Master Distiller Dave Pickerell’s relentless, never-ending quest to better American craft spirit and educate the bar industry sadly ended at age 62 in November 2018. But the revered distiller’s legacy only continues to grow.
In fact, a pair of Pickerell’s final works are posthumously dropping on back bars all over the country. Recent releases from Blackened and WhistlePig are still building his legacy in the craft spirits world.
In September, Blackened Whiskey celebrated the one year anniversary of their first release by dropping two more batches of 5000 bottles each. The expressions, labeled “Batch 98” and “Batch 99” represent some of Pickerell’s final work in life.
Blackened Whiskey—the brand started by Metallica—was one of the famed distiller’s most intriguing recent experiments, a marriage of science and music. Unique playlists featuring the band are used during the barrel-finishing process to “sonically-enhance the whiskey.” The result is that the whiskey moves around and interacts with the wood in a different way. This changes with different songs.
Blackened made sense for Pickerell, because it allowed him to flex his creativity while testing some unorthodox scientific theories. He wasn’t just going to assume that sound waves had an impact on the whiskey he was aging in black brandy barrels for Metallica; he was going to prove it.
“Dave used a proprietary device to basically pummel the whiskey with subsonic sound,” says Rob Dietrich, who left as Master Distiller for Stranahan’s to fill the void as Master Blender for Blackened. “He tested the sonically enhanced whiskey against a control at a lab and found a difference.”
The concept is difficult to wrap your head around. “I was a skeptic at the beginning until I saw the science behind it,” says Dietrich. But he explained that “when you char a barrel all those natural sugars and tannins form a caramelized band of sugar. Just past that is what we call the red line with flavors that the spirit doesn’t normally get to. With the sonic enhancement, the spirit is able to pick up those additional flavors.”
Way Down Yonder
In life, Pickerell was an institution at Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’ annual craft drink festival. And, in death, his presence was still over-sized at the July convention. While Blackened tasted guests on those final batches, another aspect of the legend’s parting gifts were on display in the streets of the Crescent City.
Whistle Pig—the cult-favorite Vermont distillery that Pickerell helped build—hosted a traditional secondline parade (a New Orleans ritual that memorializes the dead with a jazz-filled procession through the streets) and party in his honor. The event provided an opportunity to unveil Pickerell’s final expression for WP: PiggyBack— a 100% rye whiskey aged 6 years.
“Piggyback was a way to give back to the bartenders a high proof rye for cocktails that was more approachable,” says WP CEO Jeff Kozak. “WhistlePig was built in the trade and Dave always reminded me that is where we need to continue to spend our time, not in boardrooms.” (Piggyback retails at $49.99 and 10yr at $82-85.)
For the WP team, the memories are still fresh and the mission continues. “You see Dave everywhere in our people,” says Kozak. “Firstly in their passion and how they want to connect to people through what they are doing. Secondly, in their approach and can-do attitude. Whether adding another piece of equipment or solving a technical issue or breaking down an old industry norm. They seem to push the issue at hand just like Dave did.”
The filling of his formidable shoes at WP has been absorbed by a group of twenty-something blenders and distillers who want to honor his legacy. “There’s not really a better person to mentor you in this industry,” says Pete Lynch, the young master blender for WhistlePig. “He wanted to leave something in place.”
To that end, WP has assembled a young distilling team that includes Lynch along with two important female contributors: distillery manager, Emily Harrison, and Quality Assurance Manager, Meghan Ireland.
He Was Gonna Make Rye, Rye, Rye
Although he spent 14 years as Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark, Pickerell’s legend really cemented soon after he left and helped create WhistlePig rye. The irony is that WP wouldn’t have happened if Beam—Pickerell’s former employer—had decided to keep the stocks of aged Canadian rye they were sitting on at the Alberta distillery they owned. Even more incredibly, major whiskey producers in the US passed on the chance to buy up these rye reserves, allowing Pickerell to scoop them up.
Pickerell and WP cofounder, Raj Bhakta, wanted to create an aged straight rye whiskey, but couldn’t find any well-aged product in the US. So Pickerell called a former colleague, Jeff Kozak, who worked for Beam’s Canadian distillery. “I had been trying to convince Beam to sell the rye which was used as the flavor for Canadian whiskey as a stand alone; a single malt so to speak,” says Kozak whom a few years later went to work for WP. “They were unconvinced and allowed me to proceed to dispose of these stocks. I held my breath the check would clear and that was the start of it.”
“He could get people who didn’t care about it to listen to him for a half an hour.”
The aged rye that Pickerell and Bhakta bought from Beam became the basis for their breakthrough WhisltePig 10-yr aged rye whiskey. And with Pickerell’s help, WP was able to parlay that into a lasting presence as a rye whiskey producer with its own, Vermont-based distillery.
Pickerell’s pride in WP’s accomplishments is made clear in a 2016 email he sent to Bhakta in which he mused on their success in becoming a leader in the aged rye category. “We were among the first to jump in by recognizing that Rye whiskey was indeed in a resurgence mode as a trend and not a fad, and moved boldly to develop the sub-category of rye whiskey over 6 years old, and then to assume an almost unassailable position as the owner of this category,” he wrote. “We also became the first American whiskey finished in Sauternes, the second American rye finished in Madeira, and the first whiskey to be finished in a marriage of Old world finishes successfully.”
The Whole Package
Besides being able to source great whiskey and design state of the art distilleries, Pickerell acted as something of an informal ambassador for the companies he worked with. “Dave taught me that operations and consumer don’t have to exist in silos,” says Denny Potter who worked for Pickerell from 2003–2008 at Maker’s Mark and recently returned to the brand to become Master Distiller. “They can exist together and can lead to phenomenal relationship building and therefore, case sales. He absolutely loved what he was doing.”
This ability to connect with customers continued throughout Pickerell’s career. “Dave loved to talk about whiskey,” says WP cofounder Wilco Faessen. “He could get people who didn’t care about it to listen to him for a half an hour. It’s a little like a politician who has to tell the same story over and over again. But he never got bored and loved the attention.”
And the attention he brought to small distilleries and producers will be felt for years to come. At WhistlePig. At Blackened. Hill Rock. George Washington’s Distillery. High Wire. Corsair. Few. J. Rieger and Co. And many others for whom Pickerell spent the last decade helping make a better whiskey.
Brett Moskowitz writes about therapeutic cocktails of the medicinal and alcoholic varieties. He has contributed to Food & Wine, Liquor.com, Esquire, Saveur, Thrillist, Punch and others. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @bmoskowitz and Instagram @bsmoskowitz.