WhistlePig Founder Raj Bhakta's Purchase of Green Mountain College Places Poultney's Fate in His Hands | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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WhistlePig Founder Raj Bhakta's Purchase of Green Mountain College Places Poultney's Fate in His Hands 

Published December 2, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel

There's no mistaking who owns Raj Bhakta's farm. The roof of the tallest barn on his Shoreham property broadcasts his surname in enormous red letters. Last year, the WhistlePig Whiskey founder purchased these remnants of a merino sheep farm, which sit behind a 220-year-old, honey-hued farmhouse along North Orwell Road that a previous owner rebuilt. This year, Bhakta set about renovating the barns, as well. "Poultney slate," he noted of the new roof.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September, but Bhakta, who turns 45 this week, was dressed for the weekend. His blue NASA T-shirt, peppermint-striped shorts and Nike sneakers projected the laid-back look of someone who wouldn't be coming home streaked with dirt or grass stains. He was walking and talking along a large swath of sod that he had laid over the summer in time to host his annual Fourth of July party, complete with professional fireworks, a New York choir and inflatable bounce houses for the kids.

This year's festivity doubled as a product launch. BHAKTA 50 — all caps, like the roof — is an aged brandy that Bhakta purchased from southwest France, then blends, finishes and bottles in his barns. The $300-per-bottle liquor is the first he's released since leaving WhistlePig last year. He's marketing limited batches directly to consumers, pitching his bottles as "appreciating assets" that will be worth tens of thousands of dollars over time. Each one comes with a hardbound booklet that tells the liquor's story — and his own.

When Bhakta started WhistlePig in 2010, he was a fading reality TV goof who'd flirted with Donald Trump's assistant as a contestant on "The Apprentice," and then tried to exploit his marginal notoriety for a congressional run in a district outside of Philadelphia. During his campaign, he put on his then-signature bow tie and rode a circus elephant into the Rio Grande, a mariachi band playing alongside him, ostensibly to highlight a need for more border security. His BHAKTA 50 booklet says the escapade was inspired by "an entire bottle of tequila."

Bhakta carried his eccentric, at times reckless, behavior with him to WhistlePig. There, though, he found success. The company created and cornered a high-end market for aged rye whiskey, initially by blending Canadian liquors at a farm four miles north of the new Bhakta property.

His clever approach established the brand while he simultaneously embarked on the more ambitious process of planting Vermont rye and distilling and aging the whiskey. Just as the business took off, WhistlePig's investors sought to oust Bhakta, alleging shady financial practices and drunken misdeeds. A no-holds-barred power struggle ensued, and Bhakta eventually left the company with an undisclosed fortune in hand.

The payday allowed him to start his new spirits enterprise unbeholden to investors. Across the street from the barns, a small vineyard is already rooted, surrounded by acres of dirt that Bhakta has cleared of thick brush.

Bhakta said the company is an expression of his long-held passion for restoration, which to him is also a social imperative to return to the land. Long a fan of larger-than-life historic figures Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte, Bhakta waxes philosophical about Thomas Jefferson's ideal of the yeoman farmer and the virtues of honest work.

"Deep in my bones," he said, "I love the idea of taking things that were failing and broken and bringing them back."

In July, with his barns finished and his new brandy ready to ship, Bhakta became intrigued by a different sort of fixer-upper. His best friend and longtime personal lawyer, Leo Gibson, sent him an advisory for a live auction of Green Mountain College, which closed in 2019 under financial pressure from declining enrollment. The 155-acre campus, the economic and cultural center of Poultney for nearly two centuries, had become a ghost town.

Bhakta went to the auction in August and bested two others with his $4.55 million bid. Shortly thereafter, he floated vague plans to reopen the campus as an agriculturally focused work college where students could graduate with little debt. He's aiming to have some students back on campus next year.

click to enlarge The Green Mountain College campus in Poultney - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • The Green Mountain College campus in Poultney

The future of Poultney, population 3,300, is riding on it. Green Mountain College's closure cost the town more than 150 jobs and hundreds of students. A few Main Street businesses shuttered soon after the announcement, adding to a list of casualties in recent years. Poultney also lost a theater, shop space, and the renewable supply of ingenuity that college students and faculty lent the community.

