Interview

Preaching the gospel

Liza Weisstuch meets the man behind several craft projects
By Liza Weisstuch
On a recent flight to Kansas City, Dave Pickerell carefully examined the in-flight magazine’s map. He realised that within the past year, he’d been to 39 of the 72 cities the airline flies to. Considering the boom in American craft distilling, that’s hardly surprising. Pickerell works as a consultant, helping new distilleries fire up the still, and organise the legal and logistical measures surrounding that. The Ohio native and former army officer has a chemical engineering degree that was put to good use in the 1989 when, for six years, he worked as a consultant. He fine tuned, and sometimes developed, equipment for distilleries like Jack Daniels, Souza Tequila, Canadian Mist and Shandong in China. Then he stepped up to the role of Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark. He left in April 2008 after 14 years.

Today, he owns Oak View Consulting. Like a craft distilling evangelist, he traverses the nation preaching the gospel of the distilling life and providing guidance on how to live it fruitfully.

LW: Did you establish your business to respond to a need? You have a lot of clients now. What was it like at the beginning?
DP: I worked early on with Dan Garrison from Garrison Brothers Distillery in Texas. He and a few others convinced me there was a need for someone like me. Things were fine until October 2008 when the stock market tumbled. Everyone got scared, so in 2009 there was no consulting.

LW: How did you spend the year?
DP: One thing the industry needed was less expensive equipment, so I spent a year doing engineering work with Vendome Copper to develop the “distillery in a box” concept. Vendome always did custom work, but a lot of money got tied up in engineering. I said, let’s engineer a complete set of equipment: mash tun, mill, grain conveyor, fermenters, distillation system. That way, when somebody calls and wants a 100-gallon system, Vendome says: “I have 125-gallon system that’ll be cheaper than us designing one for you.”

LW: A crash in business before it even started must have been daunting. How did you prepare for an eventual turnaround?
DP: I spent a ton of time researching rye. I was convinced it was the next big trend. My crystal ball, as I call it, doesn’t look into the future. It looks into the near past that other folks may have missed. In 2006 and 2007, uptick in rye sales was 20 per cent each year. Most people didn’t recognise it until 2009. Anyone who gets into the market with rye before 2014 is in a good position.

LW: Does your work differ among clients?
DP: I work “a la carte.” I don’t want to do anything for a client he wants to do for himself. Some don’t need help on business plan at all. Others don’t have a clue. I’m not everything for everybody, but I’ve got a network. So if someone needs help designing a bottle, I help them figure out if they want a cheap or high-end stock bottle or custom glass. If they want custom, I know people who do a good job.

LW: Does the craft distilling movement borrow a page from the craft beer playbook?
DP: It’s impossible to overstate this, but there’s a big difference. When craft beer started, there was an awful lot of fakery out there. Great big breweries tried to pretend they were making craft beers, and when the curtain got pulled back, and people realised what the craft beer Oz really was, it was deflated. The level of suspicion rose. By and large, only guys making decent stuff in a true craft manner survived.

LW: So you mean that craft distilling is more authentic?
DP: When people look at any craft business, there’s an expectation: it’s a little guy with a dream making stuff in his backyard. It’s non-corporate. It’s fun to look at who’s out there: one of my clients is an airline pilot, one is an investment banker, another was a contestant on The Apprentice. My objective is putting feet on dreams.

LW: What are the biggest mistakes you see craft distillers make?
DP: There are two red flags. One is when someone launches a vodka to do more than fix a cash-flow problem. The big boys saturated that market beyond belief. It also concerns me when people start out with too many products. But one thing I notice is a dream of getting bought. Fact is: big boys don’t buy portfolios, they buy brands. If you have eight brands and 15,000 cases spread around among them, nobody will look to buy you, but if you’re one brand with 15,000 cases, you’ll probably get an offer.

LW: What’s next?
DP: We’re starting to see a demand for Genevers. That tickles me to death because I’ve been calling that one for some time. Genever is an extension of the white whiskey trend. Consumers are pulling that now, so it’s not a fad, it’s a trend. Big boys started selling it. Maker’s filed for a label to sell theirs. If someone’s already making white whiskey, then Genever is just gin made with white whiskey.

“There’s the throwback cocktail appeal, so that’s a lot of pieces coming together.