Whisky Advocate

Guest Blogger: Dave Pickerell, former Master Distiller of Maker’s Mark bourbon

January 7th, 2010

We are honored to have Dave Pickerell as our guest blogger for January. Dave was the Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark for many years, and he really knows his stuff!

I asked him to give his thoughts on what’s going on with the micro-distilling movement, and here’s what he has to say. Thanks Dave!

He has a few questions for you at the end of his post. Post up your thoughts.

First off, I appreciate having the opportunity to “stand in” for John.  His knowledge, depth of insight and understanding and passion for the industry are evident in everything he does.  It is truly an honor to be here.  Thanks, John.

Since I left Maker’s Mark in April 2008, two things have captured most of my attention:  micro-distilling and rye whiskey.  I have spent untold hours probing the depths of both areas.  In fact, Oak View Consulting, LLC. came to life as a result of all that I have discovered here.  When people ask me just what I am trying to accomplish, I tell them that I am trying to “Put feet on dreams”.  However, with a bit of introspection that seems to come with each New Year, I now realize that I am not just trying to put feet on other people’s dreams … they are my dreams, too.

I have met with literally dozens of people who were interested in starting up some sort of distillery or other.  All of them have a passion, but some realize that they do not have enough know-how to get moving, while others are concerned that they may not have enough capital to actually get things off the ground.  It is my observation that many folks that want to start up a new distillery dream of making some sort of whiskey.  However, start-up and maturation costs run in the face of the business plan, and they end up making vodka or maybe gin instead.

Part of my dream is seeing lots of new expressions of whiskey … good ones … from all over America… hit the market… representing a new sort of terroir, where true geographical differences in the U.S. can not only be expressed but also clearly differentiated.  I believe that the effects of locality on grain, water, and climate can be best expressed in a micro-distillery.  Especially in the US, the big whiskey guys pretty much all express the same terroir … because they are located within a stone’s throw of each other and because they pretty much are so big that they are forced to buy commodity grain.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of very good whiskies being produced in the US … it’s just that locality has never been much of an issue.

It occurred to me that two things need to happen.  First, it is essential that the cost of equipment come down to a more affordable price.  Second, it would be good to have a competent one-stop source of information and help to get things up and running. Hopefully, I can in some way help with both of these issues.  I have been working with Vendome Copper and Brass Works on a holistic approach to micro-distilling … and thanks to a great deal of effort on their part, they have already had tremendous results in reducing the capital costs for starting a micro-distillery.  Additionally, I hope that any expertise that I might have gained through my years in the industry might also be helpful to some in getting things up and running.

Finally, the rye … with its bold and delicious character… There has been a lot of talk about the resurgence of Rye Whiskey … and to traditional cocktails (like the Sazerac, Old Fashioned, and Manhattan) that are absolutely delicious with a good measure of rye… no need to cover all that ground again.  Anyone who has had occasion to chat with me over the last year knows that I believe it is time to advance this category with a bold new expression or two … that’s my personal dream.

What do you think about the future of micro-distilling  (whether here in the U.S. or abroad)? And what do you think about my theories on terroir and its influence on a given whiskey’s flavor profile? And do you think rye will be the new hot whiskey of choice, or will it be something else?

34 Responses to “Guest Blogger: Dave Pickerell, former Master Distiller of Maker’s Mark bourbon”

  1. Chap says:

    I think if we can ride out the eventual boom and bust in microdistilling (like ’80s-’90s brewing went through), the world will be better for it. Distilling is too painful to do on a homebrewer’s scale, and the laws are too hard (like homebrewing was before the law got changed in the Carter admin). New companies need your kind of thinking and expertise, I think–and I look forward to tasting some of the drinks the people you consult are doing! St. George, Germain-Robin (brandies, mostly, but oh man), etc: let’s see some innovation!

  2. Brian Bradley says:

    As whiskey is entering a renaissance ever more micro-distilleries will be showing up. Obviously those people will need consulting as to opening their distilleries. It makes great business sense to ride that wave and be the first “one stop shop” for consulting.

    I would use your company as I have toyed with such ideas as many others have.

