “Then I started a lawn mowing business. I joke that I never had more cash under my mattress than when I was 12 years old. I was undercutting all the people in the neighborhood, like the poor guys who actually had to make a full living doing it. That’s because I didn’t have an expense structure, so I was able to offer the best deal on lawn mowing in my area of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. And so all summer long I was cutting lawns day and night.”
He got his driver’s license in high school and immediately started selling cars for his father.
“I was the youngest top-selling salesman in the state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “My mom was proud. I did that through my high school years, and that’s also what I did in college for spending money. I would buy a car at auction and sell it in Boston when I was a student at Boston College. I would do that during the school year. Each of the summers, I worked at internships in finance in New York City.”
Bhakta took a double major at Boston College in history and economics.
“The concentration was in finance, but really? I partied?” he said.
Bhakta went into the Marine Corps after college, but a skiing accident put an early end to his military career.
“I smashed my shoulder to smithereens with a rendezvous with a mogul of ice,” he said. “It was not fun.”
After that he did a stint in investment banking
“Then I saw how much money other people were making,” he said. “And I decided that I shouldn’t be the one serving these rich clients, but becoming one of these rich clients.”
Bhakta started a dot-com in California.
“It was a used car valuation tool,” he said. “I would tell you what your car was worth better than anybody in America. But then, not long after I started, the dot-com bubble burst. And I guess I gave up on the business, which was a mistake.”
The most important lesson Bhakta learned from this experience is that “persistence is key.”
“I’ve got very good ideas, but persistence is absolutely key,” he said. “Because if I had stuck with that, I’d probably be much richer than I am today. I don’t know if I’d be happier. I should have stuck with technology, but I gave up on it because it looked like a dead end at the time.”
Next, Bhakta went back into the family business.
“I was heavily bribed,” he said. “The family business at that point was hotels.”
So my father said, ‘Listen, I’ll make you a partner in a hotel and back you.’ He wanted to pull me into the family business, right? With the promise of financial backing and autonomy. He delivered on the financial backing but not on the autonomy.”
Bhakta found a hotel he liked in Vail, CO.
“I thought it would be fun to live in Vail, but it turned out that it really wasn’t a town for a single young man,” Bhakta said. “There are like seven guys to every three girls, so the ratio was all messed up. My love life really stunk. That, combined with my dad — he basically jumped into the project. I was supposed to be the sole manager of the project, and he decided that I shouldn’t be the sole manager of that project. He arrived and took control. And basically, we butted heads.”
Bhakta started looking around for a solid reason to leave the family business.
“I didn’t want to just say, ‘Dad, I can’t take it’ and leave like a wimp,” he said. “I needed some reason so I could have an exit with honor.”
On To Donald Trump
While Bhakta was still engaged in the struggle with his father, a friend came up with a novel solution.
“He calls me up and he goes, ‘Well, what are your two biggest problems in life?’” Bhakta said. “I said, I really can’t stand working with my dad. And my love life stinks here.’ Then he says, ‘Well, I have the solution. Go on ‘The Apprentice.’”
At the time, the program was in its first year and was a huge success for NBC.
“My friend told me that my dad would think it was cool to go on the show and learn real estate from Donald Trump,” Bhakta said. “And that my love life would drastically improve because I would be famous.”
At first Bhakta didn’t like the idea.
“I hemmed and hawed,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m a serious guy. I don’t want to be on a reality TV show like these other goofballs.’ But upon a little further consideration, I said, ‘You know what, this is a good idea. It takes care of my two biggest problems.’ So I went on ‘The Apprentice’ in 2005.”
What was it like?
“It was a really amazing experience — for the good and the bad,” Bhakta said. “I didn’t really like the filming process. But I liked seeing myself on TV. It was the most riveting TV I’ve ever seen when I was on the screen. Nothing’s ever come close.”
Bhakta had a chance to observe fame up close and personal.
“The interesting thing was that you saw how people reacted to fame,” he said. “People turn into complete shitshows. Families fell apart. That kind of thing was insane. You could walk down the street in New York City and everybody called your name. Once I was walking down the street with this reporter, and I run into this girl. She is a big fan of the show, and she starts screaming like she’s seen John Lennon’s ghost. You know, like I was the biggest star ever.”
Bhakta said these reactions made him wonder if fame would turn him crazy. He decided it wouldn’t.
