In early 2018, the Marinite band members of Metallica teamed up with distilling legend Dave Pickerell (Makers Mark, Whistle Pig) to create a unique, sonically enhanced American whiskey they christened Blackened. The idea was to use low end music vibration to help move the whiskey in and out of the barrel. And, of course Metallica’s music was the perfect fit. Sadly, Pickerell passed away later that year.
The band then reached out to Master Distiller Rob Dietrich of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, whom they had met, initially, when he was a stagehand for them at 1996’s Lollapalooza.
“When I first started out in my music industry career, I was working for Bill Graham Presents in the mid-late 1990’s. I was living in a 1967 Chevy School bus I had converted into what would now be considered a tiny home. I had built the bus interior with old barn wood while I was in the Army and lived out of it after I got out, while traveling up and down the west coast of Oregon and California. I parked the bus around various places in Marin county, and was getting around on my Gary Fisher mountain bike, which was invented right there at Mount Tamalpais.”
Dietrich worked as a stagehand at the Marin County Music Festival in 1996, where he met artist Ben Harper and broke Steve Earles’ guitar amp.
“The amp required vacuum tubes that he didn’t have replacements for and there was a mad scramble to find the tubes for his vintage amp before he had to go on. I thought for sure my short-lived music career was over. Turned out that was just the beginning of an adventurous 10-year stint in music production,” says Dietrich.
Dietrich left the music industry to work for Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, initially volunteering on the bottling line, before working himself up to head distiller and later master distiller.
“I spent 12+ years with Stranahan’s before taking the leap to join the Blackened team and the Metallica family,” he says.
Blackened ($45) is a 90-proof blend of bourbons and ryes, sourced from Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Canada. The whiskey is aged an average of 8+ years in white American oak barrels. The whiskeys are then blended together, and cask finished in black brandy barrels from Spain. The result is a smokey, almost cherry chocolate finish that is smooth on the palate without being overpowering.
Recently we caught up with Dietrich for some in depth questions on Blackened’s unique sonic barreling process.
JB) Here in wine country we are used to wine barrels being stored underground to minimize the interaction within. How is whiskey barreling different than wine barreling?
RD) Whiskey in the barrel needs to breathe. I consider the barrel a type of living, breathing entity, that will slowly push the spirit in and out of the wood as the pores open during the heat of the day, absorbing the whiskey, and pushing the whiskey back out of the wood into the barrel during the colder temperatures of the night. Oxygen can make up the headspace, which in small amounts is good for the whiskey, although too much oxygen can have a negative effect. It’s all about the balance of climate and movement in the wood.
When you char a barrel, the natural sugars in the wood rise to the surface to form a natural caramelized band of flavor, such as vanillas, tannins, lactones, etc., that comprise the flavor compounds of the wood. The changing temperatures move the whiskey in and out of those elements, drawing natural color and flavor into the spirit.
JB) Does vibration really make a difference in barrel aging? And specifically, music vibration? Is there something about Metallica’s music that works well with this process?
RD) In the case of our Black Noise™ technique, it truly does make a difference. The low frequency and proprietary devices used to create the vibration work so well, there are definitive changes to how much and how frequently the whiskey moves in and out of the wood of the barrel. If you’ve ever found yourself in front of a speaker at a large concert, you can really feel the sound vibrating in your chest as the sound waves are blasting in and around you.
Metallica’s whiskey in particular is perfect for the Black Noise™ process, as they are very bass heavy band, and the vibrations of the bass work perfectly to enhance the finishing process. Because the music is played at such a low frequency, you can’t even really hear the music, it is just a very rhythmic hum, working its magic on the whiskey inside the barrel.
JB) Will there be any upcoming changes to Blackened now that you are onboard? Multiple barrel finishing? Different barrels? Different whiskeys?
RD) We will always be fine-tuning the Blackened whiskey process, as does any whiskey maker when they are honing their production. The base flavor profile of Blackened will always remain relatively the same, with minor adjustments here and there to ensure quality. We will be creating new innovations and collaborations that I am very excited to embark on, and the best thing I can say is keep following the Blackened media channels to stay tuned for future adventures in new creations.