Dave Pickerell – A True Master Craftsman
The news about Dave Pickerell’s passing was both tragic and unexpected. Dave was a dynamo, always on a journey to somewhere else, always enjoying a new adventure, and always brimming with ideas, explanations, knowledge, and passion for his muse: whiskey. It is fair to say that Dave was an extraordinarily smart, extraordinarily creative, and extraordinarily passionate life force, and the mark he left on the world of whiskey and distilled beverages is far larger than mere words could accurately reflect. That he packed lives into a life is no consolation; the world was not ready to lose Dave Pickerell.
In tribute to the force that was Dave Pickerell, we at So What! wanted to share with you some highlights from a conversation we had with Dave on August 7, 2018. In getting some insights into the man and his sojourns, you will understand just why so many people beyond his Metallica and Blackened family are finding Dave’s loss especially difficult.
Farewell, Dave, and thank you.
THE EARLIEST INSPIRATION
I would best describe where I grew up [Fairborn, near Dayton, Ohio] as ultra-low blue collar. We never went hungry, but there was never any extra anything. And our family fun, if you will, was on Sundays when we would load in the car and go for a drive. You couldn’t do that without passing a factory or two here and there, and every time we passed one, I would just start peppering my Dad with questions. “What’s that tank for? Why is that pipe over there? How come there’s smoke coming out of that thing?” I got the same answer every week. It was, “Son, the only person that understands that is the chemical engineer.” I remember distinctly when I was five years old, driving past a Kimberly Clark toilet paper factory and there was a stack of scrap toilet paper that had to have been four stories tall. I started peppering Dad with questions again, and you know, the same answer as always came from him. I jumped out of the car seat – this is before seatbelts – pulled up against Dad’s seat, and said, “Then fine! I’m going to be the chemical engineer because I need to understand these things.”
That was at five years old.
BIRTH OF AN EXTRAORDINARY PALATE
The first indicator of a super palate was when I was eight years old.
I remember we had this old percolator coffee pot on a gas range, and I love the smell of coffee.
And [being] really OCD, I would count the percs and smell the coffee. One day, when I was eight years old, I declared to Mom, “I can make coffee better than you can.” She goes, “Okay, little man. How in the world do you know that you can make coffee better than me when you’ve never had any?” And I said, “Because I know what really delicious coffee smells like and I know it takes 243 and a half percs to get there.” She said, “All right, bring it. Let’s see what you can do.” So I put the coffee together, set it up, got it running, and just basically percolated it to smell and counted the percs. When it was ready, I poured her and Dad a cup and they agreed that I did, in fact, make better coffee than either one of ’em! That then became my job.
WEST POINT SCHOLARSHIP… AS A FOOTBALL PLAYER!
I knew I wanted to go to a great school and I knew the only way I could do that was with a scholarship because we didn’t have the money. I started with baseball and I was a really good first baseman, excellent, but a very impatient hitter. So that finally went by the wayside. I tried basketball, but my vertical leap would barely clear the Sunday newspaper, so that went away. And eventually came down to either football or track. And I held all of my high school records for the indoor and outdoor shot and the discus, and I was first team All-State Ohio as a [blind side] tackle in football, and lo and behold, West Point offered me a full scholarship to come play football. Truth be told, I probably didn’t have a heck of a lot of friends at West Point because my lens was different than everybody else. I had a really rough childhood, had to struggle for everything, and most of these guys frankly didn’t. So when I came to West Point, the harassment was nothing. It was like, “Is that all you got? Bring it.” Other people were wilting under the harassment, I was just going, ho, hum. A lot of folks thought, “Yeah, this is the guy who’s the football player,” and they just didn’t anticipate that I was competing academically and not for football.
