Since 2020, Raj Bhakta’s eponymous second act in spirits has built a reputation as one of the most interesting companies in alcohol. First came Bhakta’s vintage blended Armagnac, which carried a 50 year age statement and included liquid dating back to 1868. Next up were single vintages, more brandies (including calvados), a finished bourbon, and a Jamaican rum, with sights set on even more old liquid sourced from all corners of the globe.
While Bhakta’s bottle release calendar has kept consumers and reviewers plenty busy, the founder’s ultimate goal goes bigger, at least in the geographic sense. After purchasing the defunct Green Mountain College in 2020 for a reported $4.5 million, Bhakta moved the company and stocks of aging barrels to the campus. (He and his family also took up residence in the college president’s former quarters.)
Now with over 150 acres nestled in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains, Bhakta and his team have ambitions to build a spirits retreat unlike anything we’ve collectively seen.
Drinkhacker was invited along for one of the first press trips to the rebranded Bhakta-Griswold Campus. Across three days filled with libations, campfires, blending, cold plunges, and more, we caught a glimpse into what Bhakta’s ultimate retreat vision could look like — and how much work is cut out for the small but ambitious team.
Bhakta-Griswold’s Campus History
Located in Poultney, Vermont — just across the New York State border — Green Mountain College operated from 1834 until 2019, when the school closed due to low enrollment. The college featured a focus on sustainability, with an operating solar farm, gardens, and biomass plant. The campus even boasts Vermont’s first in-ground, Olympic-sized swimming pool.
In 2020, Raj Bhakta purchased the campus at auction. With it came nearly two dozen buildings that house dormitories, a library, chemistry labs, house pottery studios, and a 500-seat theater. Of particular note is the Waldron Athletic Center, including its gym, basketball court, pool, training facilities, and locker rooms. Half of the domed basketball court now houses some of Bhakta’s vintage car collection, which includes FDR’s inaugural limousine.
Shortly after the purchase, Bhakta moved both his family and company operations to Poultney.
The upkeep on the sprawling campus is significant, and at the very least, it takes a number of groundskeepers and support staff necessary to keep the nearby woodlands from creeping in. But Bhakta and his team are transparent in their designs to grow Bhakta-Griswold’s purpose beyond company residence and operations center. Indeed, they’re attempting to create the world’s premiere vintage spirits destination, largely from the ground up.
Those designs — eventually — include a luxury hotel, gourmet dining, state-of-the-art health & fitness facilities, and a bespoke blending and bottling experience. It’s the type of immersive environment Bhakta and team hopes will attract people for extended — and ideally repeat — overnight stays. And for spirits enthusiasts, there will need to be enough action to justify the trip; the town has just around 3,000 residents, and it’s a 90 minute drive to the nearest transportation hub in Albany, New York.
Given the campus’ size and the adaptability of the existing facilities, it’s certainly easy to see the potential, though the transition will necessarily be an incremental one. In casual conversation, Raj Bhakta himself estimates it could take up to a decade for the full range of plans to come to fruition.
At the center of Bhakta-Griswold’s transition from defunct campus into spirits haven is Taylor Gray Hansen, an industry veteran who joined as the company’s Chief of Hospitality in early 2013. Hansen curated and guided much of our three day, two night experience, which featured around 10 writers, editors, and influencers largely from the whiskey world. It was one of a handful of Bhakta press trips so far; the current retreat experience is largely focused on product distributors and corporate partners, with multiple trips occurring every month.
After check in, we were guided to our lodgings: refurbished, comfortably-furnished dormitories with private bathrooms (and communal showers). A cocktail hour, dinner, and a campfire gathering (the first of several) followed, with delicious pours and shared stories taking us well into the wee hours.
Food was served buffet-style in the campus’ old dining building, and even for our small group, meals were thoughtfully planned: There were always plenty of options for both carnivores and vegetarians, and other dietary restrictions were discussed ahead of the trip. Of course, libations — largely cocktails, Bhakta’s blends, and select single-barrel vintages — were available any time day or night.
The next two days included a blitz of activities: a visit to Bhakta’s blending lab, scheduled free time to explore campus and/or the athletic center’s weight room, ping pong or billiards, and both planned and impromptu brandy or rum tastings. There were also multiple visits to the “Poultney Riviera,” a sandy beach on the edge of campus leading right up to the Poultney River that forms a border between Vermont and New York. Attendees could swim in the river, play a variety of yard games, and spend time shvitzing in the multi-person sauna erected right by the shore.
After a second night that featured lively conversation and heavy pours, the final day was wisely devoted to recovery. That meant (optional, but encouraged) breathwork and meditation, ice tub soaks in the athletic center, and visits to yet another sauna, this one situated next to the indoor pool.
As with any retreat in its beta testing phase, there were occasional scheduling hiccups, and Hansen’s team already seemed experienced with adapting on the fly. And while the facilities we had access to were all well-appointed, it was difficult not to dwell on what additional experiences trips will include a year or more from now.
For example, the focal point of Bhakta’s physical plans is Green Mountain’s former library, a multi-story building that currently houses most of the company’s rare and vintage single barrels. It’s currently coded as a bonded warehouse, which meant our access on a recent visit was restricted. But peering through the windows revealed alternating rows of books and barrels, whiskey thieves leaning nearby for easy sampling of barrels aged 50 years or more.
Bhakta-Griswold’s visitor experience already stands apart as unique spirits retreat with an uncharacteristic — and perhaps increasingly welcome — focus on wellness and recovery. And it has the potential to grow into a true luxury getaway for visitors of discerning taste and significant means. The journey and timeline to get there are now up to the Bhakta Spirits team, who made it clear they’re actively looking for new team members to relocate to Southern Vermont.