It’s hard to talk about American whiskey and not mention Dave Pickerell, who died on November 1, 2018. Widely considered the country’s preeminent distiller, he spent 14 years as master distiller at Maker’s Mark before becoming a craft-distilling consultant and helping to create iconic brands like WhistlePig and Hillrock Estate Distillery.
An advocate for authentic rye, whiskey terroir, adventurous finishing techniques and barrel aging methods, Pickerell pushed boundaries and carried the craft distilling movement forward.
Sweet Amber Distilling Co. provided Pickerell with one of his most his most ambitious adventures. He served as master distiller for Blackened American Whiskey, a collaboration with legendary metal band Metallica.
In one of his final interviews, conducted October 25, 2018, before Metallica’s concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pickerell discussed his work with the band, his penchant for innovation and the path he forged to become a distilling legend.
Sadly, he passed away a week after this interview. However, his legacy and whiskey live on.
Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Blackened American Whiskey and all-around whiskey guru. Say the word “whiskey,” and immediately your name comes up. So, Mr. Whiskey, we’re here to talk about Blackened, a new product in collaboration with Metallica. First off, I have to ask, what was it like working on a whiskey with Metallica?
It was really fun to work on this project. It’s not like they hired me, it’s like they commissioned me, one artist to another. So there was no monkeying with the process. It was, “Dave, we want to reach out and touch our fan base in new and interesting ways, and we think whiskey is one of those ways. Go make us something that we can be proud of and that we can touch our fan base with.” And just let me go. And they allowed me to go really off the radar screen.
There’s three major processes that we’re doing that are totally different than anything that’s been done before. I actually flew to Stockholm in May to go just spend time with the band. I was aware of their music, but I really needed to know the ethos of the band. And I took away three things.
First of all, they’re collaborative. They are a team. Even to the point of they’ve agreed between them no one band member is allowed to sign a bottle. It’s either all or none. The second thing is that they think out of the box. They do things that are unexpected. And the third thing is they have this process that’s called “metallicizing,” which is taking something that’s already good and kicking it up a notch or two.
Or 12. Or 16. [laughter] And I said, “Great, that’s what I’m gonna do.” And so I said, the only rule is that whenever I’m done, you need to convene a murder board. And I mean an intense, tear-me-up, murder board. And only if I pass are we good. Otherwise, I go back and keep working.
And so the first thing I did was just networked. One of the nice things about being an old distiller is you’ve got guys everywhere. And I just started calling people up. And I got an assemblage of whiskeys, nice whiskeys from all over North America: rye whisky from Canada, Bourbon whiskey from Kentucky, Tennessee whiskey, rye whiskey from Indiana, corn whiskey, just really nice whiskeys that one could be happy just slapping their name on and be done with it.
But that wasn’t collaborative. So then we married all of them together, which, to this extent, has never been done before with that many different types and styles of whiskies. So now we’ve got collaboration, we’re out of the box a little bit, now we’ve gotta kick it up. And since we were gonna call it Blackened, I thought I need to do things that are black. And so we got black Spanish brandy barrels, and we put the whiskey in there, and that had never been done. And then, we trademarked the term, “black noise,” which was hitting the whiskey with ultralow-frequency Metallica music. And they actually gave me a fairly substantial amount of money to just experiment and prove concept [because] I didn’t want to just do something for fun marketing. You know, if it’s not real, I didn’t want to do it. And so we had this philosophy, this theory.
“It’s the point where you can take two batches side by side, and you can taste the difference, and the only difference is the playlist. So it’s real stuff.”
I was fascinated with ultralow frequency sound all the way from my days as a cadet at West Point. And Metallica’s sound company is Meyer Sound, and they’ve got patents on ultralow-frequency subwoofers. And Metallica’s got this big, resonating music with really crisp, clean notes. I thought, “We need to do this.”