While residents were relieved that the campus sold and ecstatic about the prospect of its revival as a college, some feared Bhakta's outsize persona might loom over town. Poultney Rotary Club president Mandy Mitnik worried that the hard-charging new owner might be "a Great Gatsby kind of a guy," referring to the opulent, irrepressible figure from F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic novel whose desire becomes destructive.

In other words: Is this guy for real?

Bhakta says he is driven by noble intentions and has put his drunken escapades behind him. One of his uncles died in January, and in April, Bhakta said, he felt chest pains and feared he might be having a heart attack. He wasn't, but the reminders of mortality left him contemplating what his personal "highest and best use" might be.

"I thought, You might drop dead, so what are you doing with your life? You're just going to go create a couple spirits companies and make a billion dollars or $10 billion and join the other ranks of the graveyards of the world that are full of rich and indispensable men?"

That's when he learned about the auction.

"I decided, Well, what the hell, let's take a look at it."

'See Raj Run'

click to enlarge Raj Bhakta - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Raj Bhakta

The son of an Indian father and Irish mother, Bhakta grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb. His family ran car dealerships and hotels, enabling him to attend the elite Hill School as a teenager, where Donald Trump Jr. was his younger schoolmate.

Bhakta then studied history and economics at Boston College, graduating in 1998 before starting a tech company focused on valuing used cars. It didn't go anywhere, and he fell into the family business as a partner in a Holiday Inn project in West Vail, Colo.

Bhakta didn't particularly enjoy working with his dad, he's said in media interviews over the years. In Bhakta's tellings, his boarding school friend and college roommate Henry Harper — now of high-end Tata Harper Skincare, based in Whiting — suggested he audition for "The Apprentice," the elder Donald Trump's entrepreneurial reality show, which debuted in early 2004, as a way to move on.

Harper talked up his peculiar friend to the ski town newspaper after he was cast for the second season. Bhakta, Harper told Vail Daily, could recite Napoleon's speeches by age 16 and sported bow ties and a walking cane. "One of the most fascinating, distinctive things that Raj has is his paradoxical nature," he said. "He's very old-fashioned in terms of traditional constructs, but at the same time he's a guy who will ride his Harley-Davidson 130 miles per hour through Wyoming, will ride wild horses with me in Colombia in the jungle..."

A restaurant manager in the Bhaktas' hotel was more to the point: "Raj is a pretty boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he's very intelligent," he told Vail Daily.

Bhakta thrived on the reality show, his personality a caricature of the preppy businessman who drops a pickup line during a job interview. Trump fired him on the ninth episode, in front of roughly 16 million viewers; Bhakta asked for his assistant's phone number on the way out.

In the following months, Bhakta ventured into Republican politics, beginning with an advocacy group he dubbed the Coalition for Advancement of the Republic. Wearing a bow tie and a banker stripe shirt, he moderated a panel on Social Security reform at the Young Republicans National Convention in 2005.

The following year he decided to run for U.S. Congress in the suburban district where he grew up. Against a strong Democratic incumbent, former representative Allyson Schwartz, Bhakta put together a platform that hit the same notes that Trump would ride to an insurgent victory 10 years later, with slogans like "Save the Northeast" and an emphasis on crime and border security.

Most observers didn't take his campaign seriously, especially after it came to light that the 30-year-old candidate had twice been arrested for DUI, in Massachusetts and Colorado. The shoestring campaign operated out of a conference room in a Best Western hotel his family owned.

Bhakta's craving for the spotlight seemed to overshadow his policy convictions. Bhakta hired a crew to film his every move — "See Raj Run" videos are still on YouTube — and reportedly promised to host an "Apprentice"-style contest to determine which intern he'd hire as a congressional staffer.

