Twenty-five fat, robust pigs mill about in open pens at a tiny farm in Woodward, Iowa, where they are being raised to taste of rye whiskey.
Small-batch distillery Templeton Rye is feeding them the mash it used to manufacture its distinctive brand of US whiskey, hoping that the rich taste of the grain will grab consumers’ attention.
Templeton is especially long on rye, with more than 90 percent of its mash coming from the high-protein grain and malted barley making up the remainder.
The spent mash is folded into the pig feed to comprise 20 percent of the ingredients, as advised by a swine nutrition specialist.
The pigs seem to like it, digging into their feed with happy grunts and snorts.
“It smells very good, almost like candy,” Templeton Rye Spirits founder and president Scott Bush said.
The distillery has chosen the Duroc pig to test out the new feed, a breed known for its distinctive auburn winter coat, succulence and heavy muscling.
Bush said the pigs were nearly at their ideal weight for human consumption — 95kg — with just a few weeks to go before heading to the slaughterhouse.
“How much mash is going to affect that taste [of the pork], we don’t know yet,” he said.
The possibility that a whiff of whiskey will arise from ham, ribs or chops has whetted the appetites of scores of pork lovers, as evidenced in the 200 orders from four countries that the distillery has already received, some of which were accompanied by long letters explaining why the customer desired one of the pigs.
The swine will be “shipped with head and feet” to customers for US$699 per animal, Bush said.
Aron Mackevicius, the executive chef at the 7M Grill in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of them. He enthusiastically described how he plans to cut up the pig and create a special menu with the meat, from appetizer to dessert.
“My family has a bakery and one of the specialties is the bacon bun,” he said.
The chef said he hoped the pig “has a bit of a rye flavor” that will make it unique.
“When I first heard about the project I was excited that somebody was taking such a bold move, a very intriguing concept,” Mackevicius said.
Bush said the idea sprang up one night as the team chatted over glasses of Templeton Rye.
“All of us are from Iowa” — the No. 1 pork producing state in the country — “but we also go all around the country to these gastro-culinary events, and the culinary world is still dominated by wine, but it is changing, especially with whiskey,” Bush said. “The idea was that we are going to ask chefs to pair the pigs with cocktails of Templeton Rye.”
Their whiskey is based on the recipe used by bootleggers in the tiny town of Templeton during the Prohibition era, the nearly 14-year period when alcoholic beverages were banned nationwide starting in 1920.
Templeton Rye was the drink of choice of Chicago mobster and bootlegger Al Capone, Bush said.
“As it was illegal, there are not a lot of documents, but a lot of oral history,” he said, including from Capone’s great-niece. “Capone mostly sold Canadian whiskey, but what he was drinking with friends was Templeton Rye.”
It is this heritage the distillery wants to share by extending it through the pigs-to-plate project.
The project is “break-even for the company,” but above all, it is “more of an experiment,” Bush said, leaving the door open to repeating the innovation.