Three years ago, Dave Pickerell, master distiller at WhistlePig, called up a barrel-broker friend in Spain, and the conversation went something like this:
“Miguel, I want you to ship us two container loads of barrels. I want Sauternes, Madeira, Port, Pedro Ximenez, and Oloroso Sherry, and, just to top it off, how about we get some Pierre Ferrand XO barrels to throw in the mix.”
“You know that’s gonna be expensive?”
“You know it’s gonna take a while to round all of that up?”
“So why are we still on the phone?”
The shipment took a year to put together–six months alone for a barrel of the XO to get Pachinko-d through the French bureaucracy. But it was all for a good cause.
“WhistlePig let me do a lot of bizarre things,” recalled Pickerell while introducing the WhistlePig Old World Series to a table of guests at Wingtip on a recent Friday night. “Without knowing if it was going to be any good or not, we just loaded up a bunch of barrels. [Then] I went to the bartender community, because I believe in their pulse. The first round of responses was, The two sherry finishes are nice, but they’re not on par with the other three. So we set those aside [and] started to focus on the Sauternes, the Madeira, and the Port finishes.”
The WhistlePig Old World Series is the most recent in a long line of whiskey advancements that may have hit your palate. Wingtip Bar Director Brian MacGregor introduced Pickerell to guests by saying, “I’ve been studying whiskey for a decade and Dave has been one of the biggest influencers of the whiskies I’ve drunk, and [if you’ve] been drinking whiskey, his fingers are in there somewhere.” But the story of rye goes back further than Pickerell’s seven years as a craft distillery consultant, further than his 14 years helping build Maker’s Mark into a household name. So, before dinner, we sat down with Pickerell to discuss the origins of his craft.
High Tea, 1773
WINGTIP: So rye is closer to what we were drinking in early America?
DAVE PICKERELL: There’s no question rye whiskey was what we were drinking in historical America. The colonial drink was rum, but when the colonists threw the tea overboard, it wasn’t just tea, it was the British way of life. We switched to running horse races counter-clockwise, so that even our horses would not go the same direction. And they decided that because the British were involved in the rum trade that we wouldn’t do rum. That didn’t mean we weren’t going to drink. So when they looked around to see, well, what do we have, the answer was rye. Around 1800, there were around 7000 rye distilleries between Maryland and New York.
DP: Rye and corn are decidedly different grains. Corn is all about sweetness; rye is about spiciness. Corn is mellow, approachable; rye tends to [be] much more full-bodied, [and], if handled inappropriately, aggressive.
WT: When did corn whiskey become more prominent than rye whiskey?
DP: Corn became important after the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. It was about the government demonstrating the federal system of taxation. They didn’t understand the local conditions. In Western Pennsylvania, the farmers were being told they had to pay a nickel-a-gallon tax on the whiskey–well, they were still on the barter system, so even if [they] wanted to pay the tax, they couldn’t. [George Washington’s show of force] was enough to convince people [they weren’t] far enough from the flagpole. So they went down the river and got as far as Louisville, Kentucky, when they got to the falls of the Ohio. And they got out, and that’s where expertise met opportunity. All these farmers from Kentucky were growing corn, and the distillers that came down the river had bags of rye with them. All these farmers needed an extra source of revenue, so the distillers just spread out all across Kentucky. Corn started to be used between 1794 and 1810, but bourbon–aging in charred barrels, and the sour mash process–didn’t really find a home ’til about 1838.
In The Army
WT: Your experience in the Army actually led to you getting involved in the spirits industry. Could you describe that?
DP: When I was five I determined I was gonna be a chemical engineer. By the time I was 10, I knew I needed every science and math course known to man, and I knew that somebody else was gonna have to pay for my college. So very pragmatically, I started playing sports, ’cause that’s the only way I knew to get somebody else to pay for college. It started with baseball, and, while I was a really good first baseman, I was an impatient hitter. I played for three years, [and] by the time I finally quit, my batting average was .111. Every ball I hit went over the fence. It’s just I didn’t get enough of them. So I decided, Yeah, this isn’t gonna work. I tried wrestling, I tried gymnastics, anything that didn’t cost money, I tried. I was on the basketball team–my vertical leap wouldn’t hardly clear the Sunday newspaper. I enjoyed them all, but it ultimately came down to football or track.
WT: So you played football for Army at West Point. Was it the triple-option offense back then or a different offensive Scheme?
DP: I have to say I’m honored that West Point would take me. On my high school team, I just happened to be the biggest guy and so I was a blindside tackle. I probably should have been a linebacker and a fullback. As such, I didn’t have a lot of full scholarship offers, because everybody basically said, Okay, he’s a good player–I mean I made first-team all-state Ohio, made a few minor All-American polls–but we’re gonna have to move him, and we don’t know if he’ll be good at a new position. I was from a poor family, and I was gonna graduate at 17, so I couldn’t even sign for a student loan. If I didn’t get a full scholarship I was as good as nothing. West Point was one of only two schools that offered a full scholarship. And If I’m remembering, we played single-wing offense back then. I could run a 4.6 40, so they could pull me and get me out in front of a back and I could be a good lead blocker.