Raymond Smalley was 23 when he worked for the campaign. Smalley's job, he recalled, was to generate buzz for Bhakta online, especially through the bubbling political blogosphere, the mid-aughts predecessor to today's online fever swamps.

On most days, Smalley said, the campaign seemed to be shooting from the hip. When then-senator Joe Biden said on camera that you couldn't go into a Dunkin' Donuts or a 7-Eleven in Delaware "unless you have a slight Indian accent," Smalley managed to score Bhakta an appearance on the conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt's syndicated radio show to react to Biden's comment.

The next day, Bhakta dropped by the conference room. "Raj came in, sat down on the edge of my desk, and he's like, 'How do we do more with this?'" Smalley recalled.

The "7-Eleven challenge" was born. Bhakta stood in front of a convenience store and filmed an ad seeking $7.11 donations to commemorate Biden's "silly" comment.

Bhakta drew even more attention for his elephantine stunt on the Texas-Mexico border, which would become a canonical episode in his personal mythology. That stunt's aggrandizing absurdity obscured an earlier moment on the trip when Bhakta and his cameraman tried to confront two men whom they'd witnessed wading across the Rio Grande and into the United States.

"Señor! Señor!" the sunglasses and polo-wearing candidate called out to the shirtless men, who kept walking as Bhakta's staffer pointed his camera at their faces.

In the homestretch of the losing campaign, Bhakta bombarded voters with robocalls featuring a sobbing, unnamed woman who claimed she had had an unwanted abortion at a clinic his opponent once headed. Schwartz's staff condemned the calls, saying Bhakta's campaign had "no decency and no shame."

Asked about that assessment, Smalley, who no longer works in politics, let out a long laugh. "Sounds about right," he said.

Bhakta got trounced, earning just 34 percent of the vote, but he continued to look for a political platform. In 2008 he started a blog — Go America Go! — that called itself "an organization dedicated to educating today's youth about American exceptionalism."

The long-defunct site, accessible through an internet archive, featured Bhakta's screeds about the "socialist" threat to the country, which would lead only to "managed decline and pathetic emasculation." He called upon the words of Jefferson to promote the "tempestuous sea of liberty" and praised Trump's protectionist policy prescriptions at a time when the reality TV host was better known for promoting the false "birther" conspiracy about then-president Barack Obama's citizenship.

Though Bhakta was unable to transform his own blend of showmanship and populism into a political career, he found in them the seeds of a different, more lucrative, sort of brand.

'Boss Hog'

click to enlarge Raj and Danhee Bhakta on campus - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Raj and Danhee Bhakta on campus

Down on his luck after his failed congressional bid, Bhakta again took the advice of his longtime friend Harper, who by 2007 was living in the Champlain Valley. Harper, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, suggested the Green Mountains would help ground him, Bhakta later told Worth magazine.

Bhakta bought farmland in Shoreham and figured out what to do next. He also reconnected with a friend, Wilco Faessen, from an early-career stint at a New York City investment banking firm.

Bhakta and Faessen created a series of entities under the name GoAmericaGo to explore business opportunities in alcohol, an industry in which Faessen had experience.

They looked at beer, vodka and a shooter drink they called Petro, but scrapped each pursuit. By late 2009, Bhakta was out of money and getting desperate. He needed a concept that could generate profit quickly. Aided by $375,000 in loans from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, Bhakta purchased barrels of aged rye whiskey, then an obscure niche, from Canada, to bottle it, he later said in a deposition, with a "cool name and a great package."

It worked. By the end of 2010, Whistle-Pig's high-priced rye was moving off shelves in New York City and Chicago, allowing the company to "effectively break even" during its first six months, the company reported.

WhistlePig, actually a term for a groundhog, embraced a brash, porcine persona, with releases such as Boss Hog. The company kept two Kunekune hog mascots, Mauve and Mortimer, who joined Bhakta at public events in New York City.

