Last month, the world of American whiskey lost one of its guiding lights. The great Dave Pickerell — a master distiller, chemical engineer and champion of the American craft distiller movement — died of hypertensive heart failure while attending WhiskyFest San Francisco on Nov. 1. He was 62.
Known by many as the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey for his assistance to small start-up whiskey brands and craft distillers, Pickerell first came to prominence at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. He had joined Maker’s Mark in 1994 as both the vice president of operations and master distiller.
During his 14 years there he was credited with helping to turn Maker’s into an international brand, and boost annual sales from 175,000 cases to nearly 1 million.
In 2008, Pickerell broke out on his own and began consulting, effectively shepherding along the fledgling and then burgeoning craft distilling movement. He also became a champion of rye whiskey and helped spark the resurgence of high-end rye whiskey production. As part of his master distiller-for-hire career, he was responsible for such hugely successful brands as WhistlePig Rye and Hillrock Estate.
I first met the burly and gregarious Pickerell at an event sponsored by DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. When I interviewed him a couple of years ago, he explained the growth of the craft distilling movement was a result of changing tastes.
“Basically, taste has become important,” he said. “I think that’s why vodka is on the decline.
Terroir is becoming important. A sense of place and locale increasingly matters. Also, folks want historic things. Authenticity. This is why rye [whiskey] is doing so well. The fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them. America was truly settled on the back of rye whiskey and our independence was won on the back of rye whiskey. It is the true American spirit.”
I can’t really argue with that. I propose drinking to the memory of the late, great Dave Pickerell with one or both of these rye whiskeys:
Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey (45 percent abv; $90): The nose starts off stilted and a touch over-woody, but then radically changes on the palate and opens to become a stunning, complex whiskey with warm notes of vanilla, caramel, espresso, prunes, apricots, toffee, cloves, cinnamon, butterscotch and banana bread with a long, warming finish that sees additional notes of dark chocolate covered orange peel and baking spice.
WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey (50 percent abv; $80): One of the world’s great whiskies, WhistlePig offers interesting, lively spice notes of mint, clove, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon, with dried orange peel, vanilla, toffee, hot chili peppers, caramel and butterscotch, with a long, dry spicy finish. This is a rich, full and delicious rye whiskey. The finish is long and creamy, but never loses the kick of the rye. L’chaim!
Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].