So I studied chemical engineering at the University of Louisville. While I was there, my mentor was the professor of thermal dynamics. That’s where distillation lies. We discovered that I’m kind of an idiot savant at distillation. It’s not that I’m smarter than everybody else, but I can close my eyes, and see molecules running around in a still and know why they are where they are and where they’re going next.
I was just gonna go be a chemical engineer, and I called up my mentor to ask for a letter of reference. He goes, “I’m gonna do one better than that. There’s a little consulting firm here in town, and they need an engineer that can design distillation stills. So I signed up with them, and for 6 years I ran around the world–China, Mexico, Canada, Scotland–and built distillery systems for some of the biggest producers. One day I was down at Maker’s Mark, and Mr. Samuels walks out of his office. He goes, Did you know that we’re interviewing presently for our next VP Of Operations and master distiller? I said, No sir, I didn’t. He says, Well, we are. We didn’t find anybody we like, but we like you, and if you want it, the job’s yours.”
WT: Is there one lesson that you learned from one of the whiskey masters?
DP: From my time at Maker’s Mark, just sitting at Bill Samuels’ feet. He wasn’t a good mentor, but you could learn an awful lot if you just shut up and listened and observed. Their vision of what they were and how to get there was steadfast. Their marketing approach was focused like a laser. And those are the things that I love to carry forward to the brands I’m working with now.
WT: Early on, you were a stickler for drinking whiskey neat, but now you’ve softened a bit. How did you come to that conclusion?
DP: My best friend, a guy named Aaron Price, knew that I was kinda like that chef that didn’t put salt & pepper on the table, [saying], If I’d wanted you to have salt & pepper I would have put it in the food. I was getting that way with Maker’s Mark. Aaron came up to me one day, and he says, “Hey Dave, I think I’m gonna have a bourbon and Coke tonight. I’m just gonna have one. Would a Maker’s & Coke be better?” And I said, “Aaron, knowing your palate, yes, Maker’s & Coke would be better.” And he looked at me and said, “Well, shut up and make me a Maker’s & Coke and quit telling me how to drink my product.” And it had a profound impact on me. I realized I was invading other people’s space in telling them how to drink the stuff they paid for. And I realized how wrong that was. So I actually got Gary Regan to invite me to be a student at his cocktail class.
WT: What are you doing at WhistlePig today that you haven’t gotten to do elsewhere?
DP: We are the first American whiskey ever finished in Sauternes; the second American rye finished in Madeira (second only to George Washington); and we’ll be the first married finish of an American whiskey. We won’t be the lone soldier for long, but right now we’re cutting edge. We also harvested trees from our own farm–oak–and sent it down to Independence Stave Cooperage to make custom-made barrels to my specifications.
WT: At Hillrock, you make a grain-to-glass whiskey, [the spirits equivalent of farm-to-table food]. Is WhistlePig grain-to-glass?
DP: Not yet, but it will be. By the summer, when all of our distillation equipment is fully up-to-speed, we’ll be grain-to-glass.
TASTING NOTES: WhistlePig Old World Series
If we have a symphony here, the port is the bass instruments. It’s what carries the bottom end. Deep, rich winter fruits, replete with plums, prunes, dates, figs, and raisins. You should pick all that up on the nose. But it should supplement the rye notes, it shouldn’t supplant them. It’s important to me that we don’t forget this is still a 12-year old rye whiskey. So the rye still needs to be the predominant note. Then, when you taste it the finish is going to deliver a little surprise, after you get all that rye spice and dark fruit, you get dark chocolate. It’s a very late-developing taste, but it’s hard to miss. I have no idea how that happened. I’m just glad it’s there.
The Madeira is the woodwinds. That’s where the power comes from. When you need to make an emphasis, it’s all woodwinds. The pepperiness that’s present in the Madeira, along with the grapefruit acidity, tends to take the rye and just push it through the roof. So when you taste this one it’s just rye in all of its glory and then some.
Sauternes is the string instruments. The others are fortified wines, and Sauternes is not. The reason I chose to use this is for its high residual sugar content. And that sugar content subdues the rye notes just a little, rounds out the edges. For a traditional American palate, this one’s probably going to be your favorite. It certainly is mine, but just barely so. When you taste this one, it’s going to give you this light, airy–just imagine the violins playing in the background while you taste it. The Sauternes is clearly the most delicate of the bunch.
The percentages that are represented in [The Marriage] are 63% Madeira, 30% Sauternes, and 7% Port. So if you think of that analogy of the symphony, there are lots of string instruments, tons of woodwinds, but only a few bass instruments. You just don’t need that much bass. And that turned out to be true here.
The WhistlePig Old World Series is limited to just 1200 bottles of the Port Finish, and 2400 bottles each of the Madeira Finish and the Sauternes Finish (Best Rye, 2015 SF Spirits Competition). We are lucky to have a limited supply of each currently available at the Bank Of Wine & Spirits for $125 bottle.
Special thanks to Dave Pickerell and WhistlePig for joining us for this occasion; additional cheers to Jennifer Phoenix for her impeccable place settings, Chef Matt for his delicate-and-brawny meal, and to Jane Hurley for her kind contribution of WhistlePig location shots.