  3. sam k says:

    Nice take, Dave. Thanks for joining us!

    I agree wholeheartedly about your ideas on terroir, and feel that a given local distiller has a better chance of success if they focus on local fermentables. They’ll have more control over not only the quality and variety of the ingredient, but of the final product, as well.

    I’m also pleased to hear that you’re engaged with Vendome in your efforts. They are an incredibly competent American manufacturer that gets overlooked too often (IMHO) by the startup domestic microdistiller.

    Rye…most everyone here knows of my thirty-plus year affair with this spirit, and I couldn’t be more gratified to see it work its way back, literally, from the brink of extinction. I think that, looking at what’s now available from both the macro and micro distiller, rye has already achieved unparalleled success as the new whiskey of choice, and they’re just getting started.

    I met with a fellow just two weeks ago who is planning a rye whiskey distillery in Pennsylvania (thank God!), based on the local terroir that you find so compelling.

    Will he get it off the ground? If so, will he be successful? Who knows, but the movement is afoot in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and we will eventually be a better distilling country for their (and your) efforts.

    Thanks Dave!

  4. Brian Bradley says:

    I skipped the question you asked–sorry about that.

    I don’t think rye will take over the marketplace—at least in its current incarnation. Something that as not yet been made will set the world on fire. Some new product made in a unique spot featuring unique ingredients of that geographical clime will set the world on fire so to speak.

    As the birth of the microbrew whiskey will come fourth, so will innovators who will throw the rules out the window and give us something magical.

    So, I guess the big boys have something to fear.

    Also, how does one contact you for your services?

  5. bgulien says:

    Hi Dave, thanks for joining us. I am from the Netherlands and a bit starved of good American Whiskey, be it rye or other .
    I see some parallel in the micro distillery and the move to independent distillery in Scotland, like Bladnoch and Bruichladdich. They were, of course, existing distilleries, but mothballed and some enterprising spirit thought he could make a living and make his dreams come trough, same as with micro-distillery.
    It would make it a bit easier if laws were a bit friendlier towards those people who dream of owning a distillery and producing sometimes the best spirit of all. Due to the attention it gets.
    Maybe there is still some hint of illegality from the past around this subject and stands in the way of getting the necessary loans from the banks. Talking to your bankmanager to secure a loan to produce whiskey, will not be the easiest, I imagine.
    And time for maturation = no income.

    On rye, I have had some, but it’s not easy to get around here.
    The most exotic I can get in Holland is a Johnny Drum Bourbon, outside the Jack and Jim, 4 Roses and Makers Mark, who incidentally I very much like.
    Only when opening a bottle of MM it is certain to find red pieces of wax for a couple of weeks around the house. ;-)

  6. Matt G says:

    I’m not sure rye is going to keep growing at the current pace. I’m not saying that it’s played out (I hope not), but I see something else happening in the market place. There seems to be a huge interest in white dog right now. I’m not sure how this came about, but I’m all for it. If nothing else, this can help the new microdistillers bring in some income while the rest of the whiskey sleeps. There is going to be a lot of experimentation in the next couple of years. Tuthilltown Spirits is playing with an oat whiskey. Will it be good? Will we get to try it? Who knows? But I’m sure Gable is not the only one throwing grain about like a mad alchemist.
    In regards to terroir, there has to be an influence from grain, environmental conditions and water sources. I would love to see whiskey coming out of every climate and state in the US using only local materials. Luckily, most microdistillers seem to be taking a terroir approach already.
    Thanks for the post Dave.

  7. Mark says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Dave. I was very pleased to read your take on terroir as applied to whiskey. Surely your claim, “…[T]he effects of locality on grain, water, and climate can be best expressed in a micro-distillery” is true. Either that, it seems to me, or we need reasons not to apply the term to distilling contexts.

    I like the idea of micro-distillers having arrangements, for instance, with local farmers for grain. Last spring I stood in a field of rye outside Phillipsburg, NJ (v. near PA}, taking just a moment to imagine the potential spiciness of that vibrant green being put to some noble purpose — at the very least, cutting the sweetness of corn somewhere.

