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Why whiskey-flavored pork might be hogwash

This little fella will happily get drunk if you let him. But he still won't taste like whiskey.
This little fella will happily get drunk if you let him. But he still won't taste like whiskey.
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It is an undisputed fact that bacon is delicious. Whiskey, likewise, is pretty great. So it sounds like a dream come true that an Iowa distillery is attempting to make whiskey-flavored pork.

But making a pig taste like whiskey just might be hogwash.

For those not up on the swine-alcohol foodie scene, here are the basics — the Templeton Rye distillery in Templeton, Iowa, is attempting to make 25 whiskey-flavored pigs by feeding the animals spent grains from the distilling process, as WQED and Quartz reported.

It's true that you can change the flavor and texture of pork substantially based on what you feed the animals. That's thanks to the animals' biology — pigs have digestive systems that allow their feed to affect how the animals taste in specific ways. In particular, some of the fat you feed a pig will be deposited into its subcutaneous fat. Likewise, fat-soluble substances, like hot peppers, might change a pig's flavor, says Chad Stahl, swine nutrition specialist at North Carolina State University. This explains why Iberian pigs, known for their acorn-heavy diet, have a different flavor than other pigs (but they're not necessarily "acorn-flavored").

Still, the whiskey experiment probably won't work, says Stahl. Templeton will be feeding the pigs grains from the whiskey-distilling process (but no, not whiskey) to change their flavors, according to the company's website. But American pigs have been eating distillers' grains for a while now.

"That will not make them taste like whiskey. [Distillers' grain] has been a fairly popular ingredient in all pig diets for the last 10 years," says Stahl. That's because the spent distillers' grains are a byproduct of ethanol production. More ethanol means more of this feed for pigs.

"It's pretty likely for pigs to have up to 10 percent of their diet being distiller dry grain. that does nothing to make the meat taste like whiskey," he says.

And in fact, the Templeton website offers up the pigs' detailed meal plan, showing the animals will still get most of their feed from plain feed corn.

And just as pigs that have been fed spent corn don't exactly taste like bourbon or corn whiskey, feeding pigs spent rye might not exactly make them taste like Templeton Rye.

(Incidentally, if you did try to feed a pig alcohol, the animal would cheerfully oblige: "They'll voluntarily drink alcohol. if you were to put a bowl of beer or a bowl of water out for a pig, the pig's going to pick the beer every time," says Stahl.)

In addition, just because you feed a pig a particular food doesn't mean the animal will taste like that food. Feeding a pig butter wouldn't yield delicious, buttery bacon, Stahl says, because the short-chain fatty acids that give butter its flavor wouldn't make it into the meat. However, if you fed a pig fish oil, the pork would have a fishier taste.

There's also the fact that whiskey gets some of its flavor from the wooden barrels in which it's aged — none of that would come through in a pig fed spent distillery grains.

The president of Templeton Rye, Scott Bush, is nevertheless excited about the project. He admits that the company hasn't tested this out yet, but he thinks feeding the animals the spent mash, which he says has a strong, coffee-like smell, could make a difference in the pigs' flavor.

"Whether you're going to taste this pig and say, 'Wow, this tastes like Templeton Rye whiskey,' who knows?" he says. "But I think if these pigs are paired with Templeton whiskey, I think it will bring out a really interesting flavor and essence and be a great pairing of food and spirit."

Whether or not it's proven that a distillery-raised pig will taste like whiskey, customers are intrigued.

"I don't think we're going to have any problem getting rid of the 25 pigs," as Templeton co-founder Keith Kerkhoff told WQAD. The February-born whiskey pigs will be finished by June or July, according to Templeton's website, after which they will be distributed to lucky customers. Already they've heard from celebrity chefs and amateur cooks alike.

You can still try to request a pig if you're feeling lucky. But for people who don't feel optimistic bout their chances at getting whiskey-flavored bacon, they can always opt for bacon-flavored whiskey.

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