Rob Dietrich still vividly remembers the very first time he heard Metallica.
"It was in seventh grade," he recalls. "I was at my buddy's house, and he said, 'Man, you gotta hear this!' He put a cassette of Master of Puppets in the boom box, and I was like, 'Wow!!!' I was completely floored. And I remember seeing the cover of the tape for the first time, and thinking, 'Wow, this is some scary shit!'" He laughs. "My dad had an amazing vinyl collection, with stuff like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but this was the first time I'd heard something and thought, 'This is my music!'"
Nearly 35 years later, Dietrich has found his dream gig as the Master Distiller of Blackened American Whiskey, Metallica's gold medal award-winning brand of premium whiskey. Dietrich joined the Metallica family in June 2019, stepping into the role established by his late predecessor, Blackened co-founder Dave Pickerell. A respected pioneer in the distilling world, Pickerell (who passed away in November 2018) famously devised the concept of sonically enhancing Blackened through a process called "Black Noise," in which barrels of the whiskey are blasted with specially-curated playlists of Metallica's music.
Dietrich has not only carried on in Pickerell's footsteps, but he also personally picked the 12-song playlist that enhanced Blackened's 100th batch. Dietrich's playlist (an impressively eclectic mix of Metallica hits and rarities, which includes two live cuts from the band's Damaged Justice Tour of 1988-89) has been immortalized on the two 12-inch picture discs as part of the limited-edition Blackened Batch 100 Whiskey & Vinyl Box Set, which is currently available for pre-order via various online distributors.
Revolver recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dietrich about his distilling career, making the playlist for Batch 100, and that time he worked stage crew for Metallica's headlining set at Lollapalooza '96.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH DISTILLING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
ROB DIETRICH I started at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, in Denver. I started out as a volunteer on the bottling line in 2006, and really just fell in love with the whole process. While there, I created these in-house, cask-finished blends called Snowflake, which had a bit of a cult following. People would literally line up and camp outside the distillery for the release — in December! [Laughs] Which was kind of mind-blowing to me, but it created this kind of camaraderie in the community, which I absolutely loved. I'd spent the night out there the night before the release. There would be, like, a thousand people in line, camped out two or three blocks down the street, and I'd go out and talk to every single person.
So I'd gotten a reputation that way. And I'd heard about Blackened. I actually have a friend who is neighbors with James Hetfield up in Vail, and he'd called me up a few years back and said, "Hey, the band is thinking about making a whiskey, and they're going with this guy Dave Pickerell. Do you know anything about him?" And I said, "Of course, he's a legendary craft distiller, and they're in perfectly good hands ... but if they're looking for an assistant distiller, I'm definitely interested!" [Laughs]
SO YOU WERE WELL AWARE OF WHAT DAVE PICKERELL WAS DOING WITH BLACKENED.
Oh, yeah. The collaboration with Dave Pickerell and the band was pretty extraordinary. I thought that some of the ideas he came up with for it were just phenomenal. And then, of course, Dave unfortunately passed away. I was at the event he passed away at, which was quite a shock. We're quite a tight-knight group of people — head distillers, master distillers, and craft distillers, we all know each other in some capacity. In December of that same year, I went to the Blackened booth at WhiskeyFest in New York, and I went over to offer my condolences to my friend Mario Freixas, who's the Sales Director at Blackened. We spoke for some time about Dave, and then he said, "Look, this might seem kind of sudden — but the show must go on, and we are looking for a master distiller. I absolutely love everything you've done with Snowflake, and I really feel like you'd be a perfect fit, especially with your music background."
I had been with Stranahan's for about 12 years at that point, and I'm very proud of what we accomplished as a team and as a brand, so it was not the easiest decision to leave something that I had helped build from almost the ground up. But I was very excited to try something new and work with new innovation — and of course to work with Metallica on this!
YOU WERE IN THE CONCERT BUSINESS BEFORE YOU GOT INTO DISTILLING, CORRECT?
Yes. I was in the military from '92 to '95, with the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York. After I left them, and with my girlfriend at the time drove out to the Oregon coast and in a '67 Chevy school bus that I had converted into a home. I was working as a carpenter and learning how to surf, and generally de-regulating. I'd been through several combat tours with the military, and was readjusting my mind, so to speak. And during a mountain biking trip down the coast, we met a woman in Petaluma, California, who was the wife of the guy who ran Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco. We hit it off with her, and she said, "My husband's running this show down in Golden Gate Park called The Tibetan Freedom Concert. Are you guys looking for work?"
I had my climbing gear with me at the time, too, and they hired me on as a rigger. I was immediately climbing steel 10 to 12 hours a day. I was like, "Wow, I can get paid to climb? You've gotta be kidding me!" So that's where I started. I ended up working with Bill Graham Presents at the Fillmore West, the Warfield and the Shoreline — a lot of pretty epic venues. And it was extraordinary, because there were still so many great bands that were still playing at that time. I knew immediately that I had found my career path.