So we got two barrels that were already aged, just set one aside and took the other one and put transducers on it and hit it with ultralow frequency Metallica music. And then, every so often, we’d pull samples to see. We’d do gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and spectrometry. And we’re just looking for all the markets of extracts. So we’re looking for guaiacol and eugenol and caramels and lactones, and we just checked for all of the markers of things that commonly extract from oak during maturation, and we were able to prove in eight days it was, the difference was visible to the naked eye. And by 10 weeks, we had massive differences. It’s the point where you can take two batches side by side, and you can taste the difference, and the only difference is the playlist. So it’s real stuff.
You know, I’m gonna use this phrase, if you gotta edit it out, go ahead. Bill Sandwich used to have a saying: “The fun thing is the bullshit’s all real.” And that’s what we did here. We proved the bullshit’s all real.
So we trademarked the name Black Noise, and we’re going for a patent on the process. And once we get it, we’re going to publish [a] scientific [paper] to show people, yes, this really does work and we own the technology for it.
Have you heard of anybody doing anything similar to this previously? Where did the inspiration for this idea, aside for your talking about your experiences at West Point in the church, or the idea to incorporate that into whiskey production actually come from?
So, there are other people that are playing music to barrels, you know, and it’s everything from people that are nonscientific, just making the barrels happy, to people that are doing really high-frequency things, but nobody was doing ultralow frequency. And that’s really where the energy is, and the concept behind that. You know, I knew that we needed to incorporate Metallica sound, somehow.
“And when he got done, it’s like he went Emperor Palpatine—he looks at me and he goes, ‘And now, for the full effects of the organ.’ ”
I remember sitting in West Point’s church, the cadet chapel, and it was just Dr. Davis [the church organist] and I. . . He was practicing and he sat down and played Toccata and Fugue in D minor for me. And, I love that music, it’s perfect pipe-organ music. And when he got done, it’s like he went Emperor Palpatine—he looks at me and he goes, “And now, for the full effects of the organ.” And he hit the lowest note on the register, and you could just feel it shaking your guts and shaking the building, and he goes, “I can only play this for a few seconds [because] I’ll actually do structural damage to the building.”
And that’s when I went, that’s the answer. It’s ultralow-frequency sound, cause that’s where you get the vibrations, the molecules at that lower level. And it just seemed that this was the perfect time to do it.
And what great music, and what a great band to work on this project with. Before working on this project, were you a fan of Metallica? For some reason, you strike me as more of a country guy…
I am not a country guy at all, believe it or not. I mean, I like all well-executed music, except twangy country. . .I may look like the country guy, [because] you know, I’m kind of a bumpkin, the way that I dress and everything, but, you know, my playlist has got everything, and certainly Metallica is in the playlist. I can even tell you that “Motorbreath,” “Unforgiven” and “Unforgiven II” are my three favorite Metallica songs because if you listen to the lyrics on those, they pretty much describe my life.
I have never been much of a concert goer, just [because] I’ve always been so busy with life. And so, this is new, to be able to get to join the band and go to concerts with them, and it’s really fun.
You guys decided you were going to label it Blackened American Whiskey, “Blackened” obviously being one of the names of their songs, it’s the opening track on . . .And Justice For All. Was that a reason why you guys went with Blackened?
Well, there were a lot of potential choices, at least I thought early on. Like, Whiskey In A Jar would have been cool.
Duh. I’m gonna wait for Ride The White Lightning.
Yes! But, unbeknownst to me, they covered [“Whiskey in the Jar”]. That wasn’t an original. And so, we couldn’t use that. Then, we thought okay, how about Unforgiven? And the lawyer said, well, you know, Wild Turkey’s got Forgiven, you know, maybe that’s a little too close. And what I wanted to say was, do you got a bunch of wusses for lawyers?
So we worked around. We picked Sweet Amber for the name of the company, Sweet Amber Distilling Co. And then Blackened, because of the song, Blackened because of the Black Album, and the recording studio is Blackened [Recordings]. So for all those reasons, we said Blackened is really good.
And it gave me context to be able to say we’re going to blacken the world. And so, we’re gonna hit it with black Spanish brandy and Black Noise and it does come out a really nice, dark color. It just all seems to have fit, and it’s nice and clean. The bottle is gorgeous.
