The heavy metal band Metallica may be best known for their music but their newly released whiskey, Blackened, is making some noise as well.
Using a unique technique called ‘sonic enhancement’, the whiskey is gaining a solid reputation beyond its celebrity status.
We talk to Rob Dietrich the newly appointed Head Distiller from Blackened about the band’s involvement, taking up the mantle from a legend and of course the whiskey itself.
[00:01:04] – Why would rock stars want a whiskey brand?
[00:01:38] – How much of the brand’s success is coming from their fans?
[00:02:34] – What was Dave Pickerell trying to achieve with this Whiskey?
[00:04:22] – How is the sound used?
[00:04:38] – So it is Metallica music that’s being used?
[00:04:58] – So each batch has its own playlist?
[00:05:55] – So the music is deepening the wood effect in the barrel?
[00:06:55] – It does sound a little like witchcraft …
[00:07:34] – How long does the sound process take?
[00:07:56] – Is there really a marked difference in taste?
[00:08:36] – What sort of taste should people expect?
[00:09:35] – Would you say you can taste the music in the whiskey?
[00:11:10] – How difficult was it to replace Dave Pickerell?
[00:12:08] – What will you be bringing to the brand?
[00:13:30] – Are there plans to release a second expression?
[00:14:52] – Are there any ideas you can share with us?
[00:14:56] – Was each Whiskey picked for a reason?
[00:15:42] – Tell us more about the blend
[00:16:33] – How involved have the band been?
[00:17:51] – What cocktails can you make with it?
[00:18:57] – What flavours would work well with the whiskey?
[00:21:16] – Is Blackened available throughout the US?
[00:21:45] – Is it challenging to keep up with the demand?
[00:22:38] – The band haven’t got their name all over the Whiskey
[00:23:32] – Will the following expressions also use Metallica song names?
[00:24:21] – Is it available internationally?
If you like a little rock and roll with your whiskey then Blackened, the brand developed and owned by heavy-metal band Metallica, may be your dram of choice. We are here today with Rob Dietrich, master distiller and blender at Blackened Whiskey to talk about this unconventional whiskey that has been born in cask and forged by sound.
Thank you for joining me Rob. Can we start off with the obvious question: why would rock stars want a whiskey brand?
I think most rock stars have had their dance with whiskey throughout their careers. Metallica have been around for so long, obviously there are some members of the band that don’t drink whiskey, but there are a couple of members that do drink whiskey so for them it was really important to find another way to connect with their fans, audience, and to create a world-class whiskey that really matches the level of experience and really kind of legend that the band has brought to the world with their own music.
That opens up an interesting question: how much of their success of the brand is actually spurred on by their fans or is it going outside of that demographic as well?
It’s a balance of both certainly. The beauty of this whiskey is that they wanted to create a whiskey that stood well on its own. They didn’t want to just buy a cheap whiskey and slap Metallica all over it and just try and sell it just to the fans. What they wanted was to make a world class whiskey and that’s why they sought out Dave Pickerell who was the legendary distillery for both Makers Mark and Whistle Pig and they wanted him, they said look we know how to make music, you know how to make whiskey, we want you to create one of the best whiskeys that you could possibly make and we want to collaborate with you on that.
Talking of Dave Pickerell, can you explain what he was trying to achieve when he originally came up with this for the band?
I have known Dave for many years, I was formally the master distiller for straight hands whiskey and we were in the same circles. What I always appreciated about Dave and I feel I have a similar mentality is that we are whiskey nerds first and foremost. We love to look at whiskey and identify, like I want to geek out on the barrel process, I want to geek out on how these processes all come together and for him it was elements he brought forward, when he was a cadet at West Point he was friends with the organist in the cathedral and there was the third largest organ in the United States and there was a note on that organ that the organist would only play for a very limited time because it would vibrate the building so drastically that he was afraid to compromise the integrity of the building. So something that always stuck with Dave was well what if we can use that sound to enhance the whiskey and that is really where the collaboration of the band and Dave’s mindset, not only his connection to the whiskey world of creating a blend of 5 different whiskeys, he had such great relationships with all these world class distilleries in the US, blending those barrels together, also putting the sonic enhancement element into it where it was able to tie the band into it really was just a perfect match of both worlds.
Do you want to explain a little bit more about how the sound is used?
Yes, so sound enhancement is sonic enhancement so they used subsonic sound waves to pummel the barrels basically and they were using set lists with the band’s music, each band member creating their own setlist.
So it is Metallica’s own music that is being
Yes and its good they were having fun with it and Dave says we want this to be a serious whiskey, we want the whiskey to stand on its own but we also want to have some fun with it, let’s enjoy the process. So each band member is creating their own set list per batch.
