Dave Pickerell, a master distiller who played a central role in the growth of Maker’s Mark bourbon and later used his expertise to help entrepreneurs start dozens of small craft distilleries, died Nov. 1 in San Francisco. He was 62.
His son Micah, who confirmed the death, said the cause was hypertensive heart failure. Pickerell had been attending WhiskyFest San Francisco, an event that lets consumers taste whiskeys from around the world.
Pickerell was a burly former college football player who liked to tell stories and dressed in costumes for marketing events. But he was also a well-educated chemical engineer who enforced high-quality standards in distilling whiskey, whether at a major company like Maker’s Mark or at small operations like Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery.
In 2003, Pickerell and a group of other master distillers wore Revolutionary-era costumes during an event in Mount Vernon, Virginia, at which they re-created rye whiskey from a recipe used by George Washington when he owned a profitable distillery.
As he sampled a tiny glass of the very spicy 140-proof rye that came out of the still, Pickerell said, “Oh, that’s really nice.” He later helped guide the production of rye at the distillery after it had been reconstructed and reopened in 2007.
Bringing back a founding father’s whiskey recipe was something of an epiphany for Pickerell, who became a leading champion of rye.
“The fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them,” he said in an interview with Garden & Gun magazine in 2014. “If you want to be authentic, you need rye on the bar.”
David Steven Pickerell was born Aug. 14, 1956, in Fairborn, Ohio. His father, Dick, was the local postmaster and a high school football coach. His mother was Georgia Lynn (Herbert Wallis) Pickerell.