The Man Who Cultivated a New World of Whiskey
Earlier this winter, the world of American whiskey lost one of its guiding lights. The great Dave Pickerell, a master distiller, chemical engineer, and champion of the American craft distiller movement, died of hypertensive heart failure while attending WhiskyFest San Francisco; he was only 62 years old.
Known by many as the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey for his heretofore seemingly indefatigable assistance to a multitude of small start-up whiskey brands and craft distillers, Pickerell first came to prominence at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. He had joined Maker’s Mark in 1994 as both the vice president of operations and as master distiller, and during his 14 years there he was credited with helping to turn Maker’s into an international brand, and boost annual sales from 175,000 cases to nearly one million.
In 2008, Pickerell broke out on his own and began consulting, effectively shepherding along the fledgling and then burgeoning craft-distilling movement. He also became a champion of rye whiskey and helped spark the resurgence of high-end rye whiskey production. As part of his master distiller-for-hire career, he was responsible for such hugely successful brands of WhistlePig Rye and Hillrock Estate.
I first met the burly and gregarious Pickerell at an event sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the national trade association representing the leading producers and marketers of distilled spirits, in 2006, at the ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony of the newly recreated George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Ever since, I’ve been a Pickerell fan, and was fortunate enough to interview him many times since then.
A couple of years back, during one of those interviews, he explained the growth of the craft distilling movement to me like this: “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. 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.”
Indeed. I can’t really argue with any of that. I propose drinking to the memory of the late great Dave Pickerell with one or both of these awesome rye whiskies:
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, 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 have no patience, the palate forgives all.
WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey (50 percent abv; $80): 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.
For those who still prefer bourbon to rye, one can’t do much better than to toast to Pickerell’s memory with a tumbler of:
Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (45 percent abv; $28): This is a mild, sweet, and very smooth bourbon with notes of vanilla, caramel, wheat grain, allspice, cedar wood, and pipe tobacco followed by a nice, rounded, if slightly quick, clean, and cool finish. It is incredibly drinkable, and remains my preferred bourbon for cocktails. L’Chaim!