“I thought to myself, first let’s look at the definition of crazy,” he said. “Crazy is when what you think in your own head is not reflected in the outside world. Well, in truth, I’ve always thought I was famous. So the truth is that it made me more sane. Fame was more of a natural state to me than to the other people on the show. I liked it. I thought the attention was fun.”
Being on the show did improve his romantic life.
“It made things so good that I became like, ‘Oh my god, I’m never going to get married,’” he said. “Because whoever I date is just going to run off and shag some other famous guy at any moment. I didn’t realize what a powerful stimulant or aphrodisiac fame is. It was a little depressing. But I recovered from that, settled down and now I’m a faithful, devoted husband.”
In 2006, Bhakta tried to capitalize on his fame by running for the United States House of Representatives from Pennsylvania’s 13th District as a Republican. He lost to incumbent Democrat Allyson Schwartz, but his campaign was nothing if not colorful.
For one thing, to illustrate how easy it is to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he hired an elephant and rode across the border for 90 minutes accompanied by a 12-man mariachi band.
He now blames “an entire bottle of tequila” for giving him the idea, but needless to say, he garnered lots of headlines in the right-wing press.
Considering that Bhakta is the son of immigrants, his position on immigration seemed difficult to understand.
“The message was, ‘Build the wall, widen the gate,’” he explained. “We need more immigration in America. But we need legal immigration. People who are the best and the brightest throughout the world come for opportunity here. So that was my point. Immigration is the lifeblood of this country. But you can’t have a country with no borders.”
His congressional bid failed, he thinks, due to a tidal wave of opposition to Republicans because of George W. Bush’s unpopularity.
“But I actually ran a terrific race,” he said.
Bhakta says he’s no longer a Republican and stays out of politics.
“I’m really sickened and disgusted with the entire thing,” he said. “So I’m out of politics. I’m an Independent and I’m a farmer now.”
He says he’s not a Trump supporter, although he likes his China policy.
“I was very, very enthusiastic,” Bhakta said. “He’s one 100% correct about China. They’re in the process of destroying us, not that we’re doing a great job of preventing it. China’s the number one evil force in the world, and I think Trump saw that better than other politicians.”
An Indian Steve Irwin
In the days following the election, after the afterparty hangovers had dissipated and his political ambitions had been swept into the dustbin of history, Bhakta was left looking for something else to do. Again, a friend stepped in to help him find direction. And the direction was Vermont by way of India.
The friend was Gibson.
“It was the day after that election that he lost and he was trying to think of his next venture,” Gibson said. “Steve Irwin, the Australian crocodile hunter, had just died. Raj had been on ‘The Apprentice’ at that point, so he knew a little bit about the media. He’s pretty photogenic, or cameragenic — I’m not sure what they say in the TV business. So we were looking for a way to tap into that and utilize his talents. I mentioned that an Indian Steve Irwin, who hunted tigers and caught snakes, would make good television. And Raj took it seriously.”
Bhakta went to India with a television crew, holding Bollywood-style casting calls and spending three months going to national parks trying to find an Indian Steve Irwin replacement. He couldn’t find one.
“Now I’m thoroughly depressed,” Bhakta said. “I can’t win a TV game show. I can’t win a congressional race. And now I can’t find one replacement Steve Irwin in a country of 1.4 billion people. So I’m feeling like a real loser. I thought I might need to engage Plan C in my life, which was to go to the Caribbean and start a bar, drink myself to death and attempt to make as many babies as possible to see if some of my offspring might succeed.”
But before that, he bought a farm in Vermont, leased out the land and decided to live there and watch the seasons change, read, reflect, contemplate and meditate on what next to do.
“I thought it was a romantic idea,” Bhakta said. “I thought I would reflect and maybe Jesus would come to me and tell me what I should do next in life. But none of that happened. It was a kind of reset. I was 32 and felt like I had presided over a bunch of spectacular failures. I didn’t know what to do next. And you know, in the middle of my Thoreau-esque attempt at a reboot, the great 2008 recession began, I ran out of money and that’s the beginning of WhistlePig.”
Bhakta needed an idea to make the farm pay.
“So I’m thinking of all the different things that I can grow on the farm,” he said. “And my mind went to alcohol, surprisingly or not. And I began thinking I can grow grain and can make a beer or a vodka or all these other different spirits.”
He believed the old saw that you can’t go broke in the liquor business because when times are good, people buy alcohol. And when times are bad, people buy alcohol.
