Dave Pickerell, the master behind Vermont’s WhistlePig and one of the biggest names in the modern wave of craft distillers, died on Nov. 1 in San Francisco. He was 62.
Pickerell was visiting the city for this year’s WhiskyFest sponsored by Whisky Advocate Magazine and died in his hotel room of natural causes, reports say.
Pickerell had been touring this fall with the members of Metallica to promote their Blackened American Whiskey, and the group was planning to build a distillery in the Bay Area. They were scheduled to visit the proposed site of the distillery Saturday morning to get Pickerell’s final approval before advancing with the project.
A statement released by Metallica said: “The Metallica family is stunned and in disbelief at the loss of our friend and partner, Dave Pickerell. He was not only a mentor and friend, we considered him a member of Metallica.
“We learned so much from Dave in the all to brief time we had together. But more than anything, Dave was our good friend and we will miss him tremendously.
“In his passion for his craft, we found a truly kindred soul—Dave lived to see people enjoy what he created, and we enjoyed every minute of our collaboration on our Blackened Whiskey with him. Rest In Peace, Dave.”
Pickerell worked with Maker’s Mark in Kentucky for 14 years, managing the distillery’s operation, before moving on to found his own distilling consultancy firm, Oak View. His company designed equipment for hundreds of distilleries worldwide, including the notable Corsair and Hillrock.
In 2009 Pickerell launched WhistlePig, a single estate farm distillery in Vermont, for which he worked as master distiller. The WhistlePig brand has often been praised for driving the resurgence of American rye whiskey, and his work in cask finishing and maturation became well-known throughout the industry.
A spokesperson for WhistlePig said in a statement: “On behalf of WhistlePig, we are sad to announce that we lost a legend in the spirits industry. Dave was a distilling legend, a Bourbon and whiskey rock star and a teacher to all who loved whiskey. He was a luminary, and he is widely known as the nation’s preeminent distiller.”
The CEO of WhistilePig, Jeff Kozak, said: “Working with him never felt like work. It was his passion, humor and storytelling that helped this brand come alive. Saying we are going to miss him isn’t enough, and we will continue to honor his memory and keep him in our stories and our hearts.”
Born in Fairborn, Ohio, Pickerell was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on a football scholarship and earned a B.A. in Chemistry, followed by a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville in 1988, while serving in the Army. After leaving the military, Pickerell brought his love of science to the whiskey world with a desire to always keep experimenting, often quipping, “I’m OK making mistakes; in my industry, you drink your mistakes.”
Accolades have streamed in from across the whiskey industry.
John Billelo, CEO of Sweet Amber Distilling and Blackened Whiskey, said: “We are so incredibly saddened to learn of Dave Pickerell’s passing. Dave was not only one of the most forward thinking and groundbreaking distillers to ever walk the earth, he was also a great friend.
“He was a kind soul with an unstoppable passion for his friends, family, and for the world of whiskey. He will be greatly missed as a friend and as a legendary member of the spirits industry family.”
Virginia-based Ragged Branch, where Pickerell served as master distiller, also shared condolences, saying: “We will miss his passion for the craft and his larger-than-life personality but are incredibly grateful for the time we had with him and the firsthand knowledge he passed on to us to be able to produce the finest, most authentic Virginia straight bourbon possible.”
Cathy and Jeffrey Baker and the Hillrock Estate distillery team said in a statement: “Dave was a true industry icon, with an amazing wealth of knowledge and a personality to match.
“He has rightly been called the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of craft distilling and has changed the face of spirits and touched the lives of many.”
Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council added: “Dave Pickerell was a true icon in the distilling world, and an innovator and mentor to so many.
“With Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark, Dave helped launch the premiumisation of Bourbon, a trend that has swept around the globe.
“He was a leader of the original team of distillers involved in the restoration of George Washington’s Distillery and the recreation of the first rye whiskey at the site in 200 years. That effort in the early 2000s sparked the revival and subsequent boom in rye whiskey that followed. And, through his teaching, consulting and friendship, he was a founding father of the craft distilling movement that is exploding in the United States.”
Funeral arrangements are undecided, but following a private service for the Pickerell family in Kentucky, plans are being made for memorial services in several cities around the United States.
Please join the Blue Lifestyle team in expressing our condolences to Dave Pickerell’s family and friends. Rest In Peace, Dave.