The amazing interest in spirits made by small producers is nowhere more evident than at craft cocktail bars, where some of the better-known and more widely available brands are making a quality name for themselves. Dave Pickerell, best known for his long association with Maker’s Mark bourbon where he was master distiller, in the last few years has spread his wings and has consulted with many of America’s small distillers. He may be best known for his work on WhistlePig Rye and has most recently headed up the distilling project at upstate New York’s Hillrock, soon to release its first whiskey. Pickerell took a minute to discuss this booming field.
Mix: You've been working with a number of the small and emerging distilleries in the past few years - what are important things the small distillery movement offer bars and bartenders?
Dave Pickerell: I think there are a number of things that the craft distilling movement offers bars and bartenders. First off, most innovation in the US spirits market is happening in the craft industry. As such, there are a great many new products, new tastes and new twists on old products that all give the bartenders more to work with in making cocktails, more to discuss with the customer. Even terroir in bourbon will become a discussion point. Additionally, it gives the bar the opportunity to address the trends of sustainability and buy local when they feature craft spirits made locally.
Mix: As so many new distillers and their brands come online, we're finding consistency is an issue, isn't it?
Pickerell: As with any new start-up, the possibility of consistency issues in craft spirits is out there. Not all craft spirit makers have this problem, and many of those who do will get passed it as they gain experience. Also, part of what some may call inconsistency is akin to single barrel bourbon, small batch to batch differences that just add to the conversation.
Mix: As a whiskey maker, what are the main advantages of working within the small distiller model?
Pickerell: There are a couple of distinct advantages to working with the craft distiller model. First, virtually all of the craft distillers are employing batch distillation systems. This allows them to take heads and tails cuts before bottling only the hearts of the product. The larger distillers employ continuous column stills, and are unable to separate out the heads and tails. As a result, craft distillers are actually capable of producing much cleaner spirits, and have much greater flexibility in what they deliver to the consumer. Second, as I noted above, almost all innovation in US spirit production is occurring in the craft arena. This is because the barrier to exploration is much lower for a craft distiller. By this, I mean that craft distillers can bring a new product to market very inexpensively, and if it sells 100 cases of extra product, that’s great! For a large format distiller, if the innovation team cannot guarantee 25,000 to 50,000 cases in first year sales, they are probably not going to be given the go ahead to develop a new product.
Mix: In terms of innovation, what should bar folks and big distillers learn from what's going on at small distilleries?
Pickerell: There is a LOT going on. Innovation is happening faster than the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury) can keep up with. As such, traditional definitions and categories are inadequate to segregate the new spirits coming on the market. Just a few examples: When reading the label, it is impossible to distinguish whether a vodka is actually made from scratch at a distillery or just re-distilled from GNS (grain neutral spirits); There is no TTB recognized category for white (unaged) whiskey. As such, the moonshine and white whiskey brands out there are competing in the Wild West. Corn whiskey, repackaged vodka, sugar ‘shine, and unaged bourbon or rye whiskey can all be found competing for airspace in this arena; There are a lot of new grains to figure out - quinoa, triticale, qats, and variants of wheat, not to mention the use of hops in whiskey; Terroir is getting ready to be a factor in bourbon and rye. Study up and get ready for it.
Mix: If there was one unique, unusual or otherwise ‘out there’ whiskey making experiment you could make, what would it be?
Pickerell: I would love to continue aging experiments far beyond small barrel maturation, extending it to both traditional finishes (like fortified wine barrels and various toasted woods) as well as non-traditional finishing techniques like hot box/cold box (using short duration very hot conditions alternated with short duration very cold conditions) and hyper-oxidation (using bubbled oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide).
Mix: What makes you happiest about the growth of the small distilleries in the US?
Pickerell: I like the challenges that present themselves in the craft industry – how to distinguish each brand in an ever increasing crowd, all while making the finances work.
Mix: What’s your favorite drink right now?
Pickerell: A well-executed Sazerac made with WhistlePig and Creole Bitters; or a Whiskey Sour, made with Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon, egg white, and fresh house squeezed sour mix.