WhistlePig won some local admirers, including Magic Hat Brewing cofounder Alan Newman, who credits Bhakta with recognizing and capitalizing on an overlooked opportunity. Bhakta also projected WhistlePig as a craft distillery, with plans to create a farm-to-bottle product from rye grown on the company farms and aged in barrels made with Vermont lumber. "The whole story about building the farmhouse distillery was engaging," Newman said, "and, I thought, was a great way to build that brand."

But Bhakta's farm-to-bottle product didn't become reality for years, held up in part by a protracted regulatory dispute with his neighbors. Bhakta built out WhistlePig without seeking an Act 250 permit, and neighboring farmers George Gross and Barbara Wilson worried that mold spores from aging whiskey barrels would spoil their berry crops. Gross and Wilson accused WhistlePig of "egregiously dodging" the state's landmark land-use rules while building a multimillion-dollar "whiskey importing" company. Bhakta contended that the business should fall under the state's agriculture exemption.

He lost: WhistlePig paid a $19,000 fine and agreed to limits on its storage capacity.

Bhakta's presence proved divisive in small-town Vermont. While many respected the economic activity he brought to Addison County, others didn't trust him.

To Steve Belanus, the owner of Cornwall Auto Body, his onetime customer carried himself like a "king." Several years ago, the two got into a dispute over the agreed-upon price for restoration work on Bhakta's vintage black Cadillac.

"We tried to discuss it politely," Belanus said. Bhakta "was so arrogant, I told him if he didn't leave, he'd have to pick himself off the floor and leave."

Bhakta recalled "being charged more than the agreed price for a job."

An elderly couple sued Bhakta in 2015, alleging that he had bulldozed a road through woods that they refused to sell him. Jeanne and Jon Whitaker alleged in court filings that they'd rejected his request twice — first when he stopped by their house, and again the next day when they went to WhistlePig headquarters to reiterate their position because Bhakta had appeared drunk during the first encounter. Bhakta testified that he'd never asked to purchase their land because he believed he owned it. He also countersued them.

"The credibility of Mr. Bhakta is the central issue that the jury will decide," the Whitakers' attorneys wrote in an August 2016 filing. The parties settled later that month. Bhakta told Seven Days he had "nothing to do" with the bulldozing.

In one bizarre episode, Bhakta reported being kidnapped by two men he was only trying to help. The men knocked on Bhakta's door in the middle of a cold winter night in 2013 and asked for a hand retrieving a stuck vehicle. On the way, the men accused him of making a sexual advance on one of their ex-girlfriends during a job interview, a claim the woman later told police was untrue.

Sensing a setup, Bhakta jumped out of the moving truck in his "Vermont flannel pajamas" before a confrontation in a field, a police report detailed.

"Maybe 3 minutes after the point that I realized I had been kidnapped, I attempted to strike a meaningful blow on my assailant, but his accomplice shows up on my flank," Bhakta said in a statement to police. "Not knowing if he was armed, I pulled back into a purely defensive position. The accomplice asked his thug friend to 'fucking flatten him (being me).'"

The men, Bhakta alleged, called him a "rich mother fucker"who thinks he "owns this town." One of the men was convicted of felony unlawful restraint and was sentenced to prison time.

Drinking has fueled some of Bhakta's misadventures. While running WhistlePig, Bhakta racked up at least two more DUI charges and one boating while intoxicated charge between 2012 and 2015.

Yet Bhakta has never been convicted of drunk driving, only of lesser misdemeanors. Following the two more recent DUI arrests, including a wreck where he flipped his car and broke his hip, he denied the DUI charges and declined to submit to blood-alcohol tests. Today he admits to excessive drinking only in general terms.

"I have drank too much at times in my life, and it's gotten me into trouble," he said. Bhakta said he removed alcohol from his daily life a couple years ago: "I taste, but I don't drink."

