WhistlePig Founder Raj Bhakta Speaks On Dave Pickerell's Passing - The Whiskey Wash

WhistlePig Founder Raj Bhakta Speaks On Dave Pickerell’s Passing

Editor’s Note: WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta recently posted on Facebook a powerful tribute to master distiller Dave Pickerell, who passed away recently. With his permission we’ve republished it here for your consideration.

I first met Dave in December of 2009. It was on my farm in Vermont – WhistlePig Farm. I had decided to enter the craft whiskey business with a focus on rye. Dave’s tenure as the Master Distiller of Maker’s Mark had recently come to an end, and Robert Sherman of Vendome Copper had put us in touch.

I knew if we launched a deep—aged rye, with the full support of a famous man of whiskey, it would work. Dave checked both boxes. I set out to seduce him into buying into my plans with everything I had.

But all I had was a broken-down old farm and a dream. I had a slight positive in that Dave had watched the Apprentice, and had liked the show. I also intuited in our conversations that Dave enjoyed the more genteel company of the fairer sex. I had the exquisite good fortune, against all odds, living in the middle of nowhere in VT, of knowing two beautiful identical twins. Really identical. I called them, and asked them if they had Swiss-miss type get-ups. They did. I invited them over to greet Dave, and to serve as hostesses for his visit. Dave was evidently as much charmed by their company as he was by my business plan, and he signed on with WhistlePig.

Even with the twins serving drinks and bringing us food, I knew that I needed buy-in on my business plan, as I was going to pitch the creation of America’s first true luxury farm-to-bottle whiskey brand, priced three times higher than Maker’s Mark, from a dilapidated old farm in Vermont. Before Dave came along, almost everyone with whom I shared my vision looked at me with pity, and a measure of sympathy, as if I were a deluded mad man.

Dave Pickerell

Dave Pickerell doing the WhistlePig thing. (image via WhistlePig)

So, over lots of drinks, we talked business, caroused, belted out the Battle Hymn of the Republic and became partners. When everyone else thought I was a quack, Dave knew from the beginning that WhistlePig would work. He understood the plan, the vision, and he believed. God Bless him for it. He was a visionary, and the world is better for it.

We worked together at warp speed. We met in December and had product shipping out by the Fourth of July. In that time, we secured the whiskey, sourced bespoke bottles, designed a label, and arranged distribution. I can’t move that fast today.

Another story, a Dave classic, involved going to Canada to secure our pipeline of aged whiskey. We flew from Montreal to Calgary in March of 2010. This, too, was an absolutely critical juncture. No whiskey meant no brand.

We were greeted with insult. The seller, a gentleman named Jeff Kozak, now WhistlePig’s CEO, served us Hawaiian pizza. Abomination. To recover, Dave and I drank heavily after closing the deal. But we had secured a long-term supply contract for the best rye in the world at very attractive prices.

To celebrate, we all went out to dinner (Pickerell, Kozak, and me) and caroused mightily. Dave charmed manager of the restaurant. I was impressed. Although Jeff went home, Dave and I ventured forth into the wee hours to continue our rumpus. Walking down the main drag in Calgary, I caught a whiff of BC special tabacy. I procured some, pocketed it, and then, in a drunken haze, promptly forgot that I had it. I only remembered my illicit purchase the following day when I was next in line to clear security at the airport.

Dave was right next to me when they asked that we put our hands in our pockets, pull out any contents and show our hands. Dave saw my face when I pulled out a nice big aromatic clump of herb. I turned white as ghost, and felt my heart rise into my throat, momentarily at a loss for words. I recovered quickly, though, and told the security person that she was very beautiful, as those were the only words that came to mind. Dave laughed, she laughed, and she waved us through.

After the flight, when Dave and I picked up my car in Montreal, we decided to put our contraband up in smoke as we drove to the border crossing on our way back to Vermont. As we approached the frontier, Dave was furiously throwing every little remnant out the window, but the scent lingered. The US border patrol was not as understanding as our Canadian friends. Smelling trouble, they tore the car apart for two hours before they let us go with a stern warning.

Then, capping things off, it began to snow hard – and I brought it back down to the speed limit. We came up fast on a sheriff’s deputy who was driving slowly in the right lane. Dave convinced me that county sheriffs don’t give moving violations. At the time, I hazily recalled getting tickets from sheriffs before, but the great man had given me fulsome assurances, so I blasted past the cop.

Dave was screwing with me. We got pulled over. Still, the sheriff was a Maker’s Mark fan, and Dave talked us out of a ticket.

Such was my introduction to Dave Pickerell. I hope it gives you an idea of who he was: larger than life, a rule breaker, and one of a kind. He was huge character in an age in which more and more of the folks who populate the beverage industry are corporatized. Dave was all soul: a son of dirt poor hillbillies, a scientific genius, a West Point grad and patriot, a storyteller and a friend, who loved you if you loved whiskey and could spare a few minutes to partake in the wisdom that he had in spades.

A couple of years ago, I saw that his health was suffering, and told him that he should slow down. That he should back off. That the late nights and the 300 days a year on the road were taking their toll. Dave responded that he was living exactly how he wanted to live, and that he hoped that he would “die in the saddle,” on the road, preaching the gospel of whiskey. He lived as he wished to live and died as he wished to die. It’s all we can ask for.

Mourn ye not too much. His life was a triumph. May God rest his soul.

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