Today we have a Master of Malt exclusive, a 59.7% ABV single cask WhistlePig bottled for the now-defunct Pitt Cue BBQ joint. We talk to Pitt Cue founder, Jamie Berger, about rye whiskey, his Southern roots and the possible return of his much-loved restaurant.
You wouldn’t guess it from his accent which is 100% English, but Jamie Berger is 50% American. His mother is from Atlanta, Georgia. On visits to the States, he picked up a love of BBQ. No, not burning things in your garden over hot coals, but the slow cooking technique used in parts of the US, particularly the South. “It’s blue collar food”, Berger told me, “it’s long slow cooking times using smoke to break down collagen, and taking cheaper cuts and rendering them delicious through cooking process.” Berger started a company, Pitt Cue, selling BBQ to Londoners from a food van in 2011. At the time, he said, “nobody had heard of pulled pork. Now, it’s in supermarkets.” The van became a restaurant in Soho and successful cookbook. Along with BBQ, Berger had a taste for American whiskey. He joked that he picked this up from his mother “who drinks a lot.”
As with the pulled pork, American whiskey, beyond the big brands, was something of a novelty back in 2011. “It was hard to find anyone who knew anything about American whiskey. I was particularly interested in rye which you couldn’t find”, Berger said. So he would go to America, taste whiskey and buy a barrel to sell in his restaurant, “I’ve done one with Evan Williams, a 10 year old, and Eagle Rare, also a 10 year old, and two with WhistlePig, labelled as a 10 but the liquids inside were older. We would use it as house whiskey, if you wanted a rye Old Fashioned, it would be Pitt Cue own label”. One time, he told us, “I got snowed in Vermont at WhistlePig”, which sounds like every whiskey lover’s dream.
Meanwhile, Berger was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by Tavern Restaurants. “We sold the business in late 2015,” he said, “for three years I worked for the acquirers to stop me setting up rival business.” The new owners closed the Soho restaurant and moved the business to Devonshire Square in the City. Sadly, things did not go according to plan, and in June this year, Pitt Cue was no more.
This meant, however, that there was some whiskey left unsold which Master of Malt has acquired. It’s a special single cask 10 year old (though Berger says the true age is closer to 12) bottled at a healthy 59.7% ABV. “I’m looking for a unique expression”, Berger said, “I like spicy whiskey.” As you’d expect from a BBQ restaurant, it’s all about big flavours.
Despite the demise of Pitt Cue, Berger is still barbecuing. We spoke to him just before Thanksgiving where he put some of the old team back together for a one-off event. Apparently it sold out in three hours. He’s also bought back the intellectual property so, at some point, the Pitt Cue name will return (see website for more details). Though at the moment, it’s likely to be limited to pop-ups: “I’m in no rush to open another brick and mortar site in the current climate,” Berger said, “the restaurant market is not going through bumper boom period.” But at least while we wait, there’s always this special WhistlePig Rye to keep us amused.
Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt
Nose: Marzipan and mint chocolate, with spicy oak, butterscotch and candied orange.
Palate: Warming and spicy, with a hefty dose of allspice, dark chocolate and melted brown sugar, with honeycomb alongside spicy rye.
Finish: Cherry jam, buttery caramel and toasty oak.