By 2016, however, Bhakta's investors, including Faessen, wanted Bhakta out of the way. The board orchestrated his ouster, but Bhakta refused to step aside. He sued them, which spilled the dispute into public view. Bhakta saw himself as being in a "state of war," he later said in a deposition.

Bhakta had hired a Columbia University grad named Danhee Kim as his assistant in 2011. The two soon became romantically involved and later married, continuing to work together. WhistlePig's investors accused Bhakta of secretly granting Danhee a stake in the company when he hired her.

They also accused him of intermingling the company with his personal property and misallocating funds. They accused him of spending $28,000 at a European bordello on a company credit card, and then lying about the trip. Bhakta, who declined to comment on other aspects of the case, insisted in a joint interview with his wife last month that he was merely a victim of fraud.

"I didn't approve those charges," he said. "I was there; it turned out to be a bordello. And they got my credit card and started running it like hotcakes."

Bhakta eventually stepped down as a managing member of the company as part of the litigation settlement. He continued to own 30 percent of its shares, Bhakta testified in 2017, and worked for a time as "chief steward of the brand." By early 2019, he had sold his stake and no longer had any association with WhistlePig.

Later that year, Bhakta acknowledges, he showed up at his former company with a shotgun and fired a shell into the air.

A redacted police report matching the incident describes a gun-toting former employee as being "extremely intoxicated" at the time and said employees talked him into going home.

Bhakta denies he was drunk, saying he showed up to invite former coworkers to a bonfire. "It was all in good Vermont country farm-life fun," he said.

The company did not respond to a request for comment, but Bhakta acknowledged that WhistlePig banned him from the property.

Raj Resurrected

click to enlarge Bhakta brandy - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Bhakta brandy

As things worsened at WhistlePig, Bhakta, his wife and their children moved to Florida, where they have family connections, to escape the bitterness that had consumed their life in Vermont. "It was very emotional for us," he said. "We built that company together from the farm. Our kids were raised on that farm."

Shortly after cashing out of WhistlePig last year, Bhakta bought a 1,000-acre ranch in Vero Beach, Fla. The property is in a designated "opportunity zone," an impoverished area where wealthy individuals can get tax incentives for reinvesting capital gains.

At the same time, Bhakta went looking for a new project. The search took him to French spirits company Maison Ryst-Dupeyron, whose portfolio includes cellars full of vintage Armagnac, a regional brandy, dating as far back as 1868. He bought the company's Armagnac division and started shipping barrels across the Atlantic.

The entrepreneur launched BHAKTA 50 on the Fourth of July with his typical flair, pandemic notwithstanding. Bhakta, who is Catholic, invited the head of the Vermont diocese, Bishop Christopher Coyne, to bless his new business venture and the Shoreham barns that house it.

After Coyne completed the ritual, the bishop told Seven Days, Bhakta asked him to sit in on a performance. Coyne, who was dressed in liturgical vestments, complete with a cross hanging on his chest, said he didn't quite know what he was getting into.

What the bishop was getting into was a raucous online ad for Bhakta's reemergence as an irreverent spirits maven. The nearly four-minute skit features eight men in white robes and parliamentary wigs (plus Coyne and one of Bhakta's four children) debating the relative merits of whiskey versus brandy.

Brandy, of course, wins the day. Coyne is shown raising an arm to proclaim something before the shot cuts to BHAKTA 50 being bottled. The message "Buy now and decide for yourself" flashes across the screen.

In a brief interview, Coyne was quick to say he didn't intend to promote Bhakta's brandy, or even drinking. "I just thought it was a harmless bit of fun," he said.

The celebration spilled over into an Independence Day barbecue, though Coyne said he ducked out. "Some people weren't being careful about wearing masks and stuff, so I said, OK, it's time for me to leave," he recalled. The bishop drove home with a souvenir bottle of brandy.

