We caught up with Dave Pickerell as he zoomed into London on a flying visit to launch WhistlePig FarmStock Rye Crop No.002 whiskey (available exclusively here, FYI!), first at a rammed tasting at the Bloomsbury Hotel and later at Hedonism Wines in Mayfair. He’s a busy man but he managed to give us half an hour of his undivided attention to tell us about his obsession with all thing rye…
WhistlePig is a distillery that’s made the headlines for many reasons over the years, from founder Raj Bhakta’s original dream of making rye whiskey in Vermont and its first releases to the brand’s cameo in Breaking Bad and everything in between. We meet master distiller Dave Pickerell to discuss recent events as WhistlePig FarmStock Rye Crop No.002 hits the shelves here in the UK.
MoM: Hello Dave, welcome to London, could you tell us how you first got into making whiskey?
Dave Pickerell: I enrolled at the University of Louisville and was studying for my Masters degree (in chemical engineering) and discovered that I’m an idiot savant at distilling! Truly, it’s not about smarts; it’s about some innate sense that I can close my eyes and see molecules running around in a still and know where they’re going next and why. My mentor told me that the beverage alcohol industry needed me. And there was a small consulting firm in Louisville that did nothing but beverage alcohol and they’d just landed a contract and it was more than they could handle and they needed another chemical engineer. I got to work in China, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, the Dominican Republic, and all over the US. I learned about fine spirits, and lousy spirits, all over the world.
How did you end up working for Maker’s Mark?
One of my clients was Maker’s Mark. And one day I was down at Maker’s Mark and Bill Samuels just waves me over and he says, ‘did you know that we’re looking for our next master distiller?’. I said, ‘no sir, I didn’t’, and he said ‘well that explains why you didn’t apply for it because we’ve just exhausted our entire candidate pool, and didn’t find anybody we liked. We’re tired of looking, we like you and if you want it, the job’s yours’. That was my whole interview! And I stuttered for the only time in my life! It took me like a minute to say ‘yes, thank you’, and then for 14 years I stayed as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark before leaving to found Whistlepig.
Why did you leave Maker’s Mark?
I fell in love with rye all the way back in 2001. I had been asked to join the team to resurrect George Washington’s distillery. And while I was involved in that, it was like having a girlfriend. I literally fell in love with the concept of rye and the history of rye and the heritage of rye and the taste of rye. But rye was a dying category. The resurgence began with the cocktail culture in the United States. And so they [bartenders] got out the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book and the Jerry Thomas Cocktail Book and they started reading and they discovered that the first Manhattan had rye in it and the first Julep had rye in it. And before the Old Fashioned was old it had rye in it. In 2006, strictly on the back of the bartenders, rye whiskey grew 20% and it was the first time it had grown in decades. And I began to get excited. In 2007 it grew at 30% and then in April of 2008 I left Maker’s Mark with a concept but no money. And the concept was that rye whiskey is coming back as a trend, not a fad, that it will be possible to create a subcategory – rye whiskey over six years old – that it will be possible to own that category and it will be possible to do it with the best rye whiskey ever made. And so with just those few beliefs I went shopping for somebody that could command enough money to get the brand started and who was like-minded.
Which brings us on to the Raj Bhakta and Whistlepig. How did you get in touch with him?
Raj – who has this farm in Vermont – had a concept for a distilled spirit that he was trying to put together. I was consulting for Vendome Copper & Brass, the largest stillmaker in the United States and Raj called them up and said, ‘hey, do you know anybody that consults in spirits because I’ve got an idea I’d like to run by them’. And Vendome put us together. I flew out in December to Raj’s farm in Vermont and we sat down. He presented his ideas to me, I presented my ideas to him and we went back and forth and talked about the relative merits, talked about trends; I actually had a whole PowerPoint on all the trends, the articles that had been written, all the sales data. And by the end of the afternoon he had agreed to shelve his idea and take mine. And so we shook hands and agreed that we were going to bring the best rye whiskey in the world into the market. And by 4 July of the next year we ran our first bottles.
Who came up with the idea for the distinctive WhistlePig logo, a pig with a cigar?
Raj and I are both fans of history, especially Churchill, and so we went to a local design school and asked them to do a competition to produce a pig who looked like Winston Churchill. This was the winning entry.
Raj Bhakta is something of a colourful figure. Is he still with the business?
He’s still involved for right now but only as a silent partner. He’s moved onto other things, he’s ready for the next chapter in his life. And so, while he’s still a majority owner, he’s taken a role as a silent partner.
Can we talk a little bit about wood because you said that the key to rye is managing the tannins. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Yes, so what we discovered is traditionally rye tends to have a back palate burn. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered a rye whiskey to somebody and they cringe and they go ‘oh, OK’ and they’re waiting for the kick in the throat. It turns out that rye plus alcohol, plus tannin equals back palate burn. And I don’t want to get rid of the rye or the alcohol so that means manage the tannin level. So step one for us is air dry the wood. And when you air dry the wood – we’d air dry it for like nine months to a year – and when you leave it outside, most of the tannins will bleach off of the wood. And it’s rather dramatic, I mean if you set the wood down and you come back a year later, the ground underneath is like chocolate because of all the tannins that have come out. And so once you get the tannins out of the way, then you can leave the whiskey in the wood long enough to get a balance between the rye spice and the caramel without the tannins being in the way.