    I have no idea whether rye will continue its resurgence, but I very much hope so. If so, it seems likely that craft distillers will be playing a significant role.

    The ryes I know I like are Templeton, the Sazaracs (both) and Manhattan Rye. The range of others I’ve tasted seem too sweet (too close to the 51%, I suppose) or too (what?) “thin.” I’ve tried every rye I’ve encountered at tastings, so that claim covers usual suspects. I would be well open to further suggestions.

    A couple weeks ago I took a bottle of Manhattan Rye and one of HP 18 to the Friday gathering at my regular place, a German bar with awesome beer. The guys, collectively we’re “The Beer Club for Men,” are very discriminating about their beer but wanted to learn more about scotch and most hadn’t encountered rye at all (6 guys, been drinking for decades). They really appreciated the experience (I think three of them had bottles of HP 18 the next day).

    The dry spiciness of the rye was a bit much for some of them, even diluted, though they could tell it was good whiskey. When they came to the complexity and depth of the HP, they were taken aback.

    SO, what role might these micro-distillers (of rye at least) do to take American rye whiskey to a new level of complexity and sophistication? Seems to me there’s a beautiful and dynamic balance (like a dancer rather than scales) of particular, local knowledge (of terroir) and of skills developed in response that could take a distiller outside the usual box.

    Here’s to creative, passionate people getting the opportunity to learn and experiment!

  8. Todd says:

    Dave, thanks for keeping the often thin flame of wheated bourbons alive all those past years at MM. I’m looking forward to more locally produced American whiskies. Best of luck with your current endeavor.

  9. brian mac gregor says:

    As was stated above, I think that the micro distilling will have a boom for a short while, much like the micro brewery and the micro winery, both which have produced some of the finest libations i have had the great pleasure to taste. while living in san fransisco and working in the spirit indusry for quite some time i have had the great pleasure to taste some of the recent micro distilleries that are availbe today, the finest of them being rick wasumunds rye whiskeys, from virginia. not only are they unique expressions, but his copper fox is both one of a kind and delicous.

    the old potero line of rye whiskey being made at anchor brewing company is fascinating stuff, particulary because fritz maytag has such a unique vision of spirits, and trying to make them as authenitc as possible.

    as far as bgulein’s last line. there is nothing wrong with saying that, it is true, the many local distillers we have around here say the same thing. there is a small distilling company out of wisconsin called death’s door, and to make there money they have produced a vodka, a gin, and a white whiskey, all to support there long term endevours of aging whiskey.

  10. Monique at the Dell says:

    I love the idea of embracing the terroir. We see that a lot of people that are new to whiskey and single malt especially, come from a wine background, which means that I often encounter the terroir questions at tastings. It’s tough with Scotch as most are getting barley from the same places in bulk.

    In the states, we have the opportunity to at least look closer to home. In Nebraska, our first micro-distillery just opened, Solas. They had to start on the success of a beer to keep the $ coming in, now have moved on to vodka, all the while distilling a small amount of whiskey to age. We are lucky to have lots of grain growing etc. here. For those that don’t, it’s nice to see them consistently try to get elements from their mash bill from as close to home as possible, even if that just means your botanicals.

    We have seen the huge resurgence in rye here too. I’ve just recently had requests for our first all-rye tasting, but the bulk of the interest is in classic cocktails right now. I am excited about the tasting, a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of this fine grain the terroir and it’s effects. For now, my perception is that I’ve had some great ryes, but have not found the diversity in flavor that made me fall in love with single malts in the first place. It will take finding that diversity in ryes to keep this resurgence rolling.

    Any real standouts Dave? Even if they aren’t the “best,” something really out there and different?
    Thanks for entertaining!

  11. Hello Dave,
    I really am looking forward to what the gentlemen at The Virginia Distillery Company have in store for us. Their vision of the first authentic Scotch made amongst the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains and to create an amazing range of Single Malt whiskies for America is something I am really looking forward to. Also, I read recently that the guys at Tuthilltown Spirits in NY are experimenting with OAT Whiskeys. I think things like this will add to the “terroir” aspects of American whiskey.