DID YOU EVER CROSS PATHS WITH METALLICA IN THOSE DAYS?
I did! So, in '96, I worked Lollapalooza in San Jose, and the band headlined Lollapalooza that year. That was the year that they cut their hair, too, so there was a lot of backlash from that. I was one of the stagehands who got to push the band's gear on and off the stage. We didn't get to interact with the band at all, but I found a bass string that their crew had cut from Jason Newsted's bass when they were restringing it. I grabbed it and gave it to my sister for her birthday, because she's a huge Metallica fan, too.
It was a lot of fun. It was kind of a freewheeling time for me, because I was living out of the bus and working whichever shows I wanted to. And then I moved back to Colorado and started working at a bunch of iconic venues around Denver, like Red Rocks and Fiddler's Green. Did some tours, managed some venues, and had a pretty extraordinary career as an independent contractor before I got into the world of distilling.
YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THAT YOU WERE REALLY IMPRESSED WITH DAVE PICKERELL'S APPROACH TO BLACKENED. WAS THE CONCEPT OF BLASTING WHISKEY BARRELS WITH MUSIC A NEW ONE TO YOU?
I knew that there were other people playing music to the whiskey, and utilizing vibration, which I thought made a lot of sense. But I hadn't heard of anyone going to the level that Dave had gone to, scientifically testing it to show that playing music at a very low frequency would create a bigger vibration. He worked with Meyer Sound, which designs and manufactures high-quality sound systems, that has innovated touring sound systems for Metallica live performances, to create a proprietary device that could play the music at a low frequency, and aggressively vibrate the barrels so that the whiskey is moving in and out of the wood. When I found out I had the job, I said, "Look, I want to know the science behind this. I'm a whiskey nerd, and I want to know how this thing works!" [Laughs]
All of our whiskey is a blend of bourbons and ryes. We've got whiskey from Tennessee, bourbon from Kentucky and Indiana, rye from Indiana, we've got Canadian rye. Those have all spent an average of eight years in white American oak, and then we blend them together and transfer them into black brandy barrels from Spain. At that point is when we subject them to the Black Noise sonic enhancement process. When I looked at the results from the first tests Dave did, it was extraordinary to see how the levels had been completely elevated on the sonic-enhanced barrels. There was proof that it worked!
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT PICKING THE SONGS FOR THE BATCH 100 PLAYLIST? WERE THEY FAVORITE SONGS OF YOURS, OR WERE THEY SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN BASED ON THEIR WHISKEY-VIBRATING ABILITIES?
Honestly, I felt like the playlist should be picked from passion, because the base whiskey is always going to be remain the same. The band had been taking turns picking playlists to play to the whiskey. For them, it was about the individual songs that they liked. Robert Trujillo, he likes bass-forward elements, and Kirk loves songs with long guitar solos. So they were picking songs that meant something to them. I felt that was the way I wanted to approach it, as well, to pick songs that had been meaningful to me throughout my life. And I was trying to represent a lot of different Metallica eras, as well.
It was a lot of fun. I was so excited when I got the call where they said, "OK, Rob, the band wants you to pick the songs for Batch 100. They want you to pick 12 songs, and they'll pick six from that to make into a special limited-edition vinyl release." I was like, "That's brilliant, that's awesome, and I am completely blown away that they asked me to pick the songs!" I mean, what a great honor! And I didn't take it lightly, either. I went deep down the Metallica rabbit hole and narrowed it down to 12 songs which was so difficult, because there's so much good music, you know?
I THOUGHT IT WAS INTERESTING THAT YOU CHOSE SEVERAL LIVE TRACKS.
I wanted the live stuff in there because of the effect it could have on the whiskey. Not only is the band's music shaping the whiskey, but now the fans are a part of it — now you're bringing in the voices of the fans as well as the music of the band, and now everybody is collaborating on the whiskey. "Blackened" had to be in there, that was a no-brainer, but I wanted to make sure it was an extraordinary version of "Blackened." So I picked a live version from Seattle, 1989, and the audience is just going nuts! We listened to a lot of Metallica when I was in the Army, so I also picked songs from that period of my life, songs that I dedicated the soldiers of my former unit. Again, it was a complete honor to not only pick songs, but to dedicate them to people in my life.
AND THERE'S SOMETHING REALLY PROFOUND ABOUT YOU GETTING TO BE INVOLVED THIS DEEPLY IN THE PROCESS, GIVEN THAT THEIR MUSIC HAS BEEN SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR LIFE FOR SO LONG.
It was pretty extraordinary. They had me send my 12 song choices to Lars, who was going to arrange it down to six songs — three songs per side on one record. But he came back and said he liked my choices so much that he didn't want to get rid of any of the songs, and that we were going to release a two-record set instead of one record. So that was super cool! And it's a picture disc. There's images of Dave Pickerell on there, images of myself with the band, which were taken at Metallica's HQ by photographer Danny Clinch. I was so excited — not only was I able to be part of it, but I'm actually on a Metallica record! My seventh-grade self would just be doing back flips right now!