And now you’re experimenting wood finishes with your Old World rye. Can you tell me about the process there?
The goal was, we want to be a detour sign. When people leave bourbon we’d like for them to try rye before they go to Scotch, and that means keeping an eye on what’s going on in Scotland. And my dear friend, Dr Bill Lumsden, is up there at Glenmorangie, launching Nectar d’Or and Quinta Ruban and Lasanta and all these marvellous finishes, and we had nothing. And so I went to the board and said, ‘they’re getting away from us and if we just launch a series of nice finishes we’re just me-too, and we’re not a me-too company’. So I proposed that we search to make a marriage of finishes of at least three because that had never been successfully done yet. So we rounded up barrels and I got about 16 different kinds of barrels. And we worked up the finishes and then I took them on the road and for two years we did focus groups with bartenders all over America. And about 500 bartenders were involved and we slowly whittled the finishes down until we got it down to Sauternes, tawny Port and Verdelho Madeira. And then I spent another six months trying to figure out the proper proportions to get a really well-balanced drink. And what we wound up with is 63% Verdelho Madeira, 30% Sauternes and 7% Port finish.
Most of your whiskeys are based on Canadian rye distilled in Alberta and then aged in Vermont. What would this amazingly powerful rye whiskey have been used for?
It would have been flavouring whiskey. Most Canadian whisky contains 2.5% cheap alcohol which they are not taxed on, plus fairly neutral grain spirits and then the rest is a really intense whiskey to give it some flavour.
So why did no one else think of bottling it?
Canadian whisky does not have a great reputation. Nobody wanted to buy it because it’s Canadian and they thoughts they wouldn’t be able to sell it. We were the first company to have the guts to sell Canadian whisky.
Seeing as Whistlepig whiskeys are based on Canadian whiskies, have you had problems labelling them?
When we first started we just put ‘product of Canada’ on the label because we thought that was what was appropriate. And then we were taking distillate from Canada, bringing it to the US, further ageing it, putting it in the second barrel, doing some finishing work and the government came back and said ‘no, the juice from Canada is an ingredient but because you’re processing it further, the product is now a product of the United States so you can’t say it’s a product of Canada’. So we took it off the label. We felt bad about it because we want people to know that this distillate is from Alberta. And then a few distilleries got in trouble for being disingenuous on their label and the government came back and said ‘perhaps we were premature, you should say something about Canada on the label’. So we finally settled on the wording of ‘distilled in Canada’ because that is a truthful statement and the government can’t tell us ‘no, you’re lying’. We want to be known as the most transparent distillery.
You’re here the launch the second batch of Farmstock. That’s the only one that contains whiskey distilled Vermont, is that right?
That’s correct, yes. So each year of Farmstock will be a new release. Each year it will be a higher percent whiskey at an older age, from Vermont until it’s finally a hundred percent Vermont distillery, some time in the future. And so we decided it was very important to tell the whole story, so the provenance of every drop of whiskey is declared on the back label.
Earlier today you describe yourself as a ‘cocktail nerd.’ How much of a nerd are you?
I won the Bourbon Festival Cocktail Competition three years in a row! One year I won a cocktail competition with a whiskey sour and I just said ‘I’m going to throw way back’ and I made an egg white stabilised simple syrup, which predates gum acacia and the gums, and I made my own sour mix from freshly squeezed fruit. And then I did a very special shake on it to really establish the bubbles on it. And then actually turned it into a Ward Eight, which I don’t think anybody had made in 15 years! With just a pomegranate float to make it look extra pretty.
You’re working on a book about cocktails. Can you tell me a little about it?
It’s going to be called ‘Rye Not?’ and it’s in two sections: the first section is the history of America as seen through the eyes of rye whiskey, otherwise known as ‘The rise and fall and rise of rye.’ We’ve been making rye for 150 years longer than we’ve been making bourbon and it deserves its spot in American history. And so in addition to a lot of fun and colourful information it’s also a lobbying effort to get the United States Congress to name November ‘American Rye Heritage Month’. And then the rest of it will be a very bartender-friendly cocktail book. All the cocktails are submitted by bartenders who will be credited, it’s going to be lay-flat, water-resistant pages, type size big enough that you can read it in dim light.
I’ve just got one more question. How is the collaboration with Metallica going?
I can’t tell you an awful lot about it yet. There will be product on the street in the United States hopefully in September. When I started working with Metallica, they gave me complete poetic license, because they understand art. They have a process which they call ‘Metallisising’ which is taking something that’s already really good and then kicking it up a notch or two. And I decided to do that with their whiskey.
It sounds like a match made in heaven, we can’t wait to try it. Thank you for your time Dave.
The new WhistlePig FarmStock Rye Crop No. 002 release is available exclusively from Master of Malt this week. It’s made from 32% 2 year old Vermont rye, 45% 6 year old Indiana whiskey and 23% 10 year old Canadian and bottled at 43%.
WhistlePig FarmStock 002 Tasting Notes
Nose: Warm mellow spices on the nose like allspice and cinnamon with some orangey fruit
Palate: Fresh fruity notes then pungent and spicy with a little tobacco character
Finish: Chocolate on the finish but with a nice savoury edge, good length
Overall: Distinctive and effortlessly drinkable, according to Pickerell: “It’s for people who want to drink whiskey all day long.”