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Master Whiskey Wizard Dave Pickerell Interview: Part 2

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Part 2 of our three part interview with former Maker’s Mark master distiller and current craft wizard guru Dave Pickerell. In part 1 we learned of his backstory and years at Maker’s Mark, and today we we take a look at his time at WhistlePig and Hillrock Estate. Watch for Part 3 tomorrow. Note as well this interview has been edited for clarity.

The Whiskey Wash [TWW]: Let’s talk about your two main pet projects first and then we’ll come to some of the other consulting that you’ve got going on. There’s Hillrock Estate, and then there’s WhistlePig. We won’t ask you which one is your favorite because it probably depends on the day and what you’re working on.

Dave Pickerell: Probably, and it’s hard to say I have a favorite kid.

TWW: Let’s talk about WhistlePig first, which is what brought you out here to Portland on your visit. Talk a little bit about the history of the brand, how it became to be known as WhistlePig and what your goal with it is.

Pickerell: Our mission at WhistlePig is simple: world dominance in the category of rye whiskey over 6 years old. What that meant is we had to create that category because it didn’t exist before WhistlePig. Then it meant dominating it and we have done both of those things. It means providing the best tasting whiskey that people have known. It means being innovative in that arena and continuing to push. A true leader can’t just sit on our laurels and say, “Yeah, look what I did.”

At different times variants of WhistlePig have been voted best rye whiskey in the world. Our 10-year, first of all, when we released that, one enthusiast gave us a 96 and it was the best rye whiskey they’ve ever rated. The next year we did a variant where we took some of our 10-year, took it out of the barrel, put it back in another brand new barrel, let it sit for an extra year and did a one off called Triple One. Whiskey Magazine said, “that was the best rye whiskey in the world that year.”

Then, most recently, we’ve been experimenting with Old World finishes. Our Sauternes-finished 12-year old got to San Francisco this year in time to get entered in the competition and was declared best rye in show. It’s continuing to up the bar and to innovate and show leadership through innovation and not just throwing junk out there, but throwing really good stuff out there.

Dave Pickerell WhistlePig
Dave Pickerell promoting one of the the WhistlePig whiskies (image via WhistlePig)

TWW: What’s the backstory on The Old World Project?

Pickerell: I literally locked myself in the farmhouse for two days and said, “Just leave me alone. I have to really focus on the spirit we’ve got, our growth plans and objectives, and what we’re going to do. I would study and make notes and spreadsheets and whatnot until I just couldn’t see. Then I’d take a nap and I’d get back up and go at it again.

At the end of the 2 days I came out and said, “Oh, great. Here’s the plan for our distribution strategy. Here’s our goals and objectives and, oh, by the way, we’re going to launch a line extension.” And I’m gonna reserve this juice right here for it and it’s going to be of some kind of a married whiskey, some kind of an Old World finish and then, literally, 3 years worth of very diligent work went into it.

I was just interviewed by a major publication that’s going to do an article on us and their comment was [that] when we released the Sauternes, Madeira, and Port finishes individually, we [had] caught up with the Scotch [world] and [that] when we released the married finish we passed them, which was what we wanted to do and why we’re going to do it.

When we started at WhistlePig, I think our real story isn’t good taste. It’s a vision to the future and bold action. Literally, when I said, “I think we need to study Old World finishes,” most people would have said, “Okay. Let’s go buy one barrel of this and one barrel of that.” We bought two container loads and basically said, “There is going to be wisdom in here some place. We just have to find it.”

It’s like the little optimistic kid that finds a pile of horse manure. He’s digging and slinging and he goes, “I know there’s a horse around here some place and I’m gonna find it.” I’m kind of that kid.

We got two container loads. We had Sauternes, Madeira, Port, Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso. I even got Alexandre Gabriel from Pierre Ferrand to agree to do a swap on Pierre Ferrand XO. It’s like, “Let’s just see what we can find out. We loaded up barrels and started doing tasting out of them.

I’m really tied in with the bartender community. We had over 500 bartenders involved in focus groups over the 3 years to help us sort it out. Eventually, we set aside the XO…as cool but not commercially viable.

The bartenders ring-fenced to two sherry finishes and said, “Set those aside for something else. Let’s focus on these other three.” Then we developed those finishes to figure out, individually, what would make them the best and then figured out how to marry them in the best way. Literally, it’s bold action.