A party under an enormous tent followed, with about 70 friends, neighbors and spirits promoters from around the country. Francesca Scorsese, the 21-year-old actress and daughter of director Martin Scorsese, posted photos with the hashtag #bhaktafarms.

One neighbor, Matt Saville, said the outdoor celebration featured a choir and bounce houses for kids, as well as fireworks. "He sure knows how to throw a party," he said of Bhakta.

Saville said their families have hit it off since the Bhaktas introduced themselves. They have children of similar ages, and Bhakta sometimes invites Saville to join him on walks along their properties. He describes the businessman as energetic and exciting. The website for Bhakta's new farms quips that it's "likely that we're going to tick off the neighbors," but Saville said he appreciates the renewed activity and investment down the road.

"He likes the term 'revivalist,' and I feel like that fits him to a T," Saville said.

Bhakta said he settled on the concept while putting together promotional material for his brandy. The 52-page booklet says the BHAKTA brand is about "reviving farming in America," beginning with his own properties. The liquor, with its blends of history-spanning vintages, imparts the same spirit, Bhakta writes.

"This bottle is a monument to Revival," he continues. "These spirits herein were born, lived and were forgotten. Long have they lain in the cave ... Now they are risen."

He's pitching BHAKTA 50 as a mindset in a bottle, enticing prospective customers with promises of an "exquisite" product. Customers can join Bhakta's Revivalist Society, or a recently introduced "stockholder" program, which costs $19,000 and guarantees the buyer two bottles from each barrel he releases — one to taste and one to save.

In a recent interview conducted with one of his children on his lap, Bhakta claimed the bottles will be worth at least $10,000 in time and that he purchased 10 for his mother as an investment. (Ryst-Dupeyron's 1868 vintage Armagnac currently ships online in Europe for the equivalent of about $5,300.)

Just before the July launch, Bhakta made an appearance on Tucker Carlson's primetime Fox News program to expound on his message of rural rejuvenation. The segment began with Carlson speaking over video of a New York City Police Department cruiser that protesters had set ablaze.

"You may be dreaming about moving out of the city to somewhere pastoral, to rural America. Raj Peter Bhakta did that," Carlson said.

Bhakta appeared by teleconference, a bottle of his soon-to-be-released brandy featured in the camera frame.

"People have got a conception that moving out to the country reduces opportunity," he said, "but if you've got an optimistic, revival, positive mentality, you can find a niche, like I did."

Besides the new vineyards in Shoreham, Bhakta plans to grow sugarcane in Vero Beach to use one day for a rum product, and he recently bought an apple orchard in the Champlain Valley for use in apple brandy. Bhakta seems to be finding opportunity everywhere he looks.

In mid-August, after the notion of restarting a college had percolated for a few weeks, Bhakta walked outside the Withey Hall dining room, where the Green Mountain College auction was held, as the historic campus' soon-to-be owner. His winning bid was less than a quarter of the site's $20 million appraised value.

Wearing white pants and a green T-shirt that read "BOOKNERD" in the form of a Vermont license plate, he flashed a big smile at a WCAX-TV camera crew and promised "to do great things in Poultney and Vermont and in America."

College Try

Green Mountain College is one of a handful of small Vermont colleges to close in the last two years, but it was perhaps the most distinctive. The brick, federal-style Ames Hall stands elegantly at the head of Poultney's Main Street, and on the greens around it, students learned in unconventional ways. They turned lawns into organic gardens, invested in sustainable energy and sang Welsh language hymns in a renowned college choir. Commencements were a town-wide affair, as tasseled students walked through Main Street to the college green.

On a recent November afternoon, the campus was empty and eerily preserved. Banners on light posts still touted the former school's ranking, and ethos, as "first in sustainability." Leaves were piled in neat rings around the trees that dot the quads; the grass was freshly mowed.