So each batch has its own playlist so to speak?
Yes, it does. So the way that works, for example, we will use Batch 94 which was James Hetfield’s, he gets to pick the setlist for that. That setlist goes into, they are blasting the barrels at a subsonic level, you can’t even really hear the music, you just hear the music and you feel it. If you have ever been to a concert and you are standing in front of a speaker and you are close to the speaker and you feel that just pressing it back and forth into your chest, you can feel the movement of the sound, that’s exactly what is happening within the barrel. The barrel to me is a living breathing thing, the barrel breaths, it is moving whiskey in and out of the wood and it is coming back and forth, this is just another way of enhancing that ageing process. It’s not ageing; it’s just an enhancement of the age that is already in the barrel.
So in effect the music is deepening the wood effect in the whiskey or …
Yes and so much so that they have actually applied for a patent for the process, there is just such a definitive difference that is happening with the sonic enhancement. So when Dave started out he had a control barrel which was the blend of the whiskeys cast finish in black brandy barrels and that was that barrel. He took another barrel, put the blend in there, cast finish in black brandy barrel, did the sonic enhancement to it, sent the results out to a lab and when he got the results back it was definitively a uniquely different process. It was something happening with the sonic enhancement that really changed that flavour profile. So it was something I know he was very excited about it, again I am a whiskey nerd and I think anytime there is a new innovation there is always an element of suspicion.
It does sound a little bit like witchcraft
It does a little bit. But you think about the first time someone saw a Model T Ford coming down the street and they were like I would never drive that contraption, I will stick with my burrow thank you very much and I think anytime there is an innovation people are always going to have an element of suspicion about the innovative process and I think that’s really what has happened here. This is taking things to a new level, we are using technology to take an age-old method, we are not changing, we are certainly ageing whiskey already, its 7-8 years in these barrels that have already aged but we are doing something a little bit different.
And how long does the sound process take, how much time are you putting in?
It varies by volume, right now that’s a proprietary method as far as how much that is happening, how long it is. Right now just because they are patent pending we are keeping that element of it proprietary.
Is there really a marked difference in the taste?
I have noticed the difference when I have tasted it. Even when I was batching this before every batch is going to be slightly different; the barrels you are using, depending on where the barrels were, where the wood was growing like if it was on the north side of the mountain or the south side, the different minerals, that is always going to add a little bit of different elements to the flavour profile so you are always going to have a little bit of difference in the flavour but I found that there was a definitive difference between that control barrel and the sonic enhancement.
And what sort of taste, if someone hasn’t tasted the whiskey what sort of taste should they be expecting?
I think that is always going to be somewhat of a moving target, it’s always going to be the base elements but I am finding deeper elements of the oak, certainly getting more of the oakiness out of it because you have gone past what is considered the red line. When you char a barrel all those natural sugars of vanillins, those tannins in the wood are coming up to that burn surface, right past that is what they call the red line. You are going past that red line and you are kind of picking up a lot more oakiness, a little more colour, a little more of that oak flavour. I am a big fan of brand new oak just because that’s what I have grown up with as far as learning the process and learning how to distil so I feel like going past that red line is something that gives it a lot of character.
Would you say you could almost taste the music through the whiskey?
I think anytime anyone drinks whiskey they are hearing some sort of music in their head. Whether you are jumping up and doing a jig to your whiskey in the jar which was obviously a song that Metallica covered, Thin Lizzie they had their own cover but that’s like an old folk song. I think it definitely brings, I feel there is music in the element. When I have batched whiskey before I am a big vinyl nerd, I love vinyl records, I love music, I love that element and I think anytime you are putting something together there is always an element of whatever music’s in your head. I love the Clash, I am a big Clash fan, a big Metallica fan but I am all over the place. I love William Jennings and Willy Nelson and Johnny Cash, all these elements of, you think about how many of these old outlaw country guys are singing about whiskey, heartbreak, trucks breaking down, dogs leaving, there are all these elements that tie whiskey back to music but I think in this circumstance using the sonic enhancement with the band’s music I am sure it is bouncing around in there somewhere, its picking up the DNA of the music and I am sure somehow you are certainly imbibing that.
If we can go back to the late distiller Dave Pickerell, how difficult was it for you to step into his shoes once he had passed?
It’s interesting, one I am very honoured and humbled to be able to take up the mantel and it really honours the legacy that Dave has brought to the world of distilling and craft distilling in the United States and there are some very big shoes to fill. I don’t expect to fill those shoes. Dave left his own footprints on the world. What I feel my job is is to just continue to honour the legacy that he has left within the distilling community and to bring my own elements to that as well. So for me, it’s an honour, I am very honoured and humbled to be a part of that.