Before Bhakta took it up, rye whiskey was cheap and had the unsavory reputation of being the favored drink of degenerates.
“Being very serious as a business person, I believe I am talented in seeing around the corner of what’s coming — in spirits at least,” he said. “Scotch had been in a big run, and so had bourbon. And I saw that rye whiskey was a big opportunity. There was no good reason that it was basically a low-end, cheap, drunkards’ whiskey.”
If you’re going to sell spirits at over-the-moon prices, you need age, Bhakta decided.
“American rye whiskey was already big and all the age stocks were kind of dried up,” Bhakta said. “I needed the master distiller for Maker’s Mark, a guy named Dave Pickerell, God rest his soul.”
Pickerell, who is considered the Johnny Appleseed of craft distillers, died in 2018.
In “a great feat of salesmanship,” Bhakta convinced him to join forces.
“I was broke and alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and I managed to convince the most famous guy in the whiskey world to join forces with me,” Bhakta said. “He told me, ‘Listen, I have this old stock of whiskey that I have a lock on. I have an opportunity to buy it. But there’s a problem.’ What’s the problem? ‘It’s in Canada,’ he said. And I didn’t see any problem at all in that.”
Bhakta collected investment money from his friends and he and Pickerell bought more than 5,000 gallons of premium Canadian 10-year-old rye whiskey. It came in barrels and they bottled it at Bhakta’s farm in Shoreham. Bhakta came up with the name WhistlePig, and they began promoting “the hell out of it.”
It took off and they immediately started improving on the product.
“We began using Vermont oak and aging it in unique ways,” Bhakta said. “Then we were growing the rye and distilling it.”
WhistlePig was a runaway success and opened a new world to rye lovers.
But things went south in a big way in 2016. The Burlington Free Press put it this way: “WhistlePig Founder Thrown Out of His Own Company.”
According to the news story, and the many more that followed, two investors on the WhistlePig board of directors held a “hastily called” meeting to which Bhakta was not invited, raised allegations of fraud and criminal activity, and had him removed from the board and as operations director.
The fraud involved Bhakta giving his wife, Danhee — then his newly hired marketing director — undisclosed shares of the company, for which he apologized when he realized how dubious his actions were.
The “criminality” piece seemed to involve smoking marijuana on the company premises and a DUI. The investors offered to buy him out for about $50 million or else fight him in court.
He decided to fight.
Lawsuits on both side followed, and the end result was that Bhakta was bought out for a “substantial” but unrevealed sum.
Gibson, who was WhistlePig’s company counsel, thinks this is one of the greatest success stories in spirits.
“Raj and Pickerell got together and identified this magnificent old stock of age Canadian rye,” he said. “And they found a way to market it. It was a farm-to-bottle distillery, one of the first of its kind in the world. And if you look at what was there before, and what’s there now, it’s been a tremendous success story. But there comes a time when the founder has to move on to other things. I think now everybody’s pretty happy where they’re at. WhistlePig continues to succeed, which I think we’re all thrilled about, and Raj is on to his next adventure.”
Bhakta summed it up this way: “I was the founder and the majority owner. And let’s just say the investors wanted me out. And that was the least politically contentious way. It was an unpleasant period of life.”
The Mother Lode
Once again Bhakta found himself on his Vermont farm, wondering what to do with his life.
“I began thinking, ‘Where is there the next opportunity in spirits?’” he said. “I knew and liked the business. So I brought all sorts of spirits, a bunch of great old whiskey and some rum. And it was in the Armagnac region of France that I found the mother lode of ultra-aged spirits on planet Earth.”
He and his wife were living in France at the time; they were expecting their fourth child.
“My wife threw me out of the house,” he said. “I didn’t really do anything bad, but she was pregnant with baby four and just said, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ I got in the car and drove across France to the Armagnac region, and I was blown away by what I found.”
Armagnac is in Gascony in southwest France. There Bhakta found rustic small craft brewers using wood-burning stills to make Armagnac, a distinctive kind of brandy.
For Bhakta, it was like something out of a book of fairy tales.
“I found one chateau with a family that had been collecting all the best vintages since 1868,” he said. “They had them in these medieval-looking cellars. My jaw dropped.”
The owners were looking to sell, and after two years of hard negotiations, Bhakta bought the chateau and its stock. He changed the name of the chateau to Bhakta. And he started bringing the Armagnac to America, mixing it, and selling it as Bhakta 50.