When you first go to West Point, they give you a lock box. I asked what it was for, and they said for all our valuables, money, jewels, and so on. I said I didn’t have those things, and they said, “It’s un-inspectable, just put whatever you want in there.” And so once I realized it was un-inspectable, that I could put whatever I wanted in there, I decided let’s find the highest volume bottle of beverage alcohol that by virtue of its size would fit in this slightly odd-shaped box. And because the Crown Royal bottle is a little “squatty,” Crown Royal won. Every time I had the opportunity, I would buy a bottle of Crown Royal and bring it back to the room and put it in my lock box. It was just out of sheer pragmatism that it wound up being a Crown Royal bottle, again, because it fit in the lock box perfectly. Pragmatism over taste!
A SAVANT IS UNEARTHED; TIME TO GET THAT PASSPORT
When I stood for my master’s degree, my mentor discovered that I was an idiot savant. I was just gonna be a chemical engineer, and I had 59 job offers from chemical and petrochemical companies. I called my mentor up for a reference letter to finally be a chemical engineer. Now, important detail… while I was getting my master’s, I took the Distillation Final and got a 99 on it. The next high score was a 35. My mentor said it wasn’t because I was necessarily smart more than it was because I just happened to be an idiot savant at distilling. He cherished that! So when I reached out to him for the letter of reference, he came back to me and said, “No, beverage alcohol needs you.” He said, “I’ve never done this in 40 years but I’m going to tell you where you’re gonna work.” And there was this little consulting firm in Louisville that just did beverage alcohol, and they’d landed a contract that was bigger than they could handle. They needed a chemical engineer right then. He introduced me to ’em, we met over lunch, they offered me the job right on the spot, and I took it. And for five years I got to trundle around the world, and I’d make some of the best (and a couple of the worst!) spirits I’ve ever tasted. But I went to China, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, the Dominican Republic, all over the US, just trotting around the world building distilleries and parts of distilleries, occasionally a brewery or two.
MAKING HIS MARK FURTHER
One of my clients was Maker’s Mark. I’d been consulting for them for about five years and I was down there doing some work one day and Mr. Samuels [Maker’s Mark President and son of founder Bill Samuels Sr. – ED] walked out of the office and flagged me over. He said, “Did you know we’re looking for our next Master Distiller?” I said “No, sir, I didn’t.” He said, “Well, that explains why you didn’t apply for it.” Then he went on, “We have just exhausted our entire candidate pool and didn’t find anybody we like. We’re tired of looking. We like you and if you want it, the job’s yours.” That was my whole interview. I took the job, and for fourteen years served as the Master Distiller for Maker’s Mark. And what I’m really saying is that it would be impossible for me to really get a big head about this business because most everything that’s happened to me has been gracious people giving me things I didn’t deserve.
CATCHER OF THE RYE
In 2001, Maker’s volunteered me to go assist with the effort to re-establish George Washington’s distillery. I began to fall in love with rye. The sad thing was the rye category was essentially dead back then, but I was infatuated with everything from the history of rye to the taste of rye. And eventually I’d done everything I wanted to do at Maker’s Mark and it was time to move the bull’s-eye other places. So in 2008 I left Maker’s Mark just because it was time to go, it was time to make rye, it was time to make other things and to invent new categories. I established a company called Oak View Spirits, and that was set as the backdrop for me to go out and assist in the founding of somewhere around 50 or 60 distilleries. There have been other brands that have already grown up and sold to big companies, but WhistlePig’s the one that so far has been my crowning achievement.
The Europeans laughed at the Americans because of our sweet tooth. Americans like stuff sweeter than everybody else in the world, but the American palate is changing. It’s shifting towards more savory products. One of the things that’s really helped me through the years is that I tie in with as many chefs as I can, and the palate in a region expresses itself in food years before it expresses itself in spirits. So I was able to catch the American trend of moving from sweet to savory before most people because I was paying attention to the chefs.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Sometimes you just like a project just because it’s fun and different and interesting. There was one brand called Solbeso that was a really fun project. There was this group of folks that were interested in giving the cacao farmers an excuse to do something other than to make cocaine [from coca leaves, another plant but the same region – ED]. The idea was to figure out how to make a distillate from the juice that comes out of the cacao pod. So I flew into Guayaquil, Ecuador, hopped in a car to Milagro, and then got on a horse and went up into the mountains and moved into a cacao plantation. When I want to learn a product, I learn it from the ground up. When I started working with tequila, the first thing I did was go down to Mexico and work with the jimador [Mexican farmer who specializes in harvesting agave plants – ED]. I like knowing the product from the ground up. So I moved in and started observing, occasionally doing a little bit of the harvest work, to watch how the folks harvested the cacao bean and to figure out a way to collect the juice without interrupting the harvest.
