David Pickerell has a crystal ball. The whiskey distiller doesn’t have an actual bulbous glass that he rubs for knowledge, but rather a natural clairvoyance into the future of American whiskey. Formerly the master distiller at Maker’s Mark, Pickerell has a gift for finding a piece of whiskey past and reinventing it. A consultant for more than 20 whiskey producers in the country, Pickerell not only predicts whiskey futures, which he did by pushing the popularity of rye whiskey with WhistlePig (the first 100% aged rye in the country), but he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty mashing things up.
THL: Why is American whiskey the best whiskey?
Pickerell: There’s something for everybody. It goes from moonshine all the way up to refined, ultra-premium bourbons and ryes and everything in between. Not only do we have the history and tradition of big boys that have refined the whiskey-making process for hundreds of years, but we also have an incredibly large and vibrant craft community that is taking all of this knowledge and expanding it in new directions.
THL: What direction is American whiskey going these days?
The diversity is astounding. In the whiskey category, you would not believe the stuff being submitted. We have bourbons that are flavored with different malts of rye or soft red winter wheat and soft white wheat. Then you have ryes that are anywhere from 51% to 100% rye. Then you’ve got spelt, oak and light whiskey. Light whiskey hasn’t been a vibrant category in the US in 25 years.
THL: Are Americans more educated in the category of American whiskey?
It’s beautiful. The American consumer is definitely in the grazing mode right now. They’re clearly looking for different. I think we’re moving out of “just give me vodka,” and the cocktail culture is a part of it. People want to be stimulated, so taste can take all kinds of interesting forms. There are certainly a lot more (whiskey) aficionados.
THL: There are so many diverse whiskeys. Why did you decide to focus on rye with WhistlePig?
I’ve become kind of a real rye geek. I’ve got this crystal ball. It’s not a real crystal ball, but I have the ability to look into the near past and see things that other people might have missed. When I left Maker’s Mark, one of the things I saw was that, in 2006, rye whiskey started to move, and most people missed it. I wanted to be involved in that because rye whiskey is certainly about taste. It’s about full-bodied, unadulterated taste. I spent a year just studying rye whiskey. Some of the other craft distillers I’m consulting for are making rye whiskeys, everything from lighter whiskey with corn, to more aged in small barrels and everything in between. The rye category grew 50% last year. The crystal ball doesn’t do too bad for me, and WhistlePig is better for it.
THL: How is WhistlePig different from any other American rye whiskey on the market?
It’s the only 100% aged rye. Rye is the brat of whiskey grains. The higher the percent rye you get, the worse it behaves. It gets sticky. It foams. The fiber becomes a nuisance. Everything about it is awful to process. A lot of my colleagues laugh at me for persisting to work with 100% rye because the nuisance level of going from 95 to 100 is unbelievable. Most people stop at 95. We go ahead and push the envelope and make it 100%. When you do things the way they were done in the 1700s, you learn some tricks.
THL: What’s the biggest challenge in keeping up with the quality at WhistlePig?
When I was at Mount Vernon, we were doing 65% at the time. On the second day of mashing, the fermenter started to foam like shave cream. We stirred it all in, put a plastic sheet on top, bungee-corded it and put bricks on top. We came back in the morning, and the bricks and wood were on the floor, and the plastic had been ripped. There was literally two feet of foam, six feet wide and 20 feet long. Foam parties are fun in one regard, but not in this one.
THL: Why do you love making whiskey?
It’s in the entertainment industry. A lot of people don’t think of it that way, but we’re competing for discretionary stuff. My company has a motto: putting feet on dreams. What I want to do with my life is help other people see dreams become reality. I’ll do it any way I can. It’s also supposed to be fun, and heaven knows I like having fun!