Raj and Danhee were standing around a couple of red barns in a far corner of campus watching their children ride horses in a small pen. They took their youngest to one of the barns and called out to an assistant for a diaper change, and then led a Seven Days reporter through a darkened building to his second-floor office. Portraits of former college figureheads hung from one wall, and against another stood a beautiful display hutch lined with old books and BHAKTA 50 bottles.

Bhakta has introduced his plans as a rough idea for a "work college," where students perform practical labor as part of their studies. Some higher education institutions, including Sterling College in Craftsbury, incorporate such a model. Bhakta's vision is much more ambitious and very experimental, even commune-like. He imagines transforming the 22-building campus into an intergenerational learning community for preschoolers to seniors.

Someday, at least. With the help of a local teacher, Danhee has started a small homeschool for the family's kids, which she hopes will serve as the germ for a forward-thinking community school. Raj has talked about turning one of the old dorms into housing for "active seniors" but said plans aren't certain.

Next year's offering, if there is one, would be modest, Bhakta said. He intends to launch with a short, perhaps "one-year postgraduate program" that trains enrollees about the ins and outs of the alcohol business as he knows it.

"There's nothing dedicated to the business of beverage alcohol, which is booming, which has its particularities and which we're masters of," he said. "And if I can impart that knowledge to young people who can be part of the revival, the regeneration of this campus and surrounding areas in beverage alcohol, that would be an amazing first step."

Bhakta doesn't sound particularly interested in seeking accreditation for his new school, saying the people he's spoken with "in the accredited world" have urged him to focus instead "on the education itself and giving your students all the tools to kick ass."

Bhakta thinks of the program as a "fellowship" in which students complete internships at companies across Vermont's bustling craft distilling and brewing scene, including at Bhakta Farms, while also pursuing some liberal arts studies. He plans to teach some of the courses himself.

Interns have figured prominently over the course of Bhakta's careers, beginning in his days as a congressional candidate. He once told Yankee magazine that WhistlePig's first bottling line took place on two picnic tables in a barn with the help of "four Middlebury students who liked weed." Interns who've excelled have gained spots in Bhakta's inner orbit.

Johnathan Page started out as a WhistlePig intern in 2017, during which time he got WhistlePig's "WP" logo tattooed on his middle finger. Today his job title is Bhakta's aide-de-camp, a French military term for a general's assistant. This year, Bhakta Farms employed interns in viniculture and marketing, drawing them with job postings such as "Spirits Baron Seeks Historian."

Bhakta is keeping the Green Mountain College name for now and plans to structure it as a nonprofit. He doesn't yet have any board members lined up.

Linked to the college, he said, will be an array of Green Mountain College brands — for-profit companies, including Bhakta Spirits — that he'll eventually run as B Corporations, a designation for socially conscious businesses. Those companies will in turn pump some profit back into the college.

As with Bhakta's liquor brands, the college's initial entry into the industry won't quite reflect his longer-term vision. But Bhakta also knows the power of a good story.

"I think what the novel piece is," he said, "is that the actual sales component and the marketing component is going to be deeply interwoven into the education of the students. Because that's the biggest problem.

"I'm not telling you it's easy to be a farmer," he continued. "I'm not telling you it's easy to grow great produce, but the much tougher thing is finding a market and being able to serve it."

Greatest Show in Poultney

click to enlarge Chuck Colvin - DEREK BROUWER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • Chuck Colvin

The college's shuttering "changed the complexion of the town completely," said longtime resident Chuck Colvin. Some staff and faculty have moved away. The longer-term livelihoods of many who remain are pinned to renewed activity on campus.

"That's their only hope, frankly," Colvin said.

Colvin and his wife, Kate, have owned the three-story Journal Press building on Main Street for decades; it long housed the family printing business. They sold the business, and it eventually shut down. The Colvins have since converted the building into a small business center, which also houses artist studios and educational space.

Theirs is but one of the ways Poultney residents have adapted to economic and social change. Public and private benefactors get things done in Poultney, whether that's lighting sidewalks or starting the community arts center, Stone Valley Arts.

