It was a rainy June day and pretty much the entire bar industry was gathered at the Brooklyn Expo Center for Bar Convent Brooklyn, the US incarnation of the popular, long-running German trade show/reunion/networking bonanza. I was sitting in a quiet lounge with Rob Dietrich and we were trying to figure out when we first met. He insisted it was at least five years ago. I refused to believe that. 2014 was a long time ago. Then again, any time BTE (Before Trump Era) feels like an eternity ago.
Sure enough, when I got home later that night, I checked my Whisky Magazine archive and there it was, issue 121, October 2014, its cover emblazoned with a Stranahan’s truck parked in front of the distillery.
I had met Rob in 2014, BTE, when I went to Denver to work on a feature about Stranahan’s for this magazine. He'd worked there as master distiller since 2010. We toured the distillery, and he told me about how the concrete rooms, known as the ‘catacombs’, became barrel aging space and the way he creates Snowflake, Stranahan’s annual release.
On this day in 2019, we were talking about his career leap into a new role as master distiller for Blackened, the whiskey developed by the late, great Dave Pickerell in collaboration with Metallica. Rob and I had been in touch intermittently since 2014, at events he hosted in NYC to introduce a new Stranahan’s expression, but hadn’t had a chance to have a proper catchup until now. His signature mutton chops were meticulously trimmed and his rugged casualwear was betraying his Denver origins; he told me that the job was a little daunting, but he was excited about the sheer number of possibilities the project holds.
This is a column about legacy; about the certainty of uncertainty and the amusement that comes with embracing that. Rob is under a lot of people’s watch right now. He is, after all, taking over from one of the most important legends, not to mention the biggest personalities, in the modern American whiskey industry. Dave was pioneer, a distiller who deserved the title ‘master,’ Mr. Miyagi-style, more than most.
I can say to those watching him, especially those who might be a little skeptical, as one is likely to be when a beloved master is replaced, that Rob is going to do just fine and make Dave proud. How do I know? Sure, he can distil. That’s a given. He wouldn’t have been recruited by Metallica if they didn’t trust his work. In my mind, it’s something that gets to the core of whiskey-making: approach. People are increasingly talking about whisky terroir with regard to ingredients and ambient yeast and an assortment of other physical elements. What they don’t always talk about is the approach of the production team, the thing that inspires it.
Sometimes it’s fierce adherence to tradition, sometimes it’s fierce adherence to experimentation, sometimes it’s a commitment to representing place, the makers’ beloved home; be it a city or region. (For instance: the New York-made whiskeys that fall under the new Empire Rye.) Let’s call it emotional terroir. The emotional terroir of Blackened, a blend of five different whiskeys from Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky and Canada, is music.
Yes, there’s the ‘sonic enhancement’ of the aging: barrels are exposed to soundwaves (in this case, a soundbite of Metallica’s lead singer James Hetfield singing the word “blackened”) that penetrate into the wood. But there’s something else, too. “The band said ‘We know how to make music, you know how to make whiskey. We consider you a rock’n’roll distiller,’” Rob told me. “I like to do things differently. Dave liked to do things differently. Dave created a unique American whiskey blend. He cherry-picked the best of what’s out there.” There are similarities in making a band, or song, or performance, or team of whiskey producers.
And about that team: Rob made fast friends with the band, who he actually worked for as a stagehand in 1996 during a career in music production. Metallica's James Hetfield has a 1938 hybrid cab four-door pickup that he calls the ‘War Wagon.’ (This truck-ignorant reporter hopes she got that right.) “It’s so cool. We’re gonna work on it together,” Rob declares.