People

The master distiller

Dave Pickerell was to whisky what Michelangelo was to ceilings, an absolute master
By Jim Leggett
Dave Pickerell passed away? The man I’d just interviewed days before, gone? Can’t be, I hope… but it’s true.

Condolences flood the newswires, top brand distillery moguls, humble whisky artisans, fans of Dave’s famous brand associations and rock stars, too, share heartfelt grief while I’m struggling to find appropriate words. Dave’s life and times feature for Whisky Magazine suddenly becomes an obituary.

Metallica's just-released Blackened whiskey, every bottle featuring Dave’s signature, sits on my desk.

“The Metallica family is stunned and in disbelief at the loss of our friend and partner, Dave Pickerell. He was not only a mentor and friend, we considered him a member of Metallica. We learned so much from Dave in the all too brief time we had together. But more than anything, Dave was our good friend and we will miss him tremendously.” – Metallica.

Proclaimed the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey by one magazine, his name alone made him an international celebrity, sought out to autograph bottles, barrels, even restaurant napkins! Dave’s like will never been seen again.

American Whiskey magazine just published Dave’s final interview and, in honour of the great man, we decided to reprint it. – Ed.

“The band basically commissioned me... one artist to another... to make a whiskey expression that would give them another avenue to touch their fan base. They trusted me to make something worthy... in the whiskey community and the music community. I insisted that when I was ready, they needed to convene a sort of critical murder board to make sure my creation was worthy. Once approved, we had Blackened American whiskey.” – Dave Pickerell

Metallica’s raucous rendering of Whisky in the Jar – a 17th century song by the way – might have inspired the ageing bad boys' launch of Blackened, their own whiskey brand. However, AWM's investigation uncovered this much anticipated dram’s astonishing back story: a master distiller’s Merlin-like alchemy, a giant Moller pipe organ, and, would you believe it, classical music to boot.
I finally caught up with Dave Pickerell, onetime West Point Military Academy cadet, professor of chemistry, music lover and master distiller, formerly with Maker's Mark and many craft distillers, as he boarded a flight to San Francisco, who told me how he got into the whiskey lark.

WEST POINT’S MOLLER ORGAN

“During my West Point student cadet days, majoring in chemistry and nuclear engineering, I joined a group called the Ushers and Acolytes Society, spending much time in the Military Academy’s Chapel, where I became friends with then Chapel organist Dr. Davis," Dave recalled.

"After services one Sunday evening he calls me over, ‘Listen to this…’ he nods, launching into Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (think Phantom of the Opera), a composition which so masterfully demonstrated the great organ’s mind-blowing acoustic range. ‘And now, for the full effect of the voice!’ Low note reverberations throbbing throughout the chapel, stained glass windows rattling. I was transfixed, utterly amazed.”

West Point’s massive Moller, built and installed in 1911, boasts 874 speaking stops controlling 23,236 pipes. Thanks to its wide range and unique character, it's the alleged Grandfather of all pipe organs. “You could almost count the vibrations as it shook your guts," he added. "Reverberations so powerful, if played and held too long, they could actually damage the building.”

Never in 1000 years could Dave have imagined those soaring Bach reverberations and Saint-Saëns' thundering Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony) finale might one day form the genesis for Metallica’s sonically infused whiskey!

Dave told me Lars Ulrich and the lads “wanted something fans would take to heart, something of refined signature – something very special.”

Metallica was already working with Meyer Sound, creators of the sound system used during concerts. To produce this new whiskey, a special Meyer subwoofer amplifies ultra-low frequencies and directs a carefully curated Metallica playlist towards Dave’s ageing whiskey barrels.

“We are not playing music just to make the barrels happy!” Dave interjects. “Metallica’s clean, crisp rhythms assist in the process, but I’m sure you could get an effect just by hitting the barrels with a low-frequency hum. But to cause molecules to vibrate, which affects the whiskey, during bombardment we can demonstrate a colour change very quickly using Metallica soundtracks.”

He’d seen videos of beakers of liquids subjected to sound waves, noting how liquids would vibrate, swirl and come to a mirror smooth stop when subjected to sound waves. So, ‘Merlin’ Dave was ready to work his magical experiment: acoustic sound waves and their effect on whiskey.

