Legendary Distiller Dave Pickerell Has Passed Away

Pickerell spent 14 years at Maker's Mark before moving on to WhistlePig.

Dave Pickerell
Photo: Courtesy of WhistlePig

Launched in 2007, Vermont's WhistlePig quickly became one of the biggest names in a modern wave of craft distilleries. It built its reputation the old-fashioned way: By releasing quality products. The man behind the brand was Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. Sadly, it was announced today that Pickerell passed away on November 1.

Though likely his best-known impact on the spirits world was his decision to join WhistlePig in 2009 and help the brand revitalize rye whiskey in the United States, his career also included a 14-year stint as the master distiller at none other than Maker's Mark as well as working as the master distiller at Hillrock Estate in New York's Hudson Valley.

Born in Fairborn, Ohio, Pickerell was accepted at West Point on a football scholarship, but his athletic pursuits eventually gave way to a love of science. His undergraduate degree was in chemistry, followed by a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville. He brought his scientific discipline to the world of whiskey with a desire to always keep experimenting. The WhistlePig team fondly remembers one of his favorite phrases: "I've failed more times than you've tried." He was also known to quip, "I'm ok making mistakes, in my industry you drink your mistakes."

"Dave was a veteran, a patriot, a storyteller par excellence, and a visionary," Jeff Kozak, CEO of WhistlePig, said in a statement. "Dave will be remembered by the world and by history as the Johnny Appleseed of the craft whiskey movement. I will remember him, above all, as my friend. We will all miss him dearly."

Virginia-based Ragged Branch, where Pickerell also 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."

Most recently, Pickerell made headlines by working with Metallica on the band's own whiskey, aged on their music, called Blackened. "The Metallica family is stunned and in disbelief at the loss of our friend and partner," the band said. "He was not only a mentor and friend, we considered him a member of Metallica. We learned so much from Dave in the all too brief time we had together. But more than anything, Dave was our good friend and we will miss him tremendously."

Frank Coleman, Senior Vice President at the Distilled Spirits Council, also took a moment to reflect on his legacy. "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 premiumization of Bourbon, a trend that has swept around the globe," he stated. "And, through his teaching, consulting and friendship, he was a founding father of the craft distilling movement that is exploding in the United States."

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