I was in Seoul when I heard the news of Dave Pickerell’s sudden passing. I was at a bar called Pussyfoot Saloon, a polished vintage-train-themed cocktail joint that’s all class and creativity. The Korean-born owner, Wendell Louie, lived in New York for more than 25 years.
He and I and the bar manager, Seoul-based Parisian Bob Louison, had been chatting about the city’s thriving bar scene and whiskey matters of all sorts, when a friend called with the ghastly news. I am sure I was an ashen shade of pale when I shared the news with the gentlemen, who immediately took action. Before I knew it, 15 shot glasses were lined up on the bar and Bob filled each one with Maker’s Mark. Then, in a tidal wave of hospitality, they rounded up the guests, passed out the shots, and allowed me to say a few words.
I’ll never know how much of what I said was lost in translation. I’ll never know whether the bar-goers fully understood that Dave was pretty much responsible for what the American craft distilling industry is today, and, by ripple effect, the global craft distilling industry, too. But I do know that they smiled, stood close to their friends, and relished the shot of Maker’s, where Dave worked for 14 years producing that iconic Bourbon before going on to become something of an icon himself.
Dave would have loved to know that on the other side of the planet, late at night, a small crowd of fun-loving hipsters in the country some refer to as the 'Ireland of Asia' paused for a moment to toast his name.
Dave needs no introduction. His trademark wide-brimmed Stetson hat, his booming, easy laugh, his forward-thinking ideas, his appreciation for the industry’s heritage, and his omnipresence in distilleries around the United States have been honoured in numerous obituaries, tributes, and late-night conversations since his passing. He’s been referred to as the godfather of American whiskey, the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey, a legend and many other sobriquets that point to his wide-ranging influence. But nicknames are whimsical and vague. For the fact-oriented left-brained among us, consider this: Dave had more airline miles and hotel points than anyone you know.
I could go on about his accomplishments but my memories of Dave were simply as a friend
Everyone who’s ever come within sniffing distance of a glass of Bourbon has, in a sense, a memory of Dave, whether conscious or subconscious, because Dave was such a tremendous force. His impact comes from his foot being firmly rooted in the past, thanks to his tenure with Maker’s and his involvement with the project at Mount Vernon to faithfully restore George Washington’s Distillery with historically accurate equipment and, more astoundingly, distil the founding father’s rye whiskey recipe. But that knowledge of the past was merely a launchpad to the future, as he seemed to never stop pushing the boundaries of what American whiskey can be.
Recently, Jeff Kozak, CEO of Whistle Pig (one of the many whiskeys Dave helped create), noted that without Dave rye would still be on the bottom shelf and wouldn’t have become a go-to for bartenders. The godfather, indeed.
I could go on about his many accomplishments, but my memories of Dave will always be that of, quite simply, a friend. I met him during that aforementioned journey to Maker’s Mark Distillery in 2005, my first time visiting an American whiskey facility, or any whiskey distillery for that matter. I watched as Dave filled a glass with white dog, a ferocious-sounding name for a fierce liquid. Then I listened as this grizzly bear of a man explained the drink and told us to nose for its sweet notes with the gentleness and jovial energy of a teddy bear.
That moment, that peek into the historic whiskey-making process, flicked some switch in my brain, and probably my soul, too. Since that day, Dave has nourished my own passion, and career, always picking up his phone whenever I needed a quote or a nugget of information, no matter how late. Then again, there was no telling, it might have been morning outside his window, what with him always being on the road.
Now, though, I’ll think of him as he drinks his share with the rest of the angels at the great warehouse in the sky. Cheers until we meet again, buddy.