Adventure is everything when it comes to whiskeys, and Rob Dietrich has made sure that BLACKENED® American Whiskey dares to be bold by initiating the Masters of Whiskey Series. Kicking things off is BLACKENED x Willett Straight Kentucky Rye Finished in Madeira Casks. Steffan Chirazi gets a full measure of the story.
One thing you soon realize about master distillers is that they are akin to highly skilled chemists. Another thing you learn about the magic of whiskey is that its essence is really all about alchemy. That delightful merging of ingredients and environment, as orchestrated by the master distiller, a.k.a. the chemist, means that when it comes to possibilities, the creation of a whiskey leaves you with a plethora of them. Now, take all of that and add it to BLACKENED. Remember what the general ethos of BLACKENED’s founders is: something along the lines of, “to dare is to do is to be is to enjoy is to not give a flying fuck about what anyone thinks as long as we’re enjoying the adventure.” Add the two together, and bingo! You have the Masters of Whiskey concept, a union between the highly skilled imagination of Master Distiller Rob Dietrich and the ingredients and essence of some of the world’s most famous whiskey distillers. The launch celebration (of what will be an ongoing project) is the BLACKENED x Willett Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Finished in Madeira Casks. It is the result of a collaboration between Dietrich and Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen of Willett Distillery, which has produced an expression that is more than worthy of launching a series such as this.
“Willett is that pinnacle of rye,” enthuses Dietrich. “They also make incredible bourbon, but the way they’ve worked with their recipes, they were never intent on having their whiskey everywhere in the world. They wanted it to be exclusive as well as extremely unique, and to be honest, they’ve really knocked it out of the park. Anything I’ve ever had from Willett has always been phenomenal. When we were originally discussing the Masters of Whiskey Series, my first choice was Willett Distillery. I wanted to start at the top of Everest and continue to climb from there.”
Dietrich is clearly very excited to discuss the work he engaged in with Kulsveen.
“What I love about this is it is an exploration between two different minds and two different palates that are converging to create something phenomenal,” he smiles. “We both have a love for great whiskey, and we have a love for the process. We sat down with around 20 to 30 different samples of whiskey, two different recipes with a variety of ages anywhere from four-year all the way up to eight-year. We discovered very quickly that our palates were very similar.”
So similar that the men found themselves getting down to work with little time for small talk.
“We sat down without really speaking too much and then started to build our first individual batches. We sat there selecting bottles at random. I start with the nosing* as it will give me an idea of the base profile, and then you generally create a base of maybe two or three of those samples. With this, I think we ended up with five total. And we discovered that we had created very similar blends. Imagine a kitchen cabinet full of spices, taking all those spices and making your own blend of spice. It’s a very similar process in the sense that you can really blow out a certain flavor profile or overwhelm all the other little delicate flavors in there.”
As established at the top of this written hour, all the whiskeys available were Willett. Along with that, Dietrich always had an extra plan for this creation in mind.
“I knew that we were going to cask finish, but I didn’t know what we were going to cask finish with until after we had created our blends,” he explains. “I’ve used a lot of cask finishing in the past when I was making single malt in Colorado. And so again, I was really impressed with how very quickly our palates were aligned, being able to narrow it down to five samples from 25. And in the process discovering that our flavor profiles were very, very similar.”
What, I wondered, was the profile of this whiskey?
“So, take the balance of the high rye, which is gonna be very spicy and very earthy. Then there’s the low rye recipe for the sweeter palate. I tried to find a good balance where they would complement one another and keep in mind the unknown flavor profile of the cask finishing. What that barrel was going to do to the whiskey. Ultimately, after I took those samples home and messed around with a few different flavor profiles, I wanted a Madeira wine cask finish as the perfect balance to this three-act play.”
Theater in whiskey, Rob?
“Probably because of having had a community theater background with my parents, I always look at whiskey as three acts. You need a beginning to draw the person into the story of the whiskey. Then in the middle, you’ve gotta leave them hanging, wondering what’s going to happen. Then you need the finish with a resounding storyline at the end, and I really felt like that Madeira was that perfect finish.”
This alchemy was further enhanced by BLACKENED’s Black Noise™ sonic enhancement process, which saw a specially selected playlist chosen by Dietrich and Kulsveen and sequenced by Lars Ulrich.
“I let Drew have at it first because I’d already had the opportunity to select a playlist a couple of times before,” explains Rob. “Drew is also a Metallica fan, so I wanted him to have the entire discography at his disposal to select the songs that meant something to him. And then, I would select songs based on what he selected. I wanted to balance out the playlist just like balancing out a whiskey! So I waited until I saw what he had come up with. One of my favorite things to do is go down that Metallica rabbit hole and find something unique that’s live, from 1989 or whenever, and that was my approach here.”
I wondered how Rob felt this BLACKENED x Willett Kentucky Straight Rye Finished in Madeira Casks would hit people.
“I think that they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the balance between that low and high rye as well as that Madeira finish,” he asserts confidently. “I feel another exciting part will be to have people log onto BLACKENED Whiskey, look up that playlist, and listen while they’re sipping the whiskey. Let both speak to them.”
I am interested to know how many Masters of Whiskey collaborations are planned.
“I think what’s great is that there are so many talented master distillers that really, the sky’s the limit,” Rob replies with no small level of enthusiasm. “I feel honored to be able to do this, and it is also a very humbling experience. These master distillers are some of the people I’ve looked up to throughout most of my career. I’m excited about the future. There are so many different ways to approach making a whiskey, and it’s exciting to see how other people approach it too.”
One final thought… Rob Dietrich, care to offer some serving tips?
“If you’ve chosen to purchase this bottle of whiskey and to embark upon this journey – one which includes a high proof – then you can add just the smallest amount of water to it to break it down to whatever you want. You can drink it at that high proof or perhaps add a large ice cube and let it slowly bring that proof down a little bit. My suggestion? Try it neat first, and then add just the smallest amount of water to help that whiskey open up and bloom, then sip it again and let your mouth acclimate. If it’s still too much for you, then by all means, add an ice cube.”
And with that, Rob Dietrich heads off to get ready for a BLACKENED Whiskey event in Florida. He’d better dare not ever call this “work”…
*Nosing: Pour neat whiskey in a whiskey-tasting vessel. Swirl, then gently breathe in through your mouth and nose, which will dissipate the flair of heat in your nostrils, close your mouth and breathe out slowly through your nose. After a few awkward moments (plus the thought that if you light this nasal breath, you’ll look like a dragon), you will soon master the art of “nosing” whiskey.