As I walked into the whiskey tasting, a man with a big laugh, a big hat, and a whiskey bottle in his pocket caught my attention.
Oh, please, I thought, please be Dave Pickerell. That would be perfect.
He was and it was.
Not many distillers get their start dreaming about working in a cement factory, but I think it’s safe to say that Dave is not the typical distiller. He wanted to be chemical engineer at age 5 to answer his burning questions about the factories that lined the streets of his hometown outside of Dayton, Ohio. That led him to become the first in his family to go to college, then grad school, where he discovered his gift for the chemistry of distilling and earned the nickname “Thermo God.”
But most people probably know him as master distiller at Maker’s Mark, where he spent 14 years until he left in 2008 to explore more craft distilling.
To hear Dave tell his life story makes it out to be a series of happenstance peppered with Winnie the Pooh references – one involved him spending hours hanging upside down in the top of a still to clean out the remains of an experiment with corn solids that didn’t go well. But it’s driven by passion and what seems to be an unending game of “what if?” And it results in some good whiskey.
He has worked with several craft distilleries through his company, Oak View Consulting. He helped restore – or seemingly recreate – the George Washington distillery that the president had at Mt. Vernon, complete with what they gathered to be the original rye recipe that Washington used. It wasn't written out exactly, but Washington apparently kept copious grain records, and analysis of those added up to Maryland-style rye, which is 60% rye. We tried some of it unaged, which is how it would have been consumed in Washington's time. I’m not usually much for unaged whiskey, but this was better than most. As Dave pointed out, the whiskey was made to be drunk straight off the still, not to go in a barrel.
Washington's original distillery fell into disuse and disrepair, but was rediscovered in the early 1900’s – just about the time the Prohibition movement was becoming popular. So, like you do when history is inconvenient, they covered it up for decades.
Rye itself had its own low point as its popularity decreased over the 20th century. As Dave put it, “It fell into disrepute because people got tired of things that tasted and everyone wanted ‘blah.’” Then came the foodie culture and classic cocktails and rye is back.
Which Dave is fine with. If he had his way, the fifth workday of every week would be called “Ryeday.” He likes it so much that he has gone on with other craft distilleries to produce two 100% rye whiskies.
One is the double cask from Hillrock, which spends a minimum of two years in a small barrel at char #3, then in a second small barrel at char #4 for a big hit of caramel to balance out the bold spice of the rye. This one was very interesting – caramel sweet on the nose, but more spicy on the tongue.
We followed that up with Whistle Pig. Dave admitted this one is “a little proofy.” It’s 100% proofy to be exact, but it doesn’t taste like a whack of alcohol. It tastes yummy. (And if you want a nice food pairing, this goes well with bourbon bacon oatmeal chocolate cheap cookies.) Whistle Pig spends six or seven years in a large barrel and then finishes out to 10 years in a bourbon barrel.
The phrase means a prairie dog/ground squirrel type animal, but the distillery commandeered the term to mean someone who appreciates the finer things in life.
That seems about right for anyone drinking it. And about right for Dave. Or as he’s also known, Mr. Whiskey Pants.