The result – Blackened – is a collaboration of Bourbons, ryes and whiskeys from all across North America, carefully selected by himself , and which “once married, make their way into black brandy barrels for finishing.”

In a subsequent blind tasting of nips, Blackened batch 81 and 82, one taster questioned their noticeable differences. “All we did was vary Metallica’s playlist, this was the only variant between batches, and amazingly the final taste was different!” Dave explains.

Each batch of only 5,000 bottles will use a different 'Black Noise' (the name of the new process) Metallica playlist, with full details on the band’s website.

CLASSSICS AND MOOD SWINGS

"I am overwhelmed. This brought tears to my eyes. This is Metal before there was Metal. Play it full volume.” –Viktoria Van Holton.

No, YouTube video reviewer Van Holton isn’t raving over Metallica! What caught her attention, the finale of Saint-Saëns's Symphony No 3 (Organ Symphony). Normally a masterpiece for full orchestra, suddenly an organ solo arranged and played by organist Jonathan Scott, blew her away: “Oh my word! That is the first time I’ve ever heard this piece with no orchestra. That guy (Scott) was busier than a one legged Riverdancer.”
What’s all this music stuff this got to do with whiskey? While whiskey pairings with food and cigars are often lauded, I’ve often mused about matching whiskeys with music? I mentioned this to Dave, who agreed sounds do have an effect on the palate: “We’re running a seminar where we blindfold people, have them taste food to varied sounds, it’s really cool… not unlike like cigar pairing.”

Music does have a distinct empowerment in the enjoyment of a chosen dram. Depending on mercurial mood swings, during contemplative moments I absolutely relish the celestial beauty of Sanctus sublimely performed by Libera, (a chart-topping classical/mainstream, all-boy English chorister band) sensually enjoyed with RUA, a smooth and soulful American single malt from Ollie Mulligan’s Great Wagon Road Distillery of Charlotte NC.

For Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, rare and robust Balmaha, a 15-years-old Island single malt Scotch whisky. I picked up my prized bottle number 100 (of a release restricted to just 270) along Loch Lomond a few years back.

Irish singer-songwriter and musician Enya’s Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)? It's been brilliantly adapted by Robert Prizeman for Libera’s choral majesty and pure vocals, and set amidst stunning wind and percussion. A gentle nip of H. Clark Distillery’s Tennessee Rye helps further soothe the senses.

Getting back to Metallica – I’ve opened the FedEx delivery box, unwrapped the first ever Blackened bottle delivered in North Carolina; uncork, pour, observe honey gold nectar cascade into glass.

The nose? A-ha! Take notice, this is no ordinary bevvy! As for the taste? Wow! It demands eye opening attention. And swallow. Whew – nice one Dave! To be sure, one can almost hear that mighty Moller organ or is it Metallica’s unforgettable Whisky in the Jar?

Sadly, we’ll never hear Dave’s reply, nor share in further anecdotes of his wild motorcycle days, riding ton-up like there was no tomorrow.

“Hell, I really loved to ride fast!” he laughed. “I’d be flying down some country road, doing 140 miles an hour, landscape a blur. I’m thinking, ‘Just one pebble in the road – and I’m dead!’” And did he keep up that pastime? “Nah, had to stop – I’d have killed myself…”

Dave spoke, too, about his love of music. “I enjoy all kinds, classical, 60s hits, rock – all kinds, as long as it’s well played.”

He was also experimenting, using blindfolds, to discover how alcohol enhances the enjoyment of music, a subject close to my heart.

"Dave was a man who loved life, which was the first thing we loved about him. We started looking for a partner as we were getting into the whiskey business a year ago, and as soon as we were introduced to Dave we knew he was the right guy. We saw so much of ourselves in him; his passion, his curiosity, his autonomy, his independence. We knew this was the right partner for our whiskey endeavour. He was so generous with his time and his energy, and his enthusiasm was so inspiring to be around. I’m forever grateful for my all too brief time with him." – Lars Ulrich, Metallica