Hundreds turned out for a series of brainstorming sessions convened last year by the Vermont Council on Rural Development in response to the closure. They came up with an action plan to help "revitalize" the community, based on priorities such as wooing a bank and expanding the bikes and trails network.

In September, a couple of recent Green Mountain College graduates opened a nonprofit maker space, REclaimED, just off Main Street in a long-vacant metalworks facility. The name pays homage to the college's Renewable Energy & Ecological Design program, of which cofounders Carl Diethelm and Danny Lang are alumni.

On a recent tour of the partially developed space, Lang, 26, eyed potential — for textiles, ceramics, metalworks, yoga — in every unfinished corner. He sees the budding maker space as a community hub that will help keep his alma mater's spirit alive.

Bhakta's purchase of the campus received a mixed response from alumni. The individualist businessman may not have fit in at the community-oriented former college, but Lang says he's personally willing to give him a chance. "We don't have the luxury to pick and choose what happens there," he noted.

Lang said he's watching to see whether Bhakta will treat the new Green Mountain College as a community endeavor or a personal enterprise. Ben Doyle, the new president of Preservation Trust of Vermont, contends that Bhakta's revival mission can only succeed as the former.

"Revitalizing a community," he said, "takes everyone working together."

Some locals have already sent letters to Bhakta about their ideas. Retired art professor Richard Weis said he emphasized the public value of the college's arts amenities. Educator and Green Mountain College grad Kyle Callahan published an open letter urging Bhakta to pursue an educational model that "puts the campus at the center of the community."

The Bhaktas say they're committed. "This isn't some vanity project," Danhee said of her primary school concept. "I want to work with people that ... can really stand by what I'm trying to do and work in partnership."

Their family recently moved into the former college president's house on Main Street and patronizes the diner down the block. Their new residence is temporary, however. They may "eventually" relocate to a larger property nearby, called the Meeting House, that currently serves as a free community meeting center and as office space for the Nature Conservancy. With four kids, they'll need extra bedrooms, the couple said.

Included in the campus purchase, the impressive Queen Anne-Colonial Revival house was restored in 2014 using a reported $750,000 in public and private donations. In exchange, the college agreed to maintain part of the home as a public venue.

College trustees returned the Preservation Trust's $100,000 contribution as part of the campus sale, Doyle said. The organization hopes to put the money to future projects, "ideally in Poultney," he said.

Early in the fall, Bhakta hosted a small, invitation-only barbecue outside Withey Hall. Colvin made the guest list — he wasn't sure how — as did Poultney Selectboard chair Jeff King. Poultney's newest resident lubricated the meet and greet with samples of BHAKTA 50, which a server poured directly into guests' personal cups. The specialty spirit registered a rave review from the selectboard chair, who seemed hopeful that the drink would prove a harbinger of bigger things to come.

"Oh, my goodness, it has such a flavor!" King said later. "Yeah, that was very good. That was very smooth. I'll be buying some of that when that comes out."

In late October, Bhakta accepted an invitation to speak to the Poultney Rotary Club. He had been the "universal answer" to a member survey about their preferred guest speakers, club president Mitnik said.

Members easily filled the building to its 18-person, COVID-19-compliant capacity, rapt as Bhakta gave an overview of his vision. Colvin, a rotary member, said he was as impressed by Bhakta's casual comportment as by his ambitious plans. Bhakta's young daughter sat in his lap, playing with her father's tie as he made small talk with the crowd. "He's either one heck of an actor, or he's one really decent human being," Colvin concluded.

For Mitnik, who had been somewhat skeptical of the mysterious new owner, the event was reassuring.

"It was nice to see he was not The Great Gatsby kind of a guy," she said. "He didn't come across like that at all."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Raj's Revival?"

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About The Author

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer is a news reporter at Seven Days, focusing on law enforcement and courts. He previously worked at the Missoula Independent, a Montana alt-weekly.

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