  12. Matt Hendry says:

    Theres Homebrewers in New Zealand where distilling is Legal and some in Australia where stills under 5 liter capacity are legal but distilling alcohol isnt : (and every homebrew store sells the small stills) making some great homebrewed spirits.

  13. Mark says:

    Ah Brian, thank you for reminding me of Old
    Potero. I forgot that one, but clearly needed the reminder! And Junipero is my favorite gin…

    I need to try Wasmunds.

  14. EMalt says:

    Hi Dave,

    Welcome!

    Micro Distilleries experimenting with different grains and mashbills is great, but hopefully the public will like it as well.

    I’ve tasted Woodstone Creek, the five grain Bourbon at the KBF and i thought it was really great, but the almost all Bourbon lovers hated it! Too bad.

    Maybe a mashbill for a Bourbon with some Peated barley in it to be the next big thing?

    Can you pull some strings at Makers Mark to have them release a cask strength version?

    @ Bgulien: I’m from Holland as well, and we can get lot’s more variety than you just stated, only not for the price you can get them in the US. If you want to know where let me know.

    Grtz,
    EMalt

  15. Whisky Party says:

    Thanks for your excellent guest blog!

    I’d love to hear more specifically about what American Microdistilleries are producing quality single malt.

    Would you consider coming back on WDJK and blogging in more detail about the rise in interest in microdistilling in America, and how some of these distillers can get off the ground successfully?

    I know here in Brooklyn there is talk of getting a distillery in Williamsburg. I’d love to be able to buy Brooklyn Bourbon, or Kings County Single Malt . . .

  16. Great thoughts, Dave.

    On the future of micro-distilling: We’ve been speaking a good deal recently about this. It’s exciting, and I think for the most part, it will continue to happen. I expect that the cost measures will make it so that most whiskey micro-distilling is done by those with means, i.e., those already producing other spirits or beer (see Anchor Steam in San Francisco for their gins and whiskeys). But who amongst us that visit a malt advocate website, who have tried their hand at brewing beer, don’t romanticize the early moonshining periods of America, Scotland, etc. I’d love to be able to try it out, get decent at it, and buy an ex-bourbon barrel, and taste the spirit as it ages with me.

    As for Rye: I think that it will be the hot new whisky of choice based on cost, increased availability, and ‘coolness’ factor. However, I think that overall the other whiskey markets will grow with that increase and continue to enjoy a larger market share.

  17. Matt Hendry says:

    If you want to try your hand at Distilling as long as its “legal” where you live then check out http://homedistiller.org/

  18. thomas mckenzie says:

    I think that american microdistillers should not try to change things and make a radical new whiskey at all. I think things should go backwards in time if you will. Low distillation and barrel proofs, no enzymes except from malt, and using local raw materials. Being a microdistiller myself,and a former consultant, I agree with you Dave, that there is terroir in whiskey making. I have worked in several areas of the country, and the same mashbill, distilled in 2 different places never tastes the same. I see some microdistilling groups are trying to move the industry to radical new highs, such as moonshine from doughnuts, and making bourbon from a lautered mash of flaked corn. These are shortcuts at best, and in my opinion, need to be fought against.

  19. Neil Fusillo says:

    I as well like the concept of embracing the terroir for micro distilleries. However, I see always inherent issues in the US with getting truly creative — mostly legal issues with what is and isn’t required to go into a spirit for properly labeling the spirit as it SHOULD be called.

    There’s also the problems with laws being somewhat unfriendly toward those who might try a hand at building a micro-distillery from the ground up as micro-breweries sometimes evolve.

    It will, however, be nice to see what’s done as time goes on. It would be nice to see some advances made in American whiskey beyond the simple variations of age, wood grain, mash content, etc.

    The whole “thou must use fresh, charred oak with grain X, or uncharred with corn for no less than a period of 2 years” etc, etc, commandments tend to lead to issues with variety.

  20. sam k says:

    Neil,

    There are few American rules in the big picture, and the laws tie no one’s hands unless they want to call their whiskey “bourbon” or “straight.” Otherwise, do what you will and simply call it whiskey. Many do already, and I’ll drink to that!