And with this particular expression what are the elements that you are bringing into it beyond what Dave had already set up.
The more I have gotten to know Dave through this whole process; we are very similar in many ways and also very uniquely different. We are both former military, we were both in the army, we are both obviously whiskey nerds, whiskey geeks but we approach from very different directions. My years in the music industry really give me an appreciation for all types of music and my years in the whiskey industry the one thing I have learned is that I have the title of master distiller and all that tells me is that I have just scratched the surface. I have the world to learn beyond this. It doesn’t mean that I have mastered anything; it just means I have opened up another door. It reminds me of watching the Wizard of Oz, it’s all black and white in the very beginning and then when Dorothy opens up the door and there is colour. I feel like the moments I can approach this coveted title of master distiller, it just opened up this whole new world of oh wow I have the rest of the world to learn, the rest of my life to keep learning so to me that’s a humbling experience. I feel it just means you continue to learn for the rest of your life and never really know everything about making whiskey or any spirit for that matter.
With that said are there plans in the future to bring out a second expression of Blackened or are you looking at each batch as a separate expression?
I would say Blackened is certainly the backbone of the company. This is where, for me it is continuing to really control and continuing to making ensure the quality consistency of Blackened is always the same but then ultimately I am able to have the freedom to be able to create new expressions as well, so continuing to uphold the legacy that Dave left with Blackened but also to create, I write everything down in old moleskin books, I am old school like that, I call it my notebook app. It’s like hold on while I get my notebook app happening and bring out the moleskin and job down some notes. It’s got all my, as my ex-girlfriend would call it, my mutterings and murmurings in this book, it’s all my crackpot schemes and things that I really feel, things I think about in the middle of the night and I am like oh my god that would be fantastic if we did this and blended this and created this.
Are there any of those you can share with us?
At this time no, I’ve got some, I’ve certainly been expressing to the band and to the production team and we are narrowing it down, taking my crackpot schemes and bringing them down to realistic schemes is the element we are working on right now.
Now let’s talk a little more about the blend, I believe it is a mix of bourbon and rye?
Yes, this is five different types of whiskey, this is whiskey from Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and also we have got some Canadian rye in there. So all these are from different distilleries in those regions, all blended together.
Each picked for a particular reason?
For the most part, I think Dave was such good friends with so many amazing distillers and distilleries in those regions. He was talking with friends, dear friends that he had known for years and really got to cherry pick all the best whiskeys that he could from those areas to create the blend that he wanted to make so I really feel that is a collaboration within a collaboration. That is the friendships that he developed with so many great talented distillers and distilleries really made, comprised what we are able to drink today which is a blackened whiskey. He just did such a fantastic job with that.
And how involved were the band themselves in approving those whiskeys and also in coming up with ideas for marketing or other elements to the brand?
Very much hands on. That’s one thing I was really excited about was that in going into it it was my understanding that they were very much hands-on with it. It wasn’t just hey you guys do what you do, we are just going to put our name on it and we are going to go and do this thing over here. Lars, for instance, was a very inquisitive individual, he wanted to understand the process, what was behind the production. He wants to know how this thing works and they all do I think. That’s been the fun part in they want to know how this process works, they are adding their own fingerprints, their own elements, the nose and taste the whiskey and understand what goes into the whiskey in the first place and also trusting Dave that he knows what he was doing, they are trusting me that I know what I am doing. Basically, we know how to make great music, you know how to make great whiskey but let’s let us do these things and bring that collaboration together. So they are very much a part of that process, their fingerprints are all over it.
So if someone bought a bottle and took it home, what cocktails could they make with it. I know your reaction would be no drink it straight or on the rocks, but if they were going to make cocktails what would you recommend?
You are exactly right I am a bit of a purist, I love to drink whiskey neat, I also like a bit of ice especially if it is a nice warm day, get a little bit of ice in there and chill the whiskey down a little bit. A little water always helps whiskey to open up and bloom. I have jokingly said for years my favourite cocktail on the planet is whiskey and ice, that’s my cocktail. However I do feel that I am starting to embrace the cocktail, there are so many great mixologists out there with so many great ideas, I think some things can be super over the top. I like cocktails that are whiskey forward, I want to take the whiskey, I want the whiskey to be enhanced by whatever ingredients I am putting into the cocktail.
So more of an old fashioned style?
I am definitely an old fashioned guy. If I am going to go to a cocktail my go to is going to be an old fashioned, I am old school like that.
Well if someone is going to experiment with it then what flavours do you think would work well with the whiskey?