“My former boss who fired me on television, Trump, was threatening tariffs on brandy, so I decided it would be a good idea to move a lot of it over here,” Bhakta said. “So now a part of it is in Vermont, a part is in Florida, and the idea is to move it to the college campus, where we’re creating — I think — the greatest destination experience in all the world of spirits on the former college campus of Green Mountain College.”
Green Mountain College
Bhakta bought Green Mountain College with a desire to do some good in the world.
Photo: Aerial of the campus. Photo courtesy Bhakta Spirits.
“I was sitting on my farm in Shoreham, and Leo Gibson, the same buddy who suggested it would be funny if there was an Indian Steve Irwin, said, ‘Take a look at this college for auction right down the road from us,’” Bhakta said. “And my juices got flowing. ‘Well, what does it matter if you go and you create another brand that’s bigger than WhistlePig and you make billions of dollars? The graveyards of the world are full of rich and indispensable men. What have you done that’s good and true in the world?’ And I think that I saw this as an opportunity to do some good.”
A different option for the college was to turn the buildings into affordable housing, but Bhakta thought that might ruin the town.
“The best use would be to create a model of hands-on education, where I can help teach young people about opportunities in a business that I know,” he said. “Teach them the beverage and alcohol business and the hospitality business, so they’re turning out capable, bright young minds who are poised to be productive members and leaders of society. That was the idea. That is still the idea.”
Since Bhakta had such a bad experience with outside investors at WhistlePig, he’s trying something new with Bhakta 50. Shareholders hold the product, not the company’s stock.
“I didn’t want to sell equity because I had a bad experience with partners before,” he said. “So I said, ‘Buy these bottles and they’ll go up in value.’ So for example, a bottle of my high-end WhistlePig, a first edition called Boss Hog, went for plus or minus $20,000. That was a $150 bottle when it was new. So the stockholder program people are people who are essentially buying into Bhakta 50 Armagnac at an early phase at relatively low values. It’s also a club which has come together, and we have furthermore fused that with the revitalization of this campus.”
Stockholders in this club invest a minimum of $30,000 for two bottles from each of 38 barrels of Bhakta 50. Due to the collectability of rare spirits, many choose to drink one bottle, and hold the other as an investment.
“They’re buying bottles of really interesting vintages and collections of old Armagnac under the supposition, or the hope, and the reality, I expect, that these bottles are going to be worth a lot more, you know, down the road,” Bhakta said.
Photo: Bhakta Brandy. Photo courtesy Bhakta Spirits.
Bhakta 50 is mixed at the Shoreham farm into batches of Armagnac dating from 1868 (the time of Ulysses S Grant) to 1970. Then it is aged in oak Islay whisky casks for a few weeks, given a history-rich name (Guinevere, Lohengrin, Percival, etc) and sold in high-end liquor stores at prices ranging from $400 to $1,000 as being “from the private cellar of Raj Peter Bhakta… the rarest whisky on the planet.”
So far, according to the Bhakta website, 12 batches of Bhakta 50 have sold out, and the current one, called Godfrey, is on sale now for $399 a bottle. Buyers get to know which years are in the mix (Godfrey, for example, contains Armagnac from 1868, 1897, 1939, 1946, 1958, 1963, 1965 and 1970) and the date of the bottling, which in Godfrey’s case was in 2020.
Each bottle is 750 ml and 87.2 proof.
Each mix comes with a story.
For Godfrey, it’s this: “Godfrey of Bouillon was the champion of the First Crusade, the presumed new ruler of Jerusalem. He declined his title and golden crown, however, since Christ himself hadn’t worn more than thorns. Instead, he continued his campaign, amassing land until his death in battle. Humility, reluctance to accept accolade — these are the marks of strong leadership. We drink to the mighty few. Sticky batch of homemade jam on the flame. Peat surges through on the palate, followed by crisp, browned toast to complete the fruity aromas. Gentle, buttery finish.”
Stockholders buy in two-bottle increments. Realtor Liberatore, for example, has 64 bottles stashed away.
“I don’t care for brandy or cognac,” Liberatore said. “It’s definitely for sipping in small amounts. But it’s very delightful. I’ve already hit the $1,000-each mark, so I’m almost to a point that I could break even if I sold all my bottles. But I’m hanging on for a little while longer.”
