Interview: Dave Pickerell, Distilling Savant
“We discovered I was an idiot savant in the distilling class as an undergraduate in chemistry: I got a 99% - and the next highest score was 35%,” Dave Pickerell recalls, laughing. “I wasn’t the top in anything else - but distilling, I was king.” It may be in the blood: his great granduncle is EH Taylor.
Dave Pickerell is a legendary master distiller, formerly helming Maker’s Mark for 14 years before now leading the charge at Whistlepig, Hillrock, and Mount Vernon. He also serves as a consultant for over 100 distilleries, and according to Tom Bulleit of Bulleit Whiskey, has installed the most stills in history. Pickerell is also a loveable dirty bear of a man, with a calm and soothing presence that makes you feel utterly at home, but also with a love of riding motorcycles at inadvisable speeds and collecting tattoos from the top tattoo artist in every city. His background is surprising and mixed: he grew up in poverty, became the All State champion of Colorado for karate, which he tells mirthfully while patting his belly, stating plainly that no one expects it from him, before serving in the army for 12 years and lecturing as a professor of chemistry at West Point and the University of Louisville.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with him to chat at Tales of the Cocktail and to taste two fo his new whiskies, the Farmstock Triple Terroir and the Boss Hog V (Mauve Edition) whiskey.
The tasting started with the FarmStock #002, which he describes as “Easy like Sunday Morning” and “for the Irish whisky drinker.” Despite his rare gift of synesthesia (in which senses such as taste translate into color and patterns), Dave is excellent at describing cocktails in straightforward terms: the 10 year is “for cocktails”, 12 is “dessert”, and 15 is “for a cigar.”
What was his most memorable “pattern” he sensed for a whisky?
The 12 year. He remembers the moment clearly: he was alone in his apartment and after 4.5 years of tinkering, he had an epiphany: trade some of the port aged content for increasing the madeira aged component. He dropped it on his tongue and “it grew like a vibrating ball and I then got up and literally did the snoopy dance.” Until then, he had grown increasingly discouraged; for the past 6 months, he had focused entirely on the 12-year, trying a new microbatch every night.
What do you look for when developing a whisky?
“I approach it the same way I do when I judge cocktails for competitions: 1) does it taste good, 2) can you taste all the ingredients, 3) is it well balanced? If it doesn’t hit all of those notes, it still need work.” Other than that, the whisky needs the Dave Pickerell “signature”: a distinct lack of burn from purposeful removal of tannins. This is achieved by air drying the wood for at least 9 months, allowing bacteria to remove the compounds that would leave an uncomfortable heat.
Tell me about Boss Hog
Like Adam and Eve, in the beginning, there was Mortimer and Mauve. They were pigs. They were the mascots of the brand and became the charges of Daniel, Whistlepig’s first employee, to train to sit, stand, and walk the red carpet. The secret? “Chocolate,” said Daniel. Mortimer died a few years ago, prompting the release of “Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” (MSRP $200), which was maple-inspired in reference to Mortimer’s grand escape early into Whistlepig’s history. Mortimer “needed to see the world”, said Dave, and was finally found rooting around in maple sugar trees. Mauve died this year on Valentine’s Day, presumably from a broken heart pining away after Mortimer. In her honor, the Boss Hog V: Spirit of Mauve seeks to evoke her favorite food: apples, using whiskey aged in calvados barrels. Dave describes it as “developing from spice to apple - and then apple pie with a long lingering finish.”
How do you address the millennial palettes and tastes?
“Years ago, when I was at Maker’s Mark [as its head distiller], a loyalist was someone who exclusively drank one product. Then it became someone who drank 4 times out of 10 for a brand – and now someone who drinks the same thing 2 times out of 10.”
“The problem is, Millenials are grazers. I just want them to graze in my field.” To keep them interested, Dave has 30-40 finishes aging away, including one in a Pierre Ferrand XO barrel. Most interesting cask finish so far? “Amarone,” he says, with relish, “tastes like Christmas cookies. The only problem is that I only had a single cask of it.” Unfortunately for the rest of us, the whisky is exclusively available to only Whistlepig staff, and each staff member gets to carry away a bottle or two when they visit the farm.
What is the future of WhistlePig?
“More Vermont”: Every batch released is going to be a higher percentage of Vermont until it’s ultimately 100% Vermont distilled. (footnote: Whistlepig had to import its juice from Canada due to a 5-year permit wait). “Another thing I want to do is age them in our own Vermont-grown trees”. Vermont trees, compared to standard Missouri oak, grows more slowly, with tightly packed tree rings (around 70 rings in the same diameter tree trunk vs. 30-ish for Missouri oak).
“Become your go-to cocktail whisky”: Dave wants to create a Whistlepig at a price point of $2-$2.50 a pour and dominating wells across the country as the standard whisky.
Global Expansion: Daniel, Whistlepig’s first employee (originally tasked with training the two pig mascots) and our host before our meeting with Dave, has graduated from pigkeeper to taking the Whistlepig brand global. He is young and animated, discussing the ins and out of the business with encyclopedic knowledge. “Taiwan”, he noted, “is a strange marketplace. The 15 and the Boss Hog sell like hotcakes, but we can’t sell any of our mid-priced or blended whiskies - they say it’s too inexpensive to be attractive.”
We could have probably chatted with Dave easily for several more hours, if politeness didn’t eventually force us to recuse ourselves from further encroaching on his busy schedule. He had a packed day of interviews (including Forbes magazine before us), was planning to lead several seminars at Tales of the Cocktail, is finishing up a cocktail book, has 12 stills to install by the end of this year, and is in the midst of starting a Louisville campus for spirits and culinary education. He shows no sign of slowing down - if anything, he’s accelerating - and it’s going to be a fun ride.