  21. Paul H says:

    I love the theory about terroir – as much as I love good bourbon, there is room for a much wider variety of American whiskey styles, expressed in many ways. Aging is the bane of the startup microdistiller, but the rise of the white dog is a helpful development and creative distillers will hopefully find a way to make it work. Hopefully, where there’s a will, we can find a way. Thanks for the thoughtful article and I look forward to the next.

  22. […] Pickerell, the former Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark, is guest blogging at John Hansell’s blog about American microdistilling and the rising popularity of rye […]

  23. Dave Pickerell says:

    I don’t think rye will ever reach the heights of bourbon … or anywhere near, for that matter… but I do believe that there’s room for the category of rye whiskey in the US to double or even triple over the next 4 to 5 years.

    On the micro side of things… a lot has transpired recently to encourage more and more folks to “give it a go” … everything from laws being loosened up to equipment prices falling. Just from my contacts, I believe that we will soon see everything from Texas bourbon to Vermont rye, to the first new entrant in Tenessee whiskey in decades. Many of the micro’s will explicitly focus on grains native to their state … some because they want to … others because the state wants them to (and incentivizes it)… either way, I am looking forward with eager anticipation to the chances for discovery that are looming on the horizon…

  24. PeteR says:

    Dave,

    Thoroughly appreciate your insight.

    On micro-distilling, can you point us to a link that lists current and upcoming micro-distilleries?
    And for those of us who love whiskey and home-brewing, can you estimate a minimum investment cost so we can legally distill spirits without necessarily selling any of it?

    On Rye whiskey, I always make a point of trying new ryes when I visit a new pub. To date I’ve only encountered rye from 1 micro-distillery (Anchor). Are there others? Both Old Portrero and Thomas Hardy are my favorites.

  25. Red_Arremer says:

    American whisky needs an impetus to break away from the conservative straightjacket of tradtional bourbon, and a way to make this break appealing to consumers. The idea of terroir supplies both. The oft cited explanation of why good bourbon can only be produced where it is (the limestone shelf explanation), becomes the explanation of how American whisky, which is stylistically different than bourbon, can be conceptualized and accepted. If bourbon comes from limestone shelf regions, other styles of American whisky are to come from other regions, which though they lack limestone shelf, contain other native whisky-influencing elements.

    This is the germ of a practical and coherent program for the
    diversification of American whisky. The defect in this protoprogram, is the same as that in the lime-stone shelf explanation; it seriously exaggerates the scope of terroir in determining the character whisky.

    Terroir may be the origin of some of bourbon’s characteristics, but it is certainly not the reason that bourbon is so lacking in variety today. The reason is that the bourbon industry has a conservative and very traditional mindset. Consequentially, what is needed to generate variety in American whisky is not Terroir inspired production, but simply a more adventurous mindset.

  26. Dave Pickerell says:

    Red,

    The good news is that you get the best of both worlds with the new breed of micro distillers … a more adventurous mindset comes with the territory … terroir comes with the microdistillery… As they seek to differentiate themselves from the others, they migrate toward very interesting positions … locally grown grains, organically grown grains, different maturation schemes (small barrels and lower aging), widely differing mash bills, new grain choices … etc.

  27. Dave Pickerell says:

    PeteR,

    Keep your eyes open … I have it on fairly good authority(wink, wink)that there will be a new rye expression on the market around Whiskeyfest Chicago …

  28. John M says:

    Really enjoyed that. When I’m bulding my distillery…

    John

  29. Ed and Patty Phalen says:

    Dave,
    After 12 years of all but literally immersing myself in bourbon, my bunker is slowly shifting, like my stock portfolio. Rye is playing an ever increasing role stepping into the daily pour lineup as well as in cocktails and recipes. I believe that the American pallette has been a little schizo with its division between Scotch and Bourbon. Rye should and will be a needed player in the new triumvarate of brown liquor. Distilleries used to make one batch a year, if they made any at all. That production is shifting as I type. Sheer economics will dictate the future and its longevity as a player. (If I drink it, somebody will make it) I believe in rye.