We’re going beyond that now. We got to saying, “You know, okay, we’re thinking terroir.” We got our grain fields in Vermont. What’s another step? The next step is we got oak trees, why don’t we harvest our own oak? It doesn’t hurt that Brad Boswell, the owner of Independent Stave, is a very good personal friend of mine. I called him up and said, “Hey. Do you wanna get involved in a cool barrel project?” We’ve been cutting Vermont oak and shipping it down to Independent Stave to make him the barrels and then custom-preparing the barrels according to a spec that I prepared and a criteria that we jointly agreed on that’s different than anything that’s ever been put together. It’s always pushing the envelope a little farther, something else is nice, it’s cool, it’s neat.

TWW: We remember you mentioning recently that you guys are growing grains at your Vermont location now. When do you expect the first fruits of that labor to go into bottle?

Pickerell: That’s probably several years but we’ve been doing it now for 3 or 4 years. I just inspected it. I think we got one field left to harvest right now. We got 1,100 tons of grain for next year.

TWW: Let’s jump over to Hillrock. When you think about these two major projects you’re on, WhistlePig seems to get the lion’s share of the media attention right now just because of intense focus on rye. Hillrock, however, has been producing some really interesting stuff as well. Talk a little bit about the history of Hillrock and the philosophy behind that distillery.

Pickerell: The reason that started was because of an article that I wrote… [that] was principally about terroir and whiskey.

Jeff Baker, the owner of Hillrock, has been doing sustainable farming as part of his life from the time that he became an adult. He had this farm sitting in the Eastern Hudson Highlands of New York and was contemplating what can he do in the realm of sustainable agriculture that makes sense on his farm. The builder of the Estate House was a fellow named Israel Harris, who was a revolutionary war captain. He was purported to be one of the first couple of people to enter Fort Ticonderoga. After the war was over, he was a grain merchant. We know that that part of the country in the Revolutionary War era was the breadbasket of America. It seemed to him that returning it to grain was a good answer.

He saw my writings and said, “That’s what I wanna do. I want to express terroir and whiskey.” He got a hold of me. We partnered up and he said, “Look. I just want you to come make whiskey for me. I want you to make award-winning whiskey. And the boundaries can be broad as you want except that, at some point in time, I want you to make me a smoke-bomb Scotch style whiskey. But other than that, just go win awards.”

We set about to be the experts in multi-barrel aging. We’ve got three different products. We’ve got a bourbon, a rye and a malt. All three of them use different multi-barrel aging techniques. The bourbon uses a solera and it is a true solera with four criaderas…and about 1,000 barrels.

Then we’ve got a double cask rye that hits two brand new barrels and, in some cases, a third barrel with a finishing technique. Then we’ve got a single malt, which when we started, in order to get around young-ish whiskey, we interleave the flavors. Literally, I know this is nuts but we started out with some whiskey [that] went in 1-liter barrels and you could only leave it in there for weeks. It would go out of the 1-liter barrel and will go into a 2-liter barrel for another 6 to 8 weeks. Then it would go into a 5-liter barrel. That’s how I was getting the taste profile…I can get that from this barrel and this from that barrel and that from that barrel.

Then we also started finishing so that the solera and the malt were both finished in Oloroso. It then made sense to start experimenting. We’ve got our own malt house, which gives us an extra degree of experimentation because we can choose our own smoke levels, we can choose whether we’re going to be using peat or wood or whatever.

Dave Pickerell
Dave Pickerell over at Hillrock Estate in New York (image via Hillrock Estate Distillery)

TWW: With your American single malt we’re familiar a little bit with the history of it. The first three barrels were a calmer single malt. Then, if we remember it correctly, barrel four was the one that you guys did your first real smoke with. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Pickerell: The first little while we malted without smoke just because that was an extra degree of complexity which we didn’t need. Our first round of malt whiskeys where Irish style: non-peated, the comparative would be like a Redbreast 12. [We then decided] let’s turn on the smoke and take another step and so we’ve got up to 8 hours smoke.

We [then] bumped it up and said, “Well, let’s try 14.” Right now, we’ve got in the warehouse 20 hours smoke that’s also…finished in sherry. That will be available for sale, I think, October 1st.

Join us tomorrow as we round out our time with Pickerell, talking with him about his craft whiskey consultancy and the state of the whiskey industry in general.


Nino Kilgore-Marchetti

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and provided tasting input on many whiskeys at competitions. He also maintains a large private collection of whiskey from which he continually educates his palate on this brown spirit type.

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