Stockholder George Dorsey III, who owns the upscale Pitcher Inn and The Warren Store in Warren, keeps Bhakta 50 on hand for his hotel guests.
“The products have remarkable age, and for certain clients, it’s a product that is appreciated,” Dorsey said. “We keep it in the wine cooler.”
Another of Bhakta’s long-time friends, retired music licenser Jason Schneck, is also a stockholder.
“Raj has always worked toward good economic development for himself and for his community,” Schneck said. “I think the plans for the college he bought and for the town are very promising. And I think that the stockholder program and what he’s doing with the Armagnac, not only here but in France, is pretty amazing. In the WhistlePig days he reinvented the rye category, in my opinion. And I think he’s gonna reinvent the brandy category with Bhakta 50. I’m really happy to be part of it, and I think all my friends are very happy to be a part of it as well. I think it’s going to provide some good economic returns, hopefully, as an investment. And I think it’s also very cool to bring this old, old spirit back to market. And Raj, having had the success that he had with WhistlePig, I expect he’s gonna have great success with this as well.
In the same way that people plan vacations in Scotland to sample single malts, or to Kentucky to visit bourbon distilleries, Bhakta envisions the Green Mountain College campus as a tourist destination for lovers of Armagnac, brandies and other spirits.
“What we found with WhistlePig, and that a lot of the other distilleries here in the state have found, is that if you get folks up to Vermont — especially from the cities where you do most of your business, like New York or Boston — and show them what we’re doing here in this beautiful area, plus give them the chance to experience some of the outdoor recreation opportunities. Whether it’s skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, or hiking, boating and biking in the summer, it’s a way to engage people with your brand,” Gibson said. “And, frankly, it’s a lifestyle that’s complementary to the brand that appeals to the consumers we’re targeting.”
One part of Bhakta’s plan is the creation of a spirits library.
“Let’s say you have some friends visiting who are into spirits,” Bhakta said. “They could come here to the library on campus and taste different vintages going back to 1868. We have the world’s largest seamless collection of spirits, anchored in Armagnac but also in other categories. So if you want to taste World War II in a vintage, you’ll be able to get a sip of 1943 Armagnac. If you want to taste your birth year, you can taste that or buy a bottle. If you want to come up with a blend that has significant dates in the life of somebody, you can buy a bottle. You get the full experience of immersion into the world of spirits.”
Bhakta has already bought rum, scotch and bourbon for his library.
“It’s going to be a spirits paradise,” he said. “We’re going to have the best that the Earth has produced over the past century and a half.”
The luxury hotel, a big part of the plan, is now in the permitting stage.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done with federal and state permits,” attorney Gibson said. “We just obtained our federal distilled spirits plant permit for the campus. Once you have that in hand, you can go to the state and apply for permits. We’re going to have authority from the state to begin spirit production. We’ll have the warehousing and processing of spirits on campus.”
Some of the Shoreham bottling operations will also be moved to Poultney, Gibson said.
“We’ll do it as a complementary function, as well as it being one of the centerpieces of the redevelopment,” Gibson said. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity in a very unique location like this to tell the story of revival. Especially at the ultra-high end where we play, it’s about telling the story, about hospitality, and about giving people an experience unlike anything that they’ve seen.”
Bhakta hopes to have small classes begin in September of next year.
“Hopefully, we are under construction this year,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any issue from a permitting standpoint. But this is all happening as we speak.”
Looking back, Bhakta said he is satisfied with his life so far.
“From a financial standpoint, I’ve done well in life,” he said. “My first responsibility is, obviously to my kids. But there was no need for me to make any more money. And believe it or not, I’m not that financially motivated. I said to myself, ‘Well, what are you doing? You’re living in a country that’s ripping itself apart. In an education system that’s failing? And everybody recognizes that, but what are you doing?’ Here’s an opportunity to think big and be part of the solution.”
The romantic in him enjoys the idea of bringing back a failed institution.
“It appealed to me at a very fundamental level,” he said. “When I was a kid, I remember looking out the window and seeing a city decaying and falling apart. And I would always dream about what it would take, what it would be like, if I could be the one that could bring the city of Philadelphia back to life. I’ve always been attracted to the revival of good old things, whether it’s a city or Armagnac or rye whiskey, or in this case, a college campus. It makes me happy.”
Photo: Raj Bhakta, founder of Bhakta Spirits in the restored barn in Shoreham. Photo: Baldwin Photography
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.