It must be a lark to captain the Queen Mary II across the North Atlantic from Southampton to New York harbor, change into casual clothes and go sailing with a few friends on a small, private yacht.
That’s the analogy that I think of when I read about – or talk with – another master distiller who has retired from making whiskies for one of the big boys and then taken up a career as consultant or part-owner of a craft distillery. The thoughts that must pass through their heads!
• Can I do something this small?
• It feels weird not have to explain to anyone up the ladder why I want to do what I want to do.
• But what if I don’t enjoy working with a new partner?
• And should we aim at remaining independent, or should we sell our startup to a spirits conglomerate after they get a whiff of our success?
A few years ago, I asked Dave Pickerell what was behind the then-sudden rise in craft distilling. “There are several different drivers,” Pickerell told me. “The slowdown of craft brewing had people looking for the next thing, consumers continue to be interested in sustainability and drinking local and, finally, the big boys just can’t do innovation.”
Pickerell knew what he was talking about, as he was among the biggest of the big boys, serving as master distiller for Maker’s Mark for over a decade before striking out on his own. In addition to consulting, he entered into a partnership with Raj Peter Bhakta, launching WhistlePig Rye in 2015 in upstate Vermont.
While Pickerell was at Maker’s Mark, Dave Scheurich was creating Woodford Reserve for Brown-Forman and was running that business when he retired in 2011, also to consult. His latest big-ticket project, in conjunction with Royal Wine Corporation, was the launch earlier this year of Boondocks American Whiskey. "Boondocks is an exciting project to be a part of," Scheurich said during the launch. "With the development of this brand, we wanted to bring a superior product with exceptional taste to the market, but, most importantly, we wanted a whiskey that delivered an ultra-smooth finish –something easy to enjoy."
John Lunn took over from my high-school buddy, Dave Backus, as master distiller at Diageo’s George Dickel before leaving the Tennessee producer a few years back to become a craft distiller at the Avery’s Trail distillery, producer of Popcorn Sutton spirits among other brands. Now he’s back with the big boys, sort of, after Sazerac bought the distillery earlier this month, although not the brands. Lunn will now be producing a Tennessee whiskey in the manner of Dickel and J. Daniels.
Riannon Walsh does not fit the corporate profile of these three gentlemen, but the thought is similar – “Now I want to do something just for myself.” Walsh strength is as a noser and a blender, not a distiller, and for years she helped sniff our prize casks for those Scotch folks who have taken the “e” out of whiskey. Some backers with cash convinced her to start her own distillery – Brandywine Branch, in Chester County, PA. Her first product as owner and master blender is a series of gins bearing the “Revivalist” label. “I feel like I’m cooking when I’m working on a recipe,” Walsh told me, as she adjusted her botanicals for a new batch.
So while we celebrate the craft spirit that many newcomers are bringing to the small-spirits industry, we don’t want to forget that many of them are relying heavily on some crafty veterans as consultants and partners.