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‘Spirit’ is willing as distiller vows to make world’s best rum here

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of January 12, 2023)
Photo of Bhakta Spirits founder and owner Raj Bhakta.

An entrepreneur with a colorful background and stellar career as a craft distiller has enthusiastic county support for a “farm to bottle” rum distilling operation that he says will produce the finest “ultra-premium” rum, starting with hundreds of barrels of white rum in 2024.

Located on a historic 900-acre ranch on Route 60 four miles west of I-95, Bhakta Spirits will grow its own sugarcane, ferment and distill the cane juice, age the rum in wooden casks and then bottle and sell it, controlling the entire process from planting cane to pouring the first drink.

“This will be the first farm to bottle [rum distilling operation] in the country and we will make the best rum in the world, right here in Indian River County,” said company founder and owner Raj Bhakta.

The “best rum the world” boast sounds like something any ambitious entrepreneur might say, but the bold claim of Bhakta, 47, who moved to Vero from Vermont in 2017, living first on the island and then at the ranch where sugarcane is already growing, is backed up by an exceptional track record in craft distilling.

One example: Investors pay as much as $40,000 for early bottles of WhistlePig, a rye whiskey brand Bhakta started and built into a billion-dollar business, before exiting the company a wealthy man in 2018.

According to the site plan approved by the county, Bhakta’s distillery development here will occupy 173 acres of the 900-acre Whiteface Ranch, located midway between the outlet mall and route 512, on the north side of route 60.

It will include cane fields, fruit fields for future brandy production, a 5,600-square-foot distillery, a 7,200-square-foot bottling plant, 42,000 square feet of barrel storage barns, office and equipment buildings, guard shacks, employee housing, guest cottages and a tasting room – all built with farm-style architecture.

The guest cottages will be for the use of high-end bar owners, restaurateurs and wholesale liquor distributors invited to the ranch to soak up a sense of the alchemy that turns a humble field crop into an intoxicating spirit, as Bhakta leverages the beauty of the land to build his brand.

“We want to bring them into an authentic ranch and farm experience, so they can see we are more than just distillers,” to build relationships and brand loyalty, Bhakta said.

Horseback riding, airboat rides and maybe a day at the beach will be part of the experience intended to make visitors into not just customers but brand ambassadors who have a positive personal connection to Obadiah rum – the name Bhakta has chosen.

“It is a different world out here,” said Bhakta, who plans to break ground this year and be filling bottles with clear, fiery spirits in 2024.

He said early, straight-from-the-still liquor will go for $30 to $50 per bottle, while later batches aged for years in wooden barrels on the ranch will be much more valuable with potential to appreciate like his WhistlePig whiskey.

County officials are delighted with Bhakta’s plan for a single-estate, farm-based distillery that brings a marque project to the county and perpetuates the area’s agricultural heritage.

“It is a fabulous project for Indian River County,” says chief of current planning Ryan Sweeney.

“First and foremost, it is an ag-based industry,” added Phil Matson, director of community development. “A lot of what we are worried about west of the interstate is sprawl. This is 900 acres that won’t be rooftops. It’s also a tech business, bringing in experienced distillers who make good money. For us, it checks all the boxes – the anti-sprawl box, the ag box, the economic development box.

“It isn’t an environmental project exactly, but it is very low impact when compared with sinking hundreds of wells and septic systems for a subdivision and it contributes to our ecotourism, with buyers coming in from around the world,” Matson said. “The developer has a brilliant business mind and some very innovative ideas.”

The project site plan and a special use exception were enthusiastically approved by all five county commissioners who called the project “wonderful,” “awesome” and “very exciting” – and also inquired more than once when samples would be available.

The special use exception was to allow an ag-related industry – the distillery – in an area zoned exclusively for agriculture.

Bhakta, who is lionized by the liquor industry press and major publications alike as a master of his craft and a bit of a wizard, stumbled into his success after a checkered early career.

Born in Philadelphia, educated at Boston College, he worked in finance and real estate before appearing as a contestant in the second season of “The Apprentice,” where he stood out for witty comments and his attempt to woo a fellow contestant on air, according to press accounts.

The girl turned him down and Donald Trump fired him in the ninth week, but he apparently was unfazed by the rejections.

Shortly after his stint on the high-rated show he launched an upstart bid for congress in Pennsylvania’s 13th district.

His 2006 campaign drew national attention at times, as when he crossed the Rio Grande on an elephant to highlight immigration problems at the southern border, but he was trounced by Democratic incumbent Allyson Schwartz, winning only 34 percent of the vote.

It was after that defeat that he had the epiphany that launched his distilling career.

“I was alone and broke on a farm in Vermont in the middle of nowhere, not sure what to do next, when it occurred to me the [failed dairy] farm could be used to grow grain to make whiskey,” Bhakta told Vero Beach 32963 last week.

He jumpstarted WhistlePig by acquiring a big batch of Canadian rye whiskey that had been sitting undisturbed in barrels for decades and blend it with his own product.

A bit of a marketing genius, he attracted the talents of legendary master-distiller Dave Pickerell, known as the Johnny Appleseed of the American craft whiskey movement. Together the two men are “credited with spearheading the resurgence of American rye whiskey,” according to, transforming a poor man’s – or pirate’s – cheap, high-octane liquor to a top-shelf superstar spirit.                                                                     

Expanding rapidly, Bhakta took on some high-powered financial partners with whom he later clashed. The financiers tried unsuccessfully to force him out of the company he created but he stood his ground and stayed on the board until 2018 when he sold his stake and moved on to his next and current venture – Bhakta Spirits.

Flush with WhistlePig millions, he launched Bhakta Spirts by buying a chateau in southern France that had a cellar full of aged Armagnac brandy, some of dating back to the 1860s.

As at WhistlePig and here in Indian River County, he created a farm-based crop growing and distilling operation on another Vermont farm, blending the ultra-rare French brandy with his own product, producing a beverage the Robb report called “exquisite.”

More prosaic, Esquire called the brandy it sampled, “Hands down, the best booze to drink right now.”

Forbes said, “This is a superb brandy – layered, nuanced, bursting with flavor. It is extraordinarily old, yet still manages to retain a freshness and fruitiness that belies its age.”

Bottles of Bhakta brandy sell for hundreds of dollars retail, and Bhakta said he has captured 30 percent to 40 percent of the Armagnac market in the U.S. in a couple of quick years. He thinks he and his sizable sales staff are only about one-third of the way to market saturation, having Bhakta brandy in “all the places it should be.”

Besides brandy, Bhakta Spirits makes Bourbon and other liquors, including, soon, Obadiah rum – and maybe tequila.

Bhakta was in Mexico this week, looking for stashes or sources of tequila and mescal to buy up and bring home to make another potion that mints money.

“I like finding something rare and exquisite that other people have failed to see the value in,” Bhakta told Forbes in a 2020 interview.

The visionary farmer and distiller purchased the Whiteface Ranch in 2019 for $5.9 million.

Bhakta Spirits chief council Leo Gibson told the county commission that for decades the farmland was a flower-growing operation started by a dutchman who got stranded in the U.S. during the Second World War. After that it was a cattle ranch, owned most recently by Vero Beach real estate investor Aurelio Fernandez, who sold it to Bhakta.

Gibson told commissioners there won’t be a bar at the ranch but there will be a tasting room and tours offered to locals on a limited basis, in addition to the elite liquor buyers who come to stay in the guest cottages.