Every industry has its legends. In baseball, there’s Babe Ruth. Among film directors, there’s Alfred Hitchcock. For chefs, there’s Julia Child. And in the world of American craft spirits, there’s Dave Pickerell.
Over the past decade, few people have impacted as many American distilleries as Dave Pickerell. A trained chemical engineer and the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, Dave left his cushy gig in 2008 to start a consulting business helping new distillers make the best products they could.
Through the course of his career, he consulted with more than 100 distilleries, including success stories like WhistlePig, Nelson’s Green Briar, and Woodinville Whiskey. He helped them set up their factories, design their products, and avoid as many common pitfalls as they could. Dave quickly became known as “the Johnny Appleseed of American Whiskey,” for his uncanny ability to leave healthy brands and delicious whiskey everywhere he went. But in 2018, Dave Pickerell passed away unexpectedly, leaving the industry reeling. Yet the unique nature of the whiskey business means his legacy will live on for many years to come.
His last project, perhaps fittingly, was a collaboration with another legend from a different sphere: thrash metal icons Metallica. The result of that partnership was Blackened American Whiskey, one of the most innovative whiskeys to be released in recent memory. It’s the band’s first and only spirits project, and we’re thrilled to be sharing it with some of our club members this month as a fitting tribute to two legends from different—yet compatible—spheres.
“At its core, Blackened is a creative expression and a way for Metallica to connect with their fans on a personal level in a unique way,” says brand publicist Elana Effrat. For a band so devoted to excellence, it only made sense that Metallica would seek out the best possible person for the job of creating a whiskey worthy of their signature.
First, they floated the general idea to Dave without telling him the name of the band behind the project. Only after Dave signed an NDA did they reveal that it was Metallica who wanted to make the whiskey. “That’s all I need to know, thank you,” Dave told Revolver Magazine. “I’m all in!”
The creative brief was, well brief. “They basically said, ‘We want to do a whiskey, but we don’t want it to be overly-branded ‘Metallica’. We want it to be a partnership deal, and we want it to be awesome. Go!’” Dave told Revolver. For a distiller at the height of his powers, it was an open door to innovation. Inspired by Metallica’s ground-breaking legacy and turn-it-up-to-11 style, Dave decided to follow their lead, think outside the box, and create something truly unique.
To start, Dave sourced a portfolio of world-class straight whiskeys from around North America, including rye from Canada, bourbon from Kentucky, and whiskey from Tennessee and Indiana. Instead of choosing one of those whiskeys as the base for Blackened, he actually mixed them all together to build a super-complex base spirit. Whiskeys that blend two or more styles of whiskey are becoming slightly more common, but it’s still an unusual move. Next, he decided to finish the blend in Spanish brandy barrels, which he termed “black brandy barrels,” giving it extra sweetness and fruitiness.
For a less visionary distiller, that could have been the end of it, but Dave was just getting started. During his time at West Point, Dave had become fascinated the power of the lowest notes on the chapel’s pipe organ. During his interview with Revolver, he recounts a time when he and Dr. Davis, the organist, were in the chapel alone. “He goes, ‘And now, for the full effects of the organ …’ And he played the lowest note on the register, and it just shook your guts! He said, ‘I can only play this note for a few seconds, because it will do structural damage to the building!’ And I’m going, ‘Wow!’ That stuck with me — that’s the power of sound!’”
Anybody who’s ever been to a Metallica show knows the band is capable of generating sound just as earth-shaking as any organ. So Dave began to wonder—what would happen to a barrel of whiskey that experienced those super-low sonic vibrations during maturation? Would it change the outcome of maturation in any way?
Sensing he was onto something, Dave conducted an experiment to find out, letting one barrel finish normally while subjecting another to the deep, resonant sound of Metallica’s music during its rest. The results were remarkable. “Lo and behold, we got change — and we got change, quick. And positive change!” he told Revolver.
Inspired by that experiment, Dave designed a proprietary auditory finishing process called BlackNoise. It blasts the barrels with all-Metallica playlists to intensify the interaction between the whiskey and the barrel, resulting in deeper flavor and color. “Blackened’s finishing process can run anywhere from 2 to 10 weeks and the songs are on a loop,” says Elena. “The effect of the sound on the whiskey is determined by the length of time the whiskey is subjected to the process. A song that hits the frequency sweet spot more often than another song will have a greater effect.”
The system is a lot more high-tech than just slapping headphones on a cask. “We partnered with Meyer Sound, a world leader in audio design, engineering and technology. They have worked closely with Metallica to develop audio systems that have redefined the music experience,” says Elena. “The device they have designed is specific to the barrel and exact specifications are proprietary and patent pending.”
While the brand won’t dish on exactly how the sound system works, they are happy to share exactly what songs each barrel was serenaded with. All playlists (and yes, they’re different for each batch) can be found on www.blackenedwhiskey.com/plalists, Spotify and Apple Music. Happy listening, and happy sipping!