What I observed was, they look like nerf footballs and they’re called mazorca. And they knock ’em off the tree and then they’ll pick ’em up with the machete, and then with the machete it’s three hits. One to cut one end off, and then two diagonal cuts. And when they do that, this juice runs out it. Then they pull a central core with the cacao beans on it and throw the rest away. The cacao beans go in a bucket and they get sorted out and separated from the central stem. They go into bags, the bags get hauled someplace, and more juice comes out there. So it was figuring out all the places in the process where juice comes out and figuring out how to collect it without disrupting the harvest.
I spent a lot of time messing around with the distillate. We took a bunch of it, froze it, sent it to the US to a special lab, and I just moved into the lab like it was a master’s thesis. I did micro-batches to learn all the little things, such as the effects of rotting and the effect of adding pectin; I studied it for weeks. We created this brand called Solbeso that was very versatile. It tasted like its mom was tequila and its dad was rum. And you could put it in anything; it was very versatile. The brand managers didn’t really develop the brand well, but for me it was a massively fun project because I actually got to create a new style of distillate that the world had never seen.
BLACKENED IN THE END
When they approached me, the first thing I decided I needed to do was to really study them in depth and try to understand the band ethos. Honestly, it was more about the personality of the brand and taste of the brand, initially. The band is collaborative and so whatever I did, I wanted it to be a collaborative venture of some kind. Also, the band thinks outside the box, they do things a little bit differently. And they also have this process that they refer to as “Metallicizing,” which is taking something that’s already good and kicking it up. So, I decided to be collaborative, think outside the box, and kick it up a notch. The idea was to go find a number of really nice whiskeys from all over North America and marry them together. There have been people that have done one, two, maybe three, but nobody’s done five, six, or seven. And we deliberately went all over the place! So there’s rye from Canada, rye from the United States, bourbon from Kentucky, bourbon from Indiana, bourbon from Tennessee, and corn whiskey, all of which were delicious and good in their own right. And then we put those together. And then we Metallicized it. We finished it in black Spanish brandy casks.
I have a fascination with low frequency sound that started back in my West Point days.
Metallica and Meyer Sound already have a patented subwoofer, so they understand low frequency sound. We went to the band and asked them to submit playlists, then we went to Meyer Sound and said, “Develop a system where we can hit the barrels with really low frequency sound and let’s see if we can really get the effect that I think we can.” I wanted to move molecules, and the idea was that you should be able to see color change rather rapidly as you’re causing the whiskey to move in and out of the barrel. Meyer Sound was able to demonstrate that they could do that, so the band members picked their favorite playlists, we took those, and translated ’em down to a lower frequency so that they’d work. We trademarked the name Black Noise, as demonstrated in what we’re doing with the barrels. And the result? Well, I am really very happy and proud of Blackened, that goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway!
At the time of writing, Blackened has exceeded its September to December 2018 sales projections by over 212%. It has continually broken online sales records for non-holiday time periods every month since the September ’18 launch. Blackened is currently found in Northern California, New York, Wisconsin, and in Austin, Texas as well as online through select retailers. Future Blackened markets opening up include Southern California, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, and the town of Balance, Texas. Not only does this information show Blackened is something Dave Pickerell was damn right to be proud of, it stands as further proof of the enormous legacy – and vacuum – Dave Pickerell leaves behind him. Rest in peace Dave…