Rob Dietrich is a busy guy. As Master Distiller & Blender of Blackened — the whiskey brand co-founded by rock supergroup Metallica — he’s involved in almost every aspect of the company’s sourcing, blending, marketing, and even distribution. And while Blackened sources their distillate from other sources, its “Black Noise” aging process adds an additional step that keeps Dietrich and Metallica in constant communication.
Dietrich stepped into his role after co-founder and noted distiller/blender Dave Pickerell’s death in 2018. Since then, he’s helmed a number of new projects aimed at more premium releases, including the Masters of Whiskey series. The first release under that banner was a collaboration with Willett, a straight rye finished in madeira casks. The second, soon-to-be-launched expression is a team-up with Angel’s Envy co-founder Wes Henderson: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished in white Port wine casks.
Drinkhacker sat down with Dietrich to discuss his working relationship with Metallica, blending triumphs and missteps, and whether sound waves can truly impact a spirit’s aging process.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Rob, I wanted to talk a little about the Masters of Whiskey series. How do these come about? Are these collaborations coming from your personal relationships, or are you building new relationships in order to facilitate the releases?
Rob Dietrich: Kind of both! We’re kind of a small community as far as distillers and whiskey makers. And so I really feel like we all know each other from the whiskey circuit, all these different and wonderful whiskey events. We all see each other there, but we’re always busy talking about our whiskeys to the public. So we don’t get a whole lot of interaction. This is where we get to have some fun. Some of these relationships are with people I’ve known. And then we take that friendship to the next level through the art of crafting whiskey,
Drinkhacker: It’s certainly a fun community. And I can imagine that you want to be additive, not necessarily competitive or combative all the time.
Rob Dietrich: That’s what I love about the whiskey community. Everyone’s got their secrets: their mashbill or different recipe secrets and that sort of thing. But for the most part, we really are a community that helps the next guy up or pushes this guy forward. When the tide rises, all ships rise, it doesn’t matter what size. So I think what’s exciting about that is, historically, if I ran into some issue at my distillery here in Denver where I used to work, I’d call somebody up and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve got that part. I’ll run it right over.” Or someone calls me up and says, “Hey man, I’m having this trouble with pH, any ideas?” We really do help lift each other up in this industry,
Drinkhacker: Take me through some of your normal workflow at Blackened.
Rob Dietrich: I’m always working on different innovations. I play around with different profiles and different things. Generally I start in the mornings to do my blending, because I do that before I have coffee, before I have anything, so my palate is not out of whack. After I’ve done a few blends, I generally will dig into more of the production aspect, managing everything from bottling schedules to sourcing glass.
I work very closely with our director of operations. If you’re doing cask finishing, you have to be able to procure barrels. You’re dealing with barrel brokers, and there’s always something going on. And then of course there’s the marketing aspect of it, getting to educate folks about how we make our whiskey, what the process is, and where to find it. There’s a triangle: you have sales, marketing, and operations. I’m like the little dot right in the middle of the triangle. And I’m constantly going to each corner.
Drinkhacker: What do you think might surprise folks about how you all operate, especially given that you’re a celebrity-backed celebrity operation?
Rob Dietrich: It’s really important to work with a great facility. Right now we don’t have our own facility. We’re growing so, so rapidly as a brand, and there’s a