“I definitely wanted to see the science behind it,” Rob Dietrich tells InsideHook about his new job. When the whiskey you’re hired to produce is supposed to be shaped (in part) by a heavy metal playlist, you probably have a right to be skeptical.
Thankfully, Dietrich has always possessed a try-anything streak. It served him well when as the Master Distiller for Stranahan’s, the Colorado-based American single malt that saw whiskey fans camping out for up to a week to try the brand’s innovative limited releases (we dubbed last year’s release of Stranahan’s Snowflake as having the potential to be “most unique whiskey ever released”).
But after twelve years at Stranahan’s, Dietrich — a former music booker — has moved over to Blackened, a blended whiskey co-created by the late Dave Pickerell (an award-winning Master Distiller, most recently known for his work at WhistlePig) and the band Metallica.
A marriage of bourbons, ryes and whiskeys finished in black brandy casks, Blackened takes on Metallica’s spirit via a process called “Black Noise.” Here, the whiskey is agitated and pummeled with curated playlists of the band’s music, a sonic enhancement process that seems, unbelievably, have scientific validity.
We spoke with Dietrich at this year’s Bar Convent Brooklyn, just a week after his official announcement as Blackened’s new Master Distiller.
Had you met the band before?
I had worked with them, but hadn’t met them before. I used to work in music, and worked at different venues. I worked as a stagehand at the Lollapalooza ‘96 show, the year they cut their hair. I mentioned that to James Hetfield when we were interviewing (laughs). I mentioned their hair and James was like, “Ah, man, everyone f—ing hated us for that.”
So where are you making this?
The band is based in San Francisco, but they’re really all over the place. Since we’re an American blend, the whiskey operations are in Vermont, but I’m still in Denver and work out of a lab in my house.
Blackened was co-created by Dave Pickerell, who passed away recently. Had you worked with him?
We certainly knew each other, but I had never had the pleasure of working together on any project. I will say I’m very honored to carry on his legacy. I feel like my focus right now is to carry that on, keep it consistent but fine tune it. I think, like we did at Stranahan’s, we’ll use Blackened as our base to create and support different expressions.
The great thing here is, the band wanted this whiskey to stand on its own and not just be something cheap they slapped their name on. That’s why they reached out to someone like Dave.
Can you really change a whiskey by sound?
(Laughs) I had a similar reaction. Is this really a thing? But it really does. It’s a real scientific process. It started when Dave Pickerell was a cadet at West Point and he made friends with an organist. There was one note he’d play that would shake the whole building; he wouldn’t play it because he was scared of breaking the integrity of the building. That stuck with him.
So here, Blackened had a control barrel, and then one that underwent some sonic enhancement. They sent it to a lab, and it was definitely changed. The way I’d describe it: When you’re close to a speaker at a concert, and you can feel the music in your chest and it’s like it’s making it breathe on its own. Well, a barrel is a living thing, breathing whiskey in and out. We’re just enhancing that process with music. And this is where the band has their fingerprints on the process. It’s all their music, and each band member picks their own playlist for each batch.
Does that make a difference?
[Bassist] Robert Trujillo has those low, fat basslines, so everyone thinks his playlist works best.
Stranahan’s was a lot about finishing and different cask barrels. This must have felt right at home for you.
It’s definitely my wheelhouse, the blending. You’re taking different elements and testing it all by nose and taste and creating from that.
If you were releasing the next Metallica whiskey, what song would it represent?
Here’s where the band is important. I think they get to pick that. I’ll just make the whiskey. But I will say when I was in the army, and we were being shipped out to Somalia, it was around when …And Justice for All was released and that song “One” came out. We were all like, wow. I’ve been listening to Metallica since 7th grade, and they have such a wide range.
If I did pick a song, I’d probably have to hole up in my cabin. I have a living room that’s just vinyl — I took out the TV and the coffee table. I’d hole up there for a while, listen to music and say, “that’s the song!”
Seems like Blackened should have some fun release parties …
I think once the band gets back to the U.S., we’ll try to align some release parties with their tour. And then I get to tour with the band. [Laughs] I’ll let them know I’m a great kazoo player.
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