The Magic-Man of Am. Whiskey: Why Craft-Distilling Movement Taking off in the US
Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey, Left, WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey.
Featuring Dave Pickerel.
Plus reviews on WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey & Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey.
Featuring Dave Pickerel. Plus reviews on WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey & Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey.
Recently I had the good fortune to attend WhiskyFest DC. The is the annual festival of all things whisky, organized by the folks behind The Whisky Advocate, a quarterly glossy magazine devoted to, well, all things whisky. DC is only the fourth, and the most recent, venue for this annual large-scale whisky tasting event. WhiskyFest is also put on in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
According to the event’s website, it is “the longest-running and best-attended whisky festival in the U.S.” and presents “the opportunity to taste from a selection of more than 275 whiskies from around the world” as well as “attend free seminars conducted by whisky experts.” I skipped the seminars this time, as I was having too much fun chatting with fellow whisky drinkers, the whisky makers, whisky brand representatives, and various friends and colleagues. Oh, and tasting whisky too.
Anecdotally, the event seemed a big success. In years past when I attended the NY event, it always felt like a mob-scene. This DC show, though fairly packed, did not feel nearly so congested. One could move about without knocking into other people, as well as find space at each tasting table without too much of a wait. More importantly, once could carry on a conversation without having to shout or otherwise strain one’s ears. It all seemed very civilized.
There were many standout whiskies on offer too, several of which were made by Dave Pickerell, considered a magic-man in American whiskey.
In 2008, after fourteen years as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery, Pickerell broke out on his own and began consulting, effectively shepherding along the fledgling and then soon burgeoning craft-distilling movement. Since then, he has been responsible for both WhistlePig Rye and Hillrock Estate—both of which were on full, glorious display next to each other at WhiskyFest DC.
“I stand here in front of my children,” he joked, gesturing to the two whisky exhibit tables behind him.
I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing Mr. Pickerell multiple times, and each time he graciously and effortlessly allows me to think that he recognizes and even fondly remembers me from encounter to encounter. I don’t imagine there are too many other ‘dreidel-shaped,’ bespeckled, yarmulke wearing kosher wine & spirits writers catching up with him periodically at such tasting and industry events…But even still, most of these take place months apart, and he likely gabs with thousands of other non-familiars in the interim. Regardless, I always enjoy the interaction.
I last chatted with him in October 2015 at a great DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States—the national trade association representing the leading American producers and marketers of distilled spirits, event at the George Washington Distillery at the historic Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia.
At WhiskyFest DC, incidentally, I also bumped into my friend Frank Coleman, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications with DISCUS, and met Kraig Naasz, the new President/CEO of DISCUS. Good people, doing good work to make the world a better—or at least more endurable—place. I often rely upon DISCUS for info on the American booze industry or on policies aimed at encouraging responsible and moderate consumption. I also look to them for help in reaching out to industry folks like, well, Dave Pick
As it happens, I first met Pickerell courtesy of DISCUS back in the fall of 2006, at the official ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony of the then newly recreated George Washington Distillery. It was great fun, and I got to meet not only Mr. Pickerell and a host of other American and Scottish distillers and industry folk, but also Britain’s Prince Andrew and then-Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell.
The UK-connection is that George Washington’s distiller was originally from Scotland; for those not in the know, Washington became a hugely successful rye whisky producer after leaving the presidency. On the strength of that, DISCUS teamed up with the Scotch Whisky Association to create this educational and celebratory homage to America’s great heritage of whiskey production vie George Washington at his distillery on the Mount Vernon Estate. Ever since, I’ve been a Pickerell fan. Well, in truth, I’ve enjoyed his whiskies long before I had ever even heard his name, but you get the idea.
So we schmoozed very briefly again at WhiskyFestDC.
London: Why do you think the craft-distilling movement has taken off in the US?
Pickerell: “Well, you have to go back to previous trends. First was food. That goes from executive and celebrity chefs to the popularity of local products. Next are alcoholic drinks and cocktails. Basically, taste has become important. I think that’s why vodka is on the decline. Terroir is becoming important. A sense of place and locale increasingly matters. Also, folks want historic things; authenticity. This is why rye [whiskey] is doing so well. The fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them. The whiskey rations during the Revolutionary War were in rye. If you want to be authentic, you need rye on the bar.”
London: Is that why you have that tattoo of George Washington’s rye still on your arm?
Pickerell: “When they threw the tea into Boston Harbor, it wasn’t just throwing tea, it was throwing the British way of life, and that included rum—the colonial drink. They certainly weren’t about to quit drinking, but it did mean they were going to switch to something made indigenously, and that was rye whiskey. America was truly settled on the back of rye whiskey and our independence was won on the back of rye whiskey, it is the true American spirit. And George Washington was one of the biggest rye whiskey makers of his era.”
Hard to argue with any of that while drinking either of these awesome rye whiskies from Dave Pickerell:
Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey
(45 percent abv; $90)
The nose starts off stilted and a touch over-woody, but then radically changes on the palate and opens to become a stunning, complex whiskey with warm notes of vanilla, caramel, espresso, prunes, apricots, toffee, cloves, and cinnamon, butterscotch and banana bread, with a long, warming finish that sees additional notes of dark chocolate covered orange peel and baking spice. With time and or water, the nose softens and the over strong wood aromas dissipate, and become rather charming. But even if you’ve got no patience, the palate forgives all.
WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey
(50 percent abv; $70)
One of the world’s great whiskies, WhistlePig offers interesting, lively spice notes of mint, clove, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon, with dried orange peel, vanilla, toffee, hot chili peppers, caramel, and butterscotch, with a long, dry spicy finish. This is a rich, full and delicious rye whiskey. The finish is long and creamy, but never loses the kick of the rye, and with some additional mint, butterscotch and dark chocolate notes. It’s a super great rye whiskey!