Again when I think about old fashioned, you are going to have an orange peel in there, maybe a Maraschino cherry, the type of bitters that would probably go along with this particular whiskey, black walnut bitters I think would go well, chocolate bitters. I think we are going to bring out some of those fruit notes from the black brandy barrel, I think you are going to get some of those elements from it. But it’s interesting, there are so many exciting ways to put a cocktail together but I definitely feel like citrus and some of those dark, richer fruit notes like dark cherries. Again I am basically describing an old fashioned.
What about something like a spicy ginger would that work well?
I am sure it would for someone. For me again I am probably the wrong person to ask about that because I have never been a bartender, I have never been a mixologist, I have been a whiskey maker so for me I just go for, I want that whiskey, I want to taste the whiskey, I want to work my way through all the elements. You know it takes a long time to make a whiskey years and years, there is so much flavour and so much going on in a neat whiskey or a whiskey with a little dash of water, I would rather wrap my mind around with what’s going on with that. So as far as cocktails there will be someone more educated on cocktails that could answer that more readily, there are so many talented people out there that can just take a whiskey and oh I can do this, this and this because they already know all the elements of their bar and what they can put into it. For me it’s, my tools are literally in the distillery, literally what barrels I can do, what barrels I can cask finish in, what kind of enhancements I can make, this proof, that proof, this much water, more water, less water, climate control, there are so many ways that I am controlling the elements of a whiskey before it even gets into that bottle. To me, that’s where I would have a lot more understanding of flavour profiles.
Blackened is available across the US pretty much at the moment.
Yes, it is, we only launched in August so we are slow and steady, it’s a whiskey the whiskey game is a slow and steady pace. Right out of the gate it was an amazing response; people were, we had one projection of how many cases we wanted to release and already it has surpassed that considerably.
So that means you are challenged to keep up with demand?
Yes so to keep up with that demand they are already finding that there were states that we weren’t even in yet that were requesting the whiskey and we haven’t even gotten to them. We are talking about control states which generally you have to beg control states to please let us be in your state whereas the control states are calling up saying we want this whiskey because they had it somewhere and they tasted it. And again it’s a whiskey that stands on its own and also that added element of the band, of having Metallica being a part of it, it’s really exciting to be able to see where how much interest as coming right out of the gate and it’s because it’s a whiskey that they want to drink.
Interesting though they haven’t emblazoned their name all over the branding of the bottle.
No, and that was on purpose. They didn’t want to just be like Metallica whiskey because it’s not Metallica whiskey. Its owned by Metallica but it’s a whiskey that’s created by a master distiller, someone who had such amazing skills, Dave Pickerell again that that’s a whiskey that stands on its own. The subtle connections the way they could connect with that is by adding elements of the band without actually putting Metallica on it or even putting their names on it. They are putting for example Blackened is the name of a Metallica song, a really great Metallica song and that’s how they have been able to put their fingerprints kind of subtly on the process, at the same time allowing that whiskey to stand on its own and to really be a world class whiskey just like the band is, so it makes a huge difference.
So do we imagine that following expressions will have song names as their backbone?
I think so, it just makes sense. These guys have spent years building up such a great library of music, epic music, and all these songs that they have had within that they have been able to identify those and copyright the names so the names are already copyrighted just through their music so it makes more sense to use elements that they already own, they own the rights to the music, they own the rights to the names of their songs, utilising those names just makes a lot of sense and it also again helps put the fingerprints back on the process without basically overdoing it.
What about internationally have you expanded overseas yet?
Not yet, that is in the works. I am heading over to, happily getting to travel over to Berlin and Prague to go see the band and spend some time with them on the road but we are right now as of yet have not launched the band internationally. Right now we are getting our legs under us on the local market and the national market which I think this is really important because this is where our home base and where we started from and I think that was really key to ensure that we were getting the whiskey out to our fans in the US. It’s so amazing to see how many fans they have worldwide and how international loved the band is. I know we are all very excited to be able to get to that point where we can launch on an international basis and I know that the rest of the world is going to be excited about that as well.
Yes trade issues aside naturally
Exactly we have got trade issues right now, there are all sorts of logistics that go into as a concept, always easy to think oh yeah the band is touring internationally, they are touring Europe, let’s go ahead and launch out there but there’s always logistics with those kind of elements. But there are already requests, I have seen they announced only a week and a half ago my joining the team, all these voices from all over the world just pitching in saying when can we get it here, we want the whiskey here, when can we get it and that’s exciting. Again whiskey is a slow game, you have to have a lot of patience with whiskey and right now we are taking those big baby steps and into bigger strides to try and match that stride of really the legend of Metallica.
Are you perhaps selling to any of the websites like Whiskey Exchange or any of those that can ship internationally?
Yes, there are some online stores you can get the whiskey through. I think if people do a bit of research about where they can buy the whiskey online there is some access to it.