I first heard of Dave Pickerell when we both worked for Allied Domecq – I was in Scotland working on Scotch whiskies and he in the U.S. with Maker’s Mark. Some years later I had the chance to visit Kentucky and one highlight of that trip was to be shown round Maker’s Mark by Dave. Getting answers to some of the more scientific and technical questions on bourbon was a treat for me. He is an expert on so many things in the production of spirits and respected worldwide for his knowledge and work.
Here he tells us a bit more about his background and what he’s doing now. Although spending a fair bit of time with Hillrock Estate as a master distiller, he also consults on the creation of other whiskeys like WhistlePig. I could talk to or e-mail him for hours but we didn’t have that kind of time.
Where were you born and brought up?
Born in Xenia, Ohio. Spent my formative years in Fairborn, Ohio, near Wright Patterson Airforce Base.
Ah – is that what encouraged you into West Point, though not in the Air Force?
No. I was offered a full scholarship to West Point to play football.
A sports star. Did you keep it up at all?
As does mine! You graduated in chemistry from West Point and then served as an Army officer. What took you from military to whiskey?
While getting my masters in chemical engineering, my mentor discovered that I’m an idiot savant in distilling. He decided the beverage alcohol industry needed me.
He was so right. What interested you about chemical engineering that you took a Masters in that?
As a 5 year old boy, my over-inquisitive nature was always met with my Dad’s answer of, “only the chemical engineer knows.” I needed to know.
I like your Dad! Where did you first start in the drinks world – consultancy right away or an employee with a drinks producer?
After military service, my mentor introduced me to a small consulting firm with a global reach in beverage alcohol. Consulted for six years before joining Maker’s Mark.
Okay. You consulted for firms worldwide. What specific kind of activities?
Mostly engineered/managed improvements to existing distilleries. Occasionally built one from ground up e.g. the distillery that Heaven Hill currently operates.
I hope they acknowledge that. Your bio says you’ve designed “systems” for many U.S. distilleries. What kinds of systems?
Principally I have designed distillation systems, environmental protection systems, and process control systems.
That’s impressive. People like you gave people like me whisky to market. You settled at Maker’s Mark for around fifteen years. What did you enjoy about the job there?
I enjoyed the challenge of facilitating the growth of a major international brand, and sitting at the feet of Bill Samuels for fourteen years was a particular joy.
One of the industry’s major characters. When I visited there in 2003 you were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Did you feel you’d achieved all you could there?
There are always new mountains to climb, but certainly all the big rocks were in the bucket and I couldn’t ignore the allure of the challenges in the craft spirit world.
It is a thriving scene. What came after Maker’s and before Hillrock Estate, if there was a gap?
Spent most of 2009 designing distillery equipment for Vendome (Copper & Brass Works). Also spent time looking for investors for a brand that would become WhistlePig.
I’ll get to that one later. What tempted you to get involved at Hillrock and is that where you now spend most of your time?
I wrote a magazine article on terroir in whiskey that caught the eye of Hillrock owner Jeff Baker. He proposed the concept for Hillrock and I couldn’t refuse.
Hillrock accounts for about a third of my time presently.
It looks beautiful in photos. What’s the view from your office window – if you have an office there?
My office is usually a hotel room in any Marriott. Presently I’m looking directly at the Empire State Building…
But you must get some views at distilleries.
It’s the fields while I’m at Hillrock, the Green Mountains while at WhistlePig, and the sunrise over the Potomac while at Mount Vernon.
Lucky! Website indicates each grain field at Hillrock is separately harvested and distilled. Will you do individual field bottlings in future or simply blend them?
Good question. Intent at Hillrock is to see if terroir is expressed field-by-field. If so, we’ll bottle by field. If not, we’ll marry together. We’re still learning.
Terroir getting some attention these days. Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon is a fascinating idea for bourbon. How did you come to that one?
Jeff Baker – old world wine fan; our operations manager was a winery cellarmaster. I’ve always been fascinated with sherry. Seemed a natural marriage of our three passions.
Nice thinking. You also oversee production at George Washington Mount Vernon distillery but I’ve read you produce a rye that is a mix of Hillrock and George Washington distillation.
Actually, I produce limited quantities of George Washington Rye whiskey at Hillrock under license from Historic Mount Vernon.
Now that’s clearer than in the piece I saw. Tell us more about WhistlePig Rye. Rye seems to be important to you these days. Is it an underrated type of whiskey?
Rye whiskey should be America’s historic spirit as it predates bourbon by 150 years. When I started my affiliation with Mount Vernon, rye was almost a dead category.
So what do you get out of the WhistlePig involvement?
I’m excited to see rye come back to life and gain the prominence it deserves. WhistlePig was my first private endeavor to help with the resurgence of the category.
WhistlePig Old World – delicious choice of finishing cask types (madeira/sauternes/port). Tell us why those and how long it spends in them.
I want to supplement the whiskey taste with Old World notes. My style of finishing is short term, 3 to 10 weeks.
How did you get to those cask types?
We tried nearly every type of Old World fortified/ high residual sugar content barrel. We also had about 500 bartenders in focus groups to narrow the field to the top three.
What is the main maturation wood?
By law, the first barrel must be a new, charred oak. Specifically, our first barrel is a 53-gallon #3 (light) char barrel.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions as a distiller?
My great grand uncle is Col. E. H. Taylor. I would love my legacy to be that I left as big of a footprint in the beverage alcohol industry as he did. [Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. is known as the father of the modern bourbon industry.]
To help with prep for this chat I asked about your outside interests and was told you just work hard! Do you have any interests outside of work?
I love to travel and to see friends. It’s a good thing that my job facilitates that. I am also co-writing a Rye Whiskey cocktail book with my good friend, Amanda LaFrance.
Any other pursuits?
I really enjoy reading as well and usually have two or three books going at the same time.
Which the travel would make easy. Do you travel a lot for work these days? If so, where do those travels take you?
I travel virtually all the time. Mostly to the major cities in the U.S. However, I am on my way to South Africa in a couple weeks as part of a USDA trade delegation. [for non-US readers, USDA is the United States Department of Agriculture]
What about family time?
I have four AWESOME adult children and three wonderful grandsons. I cherish time with them whenever I can get it. Thank goodness for Skype, phones, and email.
What’s been your proudest achievement in work?
Founding of the Bourbon Trail. I was chairman of the Kentucky Distiller’s Assoc. when we created it. Seems obvious now, but then not everyone was on board with the idea.
What about personal achievement?
Personally, despite lots of obstacles, and with the help of many wonderful people, I am thankful that my childhood dream of being a chemical engineer became a reality.
Why is that so important to you?
My father exposed me to the idea early in life, and at 5 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I hope I have honored him with my accomplishments.
Surely he’d think so. If you were stuck on a desert island, what one whisk(e)y would you have with you? Doesn’t have to be one you’ve made.
That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child.
But you have to…
Stuck on a desert island, I’d probably build a jury-rigged still from scrounged components and make my own whiskey from whatever ingredients I could find there.
I should maybe have expected that!
Isn’t that what drove the creation of most of the world’s spirits, necessity and availability?
Probably so. And now we’re done. Many thanks, Dave Pickerell, for taking time to share all this with us.