    On the microdistilling front, I see microdistilling as the liberal testing ground for new ideas. No big distillery, exept maybe BT, can test all the possible combinations and conditions that might produce new flavor profiles and adventurous experiments. Its like outsourcing R&D to free-lancers. Many will not succeed. Some will flourish and change the industry. (Think Sam Adams, the largest American owned brewer)

    BTW: We missed ya

  30. Ken says:

    Micro distilling is great, and as someone commented, a return to it’s roots would be great. But I just can’t see white whiskey/moonshine/white dog- whatever you want to call it, it seems like a novelty. I recently saw a bottle of white whiskey on a bar shelf, asked the bartender if they sell any- he said sure, people want to try it, then he added once they’ve satisfied their curiosity they never order it again. Seems like a pretty iffy way to finance an aged whiskey.

  31. RPP says:

    Like many of you, I find the concept of micro-distilling very intriguing. I don’t know that it will ever ascend to the heights of micro-brewing simply for the reasons already stated, but I would love to be wrong. Time (and aging) will tell.

    Until then, I have found a very easy and fairly inexpensive way to do my own whiskey experimentation at home that I could see catching on. It’s pretty easy to find small charred oak barrels online ranging is sizes from 1 Liter to 5 Gallons that you can use to age your own spirits. Seeing as unaged “white” whiskey is becoming more available there are now a few options out there for putting your own touch on raw whiskey without the hassle of distillation. The beauty is that the smaller the barrel the more surface area there is per volume meaning the less time it takes to age the spirit. A 1 Liter barrel ages about 10x faster than a regular full sized barrel. Sure aging is only half the equation but it’s also half the end result; and there is more than enough variation in aging alone to keep me busy for quite some time.

    For example: Inspired by the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, I first started experimenting in this way by filling a new 1 Liter barrel with wine then after a few weeks I dumped that out and filled it with actual bourbon (I used Buffalo Trace the first time). This first experiment didn’t go all that well because I made the mistake of not tasting it as it aged. The end result was too overpowered by the wine and second round of oak. Since then I’ve tried other wine varieties, other bourbons, white whiskey, etc. Every time since the first I’m happily surprised by the results. The barrels can be reused as is or recharred so that every time it’s something new.

    I’m not a big fan of white whiskey but no big surprise… it ages great!

  32. When we first started getting interested in opening our distillery we never thought there would be much discussion of small distilleries on large forums or be mentioned in international publications… but here we are!

    We think the local influence, or terroir as you are calling it, is a great reflection of a “back to the origins” style of distilling. Many small distilleries, especially those making whiskeys, are relying heavily on the local landscapes to shape their end products. And, really, why wouldn’t you?!? Bumper stickers with “support your local distillery” fixed appropriately on grain trucks and farming equipment would be a welcomed site!

    I’m glad Vendome was mentioned because they have top-notch people there making great equipment. They’ve stepped up and you can find everything from massive ethanol production equipment to the smallest of custom stills for aspiring micro distilleries in their facility at any one time.

    In the end it will take more people with passion, determination, and a pile of money to get started down the path of small batch whiskey production. It’s a lofty goal, but achievable. The next frontier is to get our small brands built up to the point that distributors will get them in more areas for people to try them. A daunting task for a small producer in any market.

    As for rye, it’s good to see a resurgence of that particular and seemingly “lost” grain in distilling. However, a lot of large crop-producing areas in the US are heavily involved in growing barley and wheat. I would say look for some unique and great malt and wheat whiskeys in the small distilling world to rise up and surprise you…

  33. Dan Garrison says:

    Dave:

    As always, you are right on. God knows you have played an integral role in helping us come as far as we have over the past four years. We are deeply indebted to you. Without your advice, we’d just be making another bourbon, but we’re making something better. As we are prone to say down here: Texas Born from Texas Corn!

    And yes, you will see a Texas bourbon whiskey on the market soon. Very soon.

  34. J. Baker says:

    Dave:
    I agree whole heartedly. Passionate artisans focused on local ingredients and terroir will define the future of american whiskeys. We own a farm in the Hudson Valley, the “Bread Basket” of colonial America and are in the process of setting up a micro distillery. We are planning to hire a consultant to assist in setting up the operation and would appreciate any recomendations. Best regards.

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