You snickered a little when Metallica said each batch of their Blackened whiskey tastes different because they blast it with different playlists of their music, right?
The brand’s master distiller and blender, Rob Dietrich, says he has the science to prove it. “Cask finishing has been around for hundreds of years, but now we’re applying modern technology and this innovation to it,” he tells UCR. “To really take it to an entire new level.”
He’s quick to credit Blackened’s original master distiller, the late Dave Pickerell, with the original “Black Noise” concept. “When the band approached Dave about making a whiskey, of course he was ecstatic – he’s a huge Metallica fan, as am I,” Dietrich says. “He wanted to create a blend of American whiskeys that already stand strongly on their own and just make this cacophony of flavors.”
Blackened also employs cask finishing, where the whiskey is aged in casks – previously used for wines, cognac, rum and other spirits – to add extra flavor. In this case, Pickerell used Spanish brandy barrels. “He called it black brandy, it was a very dark brandy,” says Dietrich. “You get the sweetness of the corn, all that sweetness of the sour mash, the bourbon flavor profile, then you get the spiciness of the rye. So, it’s a nice balance between almost like a sweet and savory, so to speak. Then you tie it all together with this brandy cask finishing. It’s almost the backbone of the whiskey – it holds the whole thing together.”
Individual variations aside, the process up to this point is basically how whiskey has been made for generations. It’s the next step that makes Blackened different. “This is where we go off the rails, and this is what I get excited about,” Dietrich noted. “When Dave was a cadet in the army, he was at West Point. He became friends with the caretaker of the chapel [and] of the pipe organ there. It’s apparently one of the largest in North America. The guy was showing him this note on the pipe organ. He’d always only touch it for a couple of seconds, because if he touched it for too long, the whole building started to vibrate. He was afraid that he would literally vibrate the building off its foundation.”
The demonstration stuck with Pickerell for years. “He thought, ‘I wonder if that’s a way that we can apply the use of sound in barrel aging or barrel enhancement?’ So this is a perfect fit. He’s already got Metallica, who are a bass-heavy band and so freaking loud. So, they started working with the sound company that provides the band’s touring equipment. We had them make a proprietary device. We play Metallica’s music at a very, very low frequency, so low that you can’t hear it with the human ear. You just hear this vibrating hum. Because of the different songs, the various aspects, the barrels are vibrating at such a vigorous pace, so the whiskey is moving in and out of the wood in the barrels at a very rapid pace, and you’re picking up all these flavors.”
To see if it really worked, Pickerell made two initial batches of Blackened – one subjected to Metallica’s music via the black-noise process and one that wasn’t. “He sent samples from both barrels off to the lab,” Dietrich says. “When he got the lab reports back, it was incredible the difference that the black noise had actually made to the whiskey. Every one of the nine tested markers, or flavor profiles, were enhanced in that barrel.”
Dietrich says Blackened is still awaiting results of some patent filings to share the full tests, but he notes that the various playlists band members created for each batch has yielded distinct variations.
“Every batch still has that base Blackened flavor profile, but they are always uniquely and just slightly different,” he says. “That’s where the band gets to keep their fingerprints on the process. We’re making whiskey with the traditional process, but we’re also making it with music and that’s what I think is incredible about this. It’s fascinating, and we’re just scratching the surface.”
In addition to a limited-edition “Batch 100” version of Blackened that comes complete with two LPs of the Metallica songs used in the making of that particular whiskey, Dietrich says he and the band are working on expanding their line of offerings soon. “They’re giving me free reign to come up with some new creations,” he says. “I get to really apply some unique aspects to making some future expressions.”
You can see photos of Metallica with Dietrich below.