“Then, we thought okay, how about Unforgiven? And the lawyer said, well, you know, Wild Turkey’s got Forgiven, you know, maybe that’s a little too close. And what I wanted to say was, do you got a bunch of wusses for lawyers?”
So it all came together beautifully under that very surprising black label. If you taste the whiskey, our Spirits Editor, Kara Newman, noted that there’s an almost effervescent effect on the finish that’s not typical of whiskey.
Yup. I think what she’s picking up is the top-note apricot. Which, to me, it was like, after it came out of the process, was like, “Ah! Okay! This is really cool! I love this!”
So it’s a plurality of rye. It’s not 51% anything, but it’s a plurality of rye, which gives it its spiciness, but it’s a well-balanced spiciness, with the sweetness at the core. Then you get all the good wood extracts and then over the top of it, you just dump that brandy note that gives it this unbelievable dried apricot note.
Delicious. Did you ever expect to be making a whiskey with Metallica?
Never in a million years would I have thought that Metallica would come get me. The first thing is just to understand my background. I grew up in kind of a slummy area just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Technically, it was lower blue collar. But I was a hustler, I was a dumpster diver, I was getting bottles for nickels, I sold rocks to the neighborhood kids for nickels. I shoveled snow and mowed the grass and delivered newspapers and cut trees, anything just to get by. And I was destined to be a burger flipper at McDonald’s, you know?
That’s the background that I was anticipating, and if it hadn’t been for a lot of well-intentioned people giving me things I didn’t deserve, that’s where I’d probably be, a general manager of some burger joint. So to wake up and find all of this and, what, a month ago, being on Rolling Stone magazine?! I couldn’t resist. I took the picture out of the magazine and posted it on Facebook and just bannered it [sings]: “On the cover of the Rolling Stone, gonna buy five copies for my mother.” [laughs]
I never would have thought it in a million years that that kind of thing could happen to this kid.
Speaking of happening, you have a lot of that going on, with numerous distilleries and brands that you work on across the states. How do you find the ability to take a different approach and style to each individual project?
The first thing is, you need to know—this is bizarre—I’m a rare combination of ADD and OCD. Which means, I have to count everything over and over again, [because] I get distracted halfway through it and go, “Wait, wait, wait.”
But, you have to be ADD to understand this. You give a kid Ritalin, you know, speed, when they’re ADD to slow ‘em down. The way I’ve managed myself is with tons of activity. It helps me to focus. If I’ve just got one or two things, I’m gonna get in trouble. And so just by having this plethora of activity just falling around my shoulders all the time, I have to stay focused.
And I can get unbelievable focus. You know, the other day, I was sitting down, writing down all of the design criteria issues for a new distillery in Europe, and just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and, you know, [for] two-and-a half-hours, I didn’t stop typing. I can’t explain it, but it’s there.
“I never would have thought it in a million years that that kind of thing could happen to this kid.”
The first batch of Blackened American Whiskey was Batch number 081, named after the band’s formative year. But there are going to be additional batch releases. Can you tell me a bit about the differences between them?
Well, the only material difference between the batch is the playlist. Literally, each band member submitted playlists to us, and they each had their own rationale. Maybe Robert [Trujillo] wanted stuff that featured his bass and songs that he really liked, but each submitted their own playlist. I’d love for them to ask me to submit a playlist.
But the absolute astounding thing is when I’ve done a couple of tastings where we’re tasting two different batches, everybody can tell the difference and they’re going, “Why are these different?” And I’m going, “Because they have different playlists.” And they’re just astounded that you can actually taste the music.
It all goes back to that science behind Black Noise. So, each batch number after 081 is going to be a result of an individual bandmate’s playlist?
Yes, so what you can do is, each bottle has a batch number on the necker. You can go to blackenedwhiskey.com and enter the batch number. [Then you can] pull down the Spotify playlist, and you can enjoy your whiskey while listening to the playlist that your bottle was aged to. It’s just fun.
That’s why I’m really liking this. I mean, they tolerated an awful lot from me. That whole idea was mine. . . Not only do we want to play music to them, but we want to give everybody the opportunity to download the playlist, and do it legally through Spotify. And so, it’s just a really cool thing.