Destination Charleston DIY Ginger Beer Summery Swizzles Where

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Destination Charleston DIY Ginger Beer Summery Swizzles Where
THE NEW SCHOOL OF CLASSICS: 10 TIMELESS COCKTAIL RECIPES
Destination
Charleston
DIY
Ginger Beer
Summery
Swizzles
Where to
Drink in
Queens, NY
Perfect Thai
Iced Tea
Dave Pickerell at Brandy
Library in New York.
42 imbibemagazine.com ~ may/june 2014
characters
Making
His Mark
Dave Pickerell is putting a unique stamp
on the world of whiskey.
ave Pickerell is easy to spot in a crowd. He’s tall, and his football-player
frame never arrives anywhere without a hat—usually his favorite gray
wool Pendleton or a soft, brown Stetson. On this blustery morning,
he tosses a clearly loved Fedora on the seat beside him and settles
in to bathe the conversation with his Southern accent and his freeflowing, good-natured storytelling, which often wanders into the topic
of bourbon. And why wouldn’t it? Reviewing his resumé is as simple
as visiting a well-stocked liquor store, in which dozens of brands of whiskey—from
household names such as Maker’s Mark to a growing swarm of craft-distilled bourbons
and other whiskies—bear Pickerell’s imprint.
And while he has decades under his belt as
a master distiller—a job that requires an expert
knowledge of making and maturing spirits—this West
Point–educated chemical engineer is a jack-of-allwhiskey-trades, demonstrating a well-honed knack
for everything from marketing and public relations to
mixing a Sazerac. He’s a seasoned expert who startup
distillers turn to for guidance and experienced peers
seek out for perspective, and he’s not only influenced
the way American distillers make whiskey, but he’s
guiding the rapidly changing category in ways that will
continue to unfold decades from now.
But like a lot of success stories, Pickerell’s didn’t
have an easy start. “My childhood was all about escape,”
he says. His voice is easygoing, despite discussing a
less-than-ideal upbringing in rural Ohio in the 1960s. “I
had what you would call a difficult family life,” he says.
“While it would be unfair to say I grew up in the slums,
we were right next door.”
Pickerell’s earliest thoughts were of wanting to be
anywhere else. Unable to afford a vacation, his father
would simply drive the kids around in the car. “I lived
in an earthy, cement-dusted area, and you couldn’t
go anywhere without passing a factory,” he says. “I’d
pepper my dad with questions. ‘What does that factory
do? What’s that steam coming from that pipe?’ My dad
would always reply, ‘The only one who knows that is a
chemical engineer.’ ”
Pickerell pursued a sports scholarship and
graduated first team all-state Ohio as offensive tackle,
earning a paid ride to West Point. Although he excelled
there—he finished in the top one percent his freshman
year, and graduated in the top eight—he didn’t easily
conform to military life. “The military made me
creative,” he says. “At West Point, you arrive to a book of
rules and a table of corresponding punishments. Most
people think, ‘Don’t do these things.’ I thought of it as a
cost-benefit analysis project—‘Is the crime worth the
punishment?’ I broke the breakable rules constantly.”
But his academic achievements were impressive.
While serving in the Army as a cavalry officer, he
earned another scholarship, this one for a graduate
program in chemical engineering at the University of
Louisville, smack dab in bourbon country. While there,
a thermodynamics professor placed Pickerell on the
path to distillation. “I wanted an overseas assignment,”
Pickerell recalls. “I asked him for a reference, and he
instead pointed me towards a Louisville-based alcohol
consulting firm called Ro-Tech. The minute I got there,
I knew I belonged.”
Story by Jenny Adams Photo by Eric Medsker
may/june 2014 ~ imbibemagazine.com 43
Dave Pickerell continued
During his five-year stint at Ro-Tech, Pickerell consulted for
companies such as Brown Forman (makers of Jack Daniels and
Old Forester bourbon) and United Distillers, which would later
become the spirits giant Diageo. His boss hated flying, which
meant Pickerell was frequently on the road, visiting distilleries and
other clients. “I would go to China for 90 days, then off to Scotland,”
he says. “Down in the Dominican Republic, I spent time working
for two breweries. The job fulfilled my desire to see the world.”
In 1994, Maker’s Mark came calling. It was as the master distiller
and vice president of operations at this now-iconic bourbon
distillery that Pickerell started to show the spirits world just how
out-of-the-box his skills were. Under the mentorship and guidance
of Bill Samuels, Jr.—son of the brand’s founder and the CEO (now
chairman emeritus) of the distillery—Pickerell spent 18-hour
days tackling the science of distilling, as well as the broader, more
multifaceted aspects of running a brand. “I was master distiller,
lead engineer, a project manager, and they also groomed me to
handle public relations,” Pickerell says.
“We hired him and then almost killed him with the hours,”
laughs Samuels, recalling that they once had to beg Pickerell to
take a vacation. Pickerell’s tenure at Maker’s Mark took place as
it blossomed from boutique bourbon into a global brand, and he
roughly doubled the distillery’s production capacity while also
expanding its visitor program, which is now a model for the bourbon
industry—all while maintaining the day-to-day process of making
bourbon. “To say he’s a workaholic would be an understatement,
and his dedication was nothing short of incredible,” Samuels says.
44 imbibemagazine.com ~ may/june 2014
When Pickerell started at Maker’s Mark, the company sold
175,000 cases of bourbon each year; when he departed in 2008,
annual sales were just shy of one million (today it’s 1.2 million, and
the distillery recently embarked on another round of expansion).
This level of success would prompt many people to try to move up,
but Pickerell chose to branch out, forming Oak View Consulting in
2008 to aid and champion those who, like his younger self, might
not have the means to compete in the spirits world without help.
One of his first clients was Willett Distillery, a largely defunct
facility near his home. Pickerell had a soft spot for the distillery’s
age and character: built in the 1930s by a family with a long history
in bourbon, the distillery remained family-owned, but hadn’t
operated since the early ’80s. But the Kulsveen family had earned a
reputation as independent bottlers of excellent bourbon, and they
aimed to place the distillery back online to continue the family
tradition. “The first time I saw it, it was in shambles,” Pickerell
recalls. “When I met up with them, they were rebuilding it using
cash flow. I just gave them free advice for a while.”
Eventually the Willett Distillery was able to hire Pickerell to
troubleshoot, and today there are dozens of distilleries like Willett
across the industry—operations Pickerell has helped because he
believed passionately in their products. “Dave’s always been willing
to share his information, and that’s put him in a unique position of
having a massive network of people who think highly of his business
knowledge, and also enjoy his company as a genuine friend,” says
Darek Bell, owner and distiller at Corsair Distillery, which operates
facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Josh Bernstein
Bell has worked closely with Pickerell on several projects
and says his ability to think creatively about problems has
made him a vital figure in the world of craft distilling. “Dave
truly looks at the world in a different way,” Bell says. “He’s a
hell of a good guy to know in a crisis.”
Bell tells of another distiller who was losing $400,000
annually due to evaporation from a big tank; another
consultant had proposed a prohibitively expensive remedy,
so the distiller contacted Pickerell. “Dave waltzes in and
suggests filling the tank with plastic whiffle balls,” Bell
says. “They would rise and fall with the liquid levels, but
also stop the evaporation. So simple, so brilliant—and so
much cheaper.”
Playing to his own passions, Pickerell also became
enamored with rye whiskey around the time he started
Oak View. Rye whiskey has a heritage that dates to
Colonial times—an aspect that piqued Pickerell’s historical
interest—but it was also experiencing a new surge of
demand driven largely by the cocktail movement. Pickerell
dove into rye at a number of distilleries, perhaps most
notably as part of a collaboration to re-create the rye
whiskey distilled by George Washington at a replica of the
founding father’s distillery at Mount Vernon.
He also addressed the growing demand for rye in a
partnership that led to the launch of WhistlePig. “Dave
has been one of the most instrumental people in the
resurgence of American rye,” says Raj Peter Bhakta, who
joined Pickerell to form WhistlePig in 2009. While the
partners navigated the lengthy process of building a
distillery on Bhakta’s farm in Vermont, Pickerell sought
existing supplies of 100-percent rye whiskey that could be
bottled under WhistlePig’s label in order to introduce the
brand. After locating a supply of superlative rye in Canada,
Pickerell and Bhakta launched WhistlePig with 1,000 cases
in 2010. “We found common ground in wanting to create
an American whiskey that could go up against the Scottish
stuff,” Bhakta says.
Mirroring the globe-trotting aspect of his early career,
Dave Pickerell remains a gypsy. He owns a house in
Louisville, but he spent only a month there in 2013. Instead,
he keeps a travel itinerary that puts him in constant motion
among the country’s growing legion of craft distillers, while
continuing to take on new projects. One week, he might
sleep at Hillrock Estate in New York, where as master
distiller he’s introduced a promising solera method for
maturing American whiskey. Another, you might find him
at George Washington’s Mount Vernon operation, checking
in on the latest spirits project. In between, he’ll stop at
distilleries ranging from Woodinville Whiskey Company
in Washington to St. Augustine Distillery in Florida, just
two of the myriad bourbon distilleries that are tapping into
Pickerell’s expertise.
As for the “Master Distiller” title he bore at Maker’s
Mark, today you’ll only find Dave Pickerell’s signature on
three bottles—WhistlePig rye whiskey, George Washington
rye whiskey (available only at Mount Vernon) and Hillrock
Estate’s line of whiskies—though he’s helped shape dozens
of brands from more than 50 distilleries. Just don’t ask him
which of these many whiskies is his favorite. “I’m not able
to answer that,” he says with a Cheshire grin. “They’re all my
kids in a way. You can’t ever pick a favorite.”
Don’t miss a moment of liquid culture.
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may/june 2014 ~ imbibemagazine.com 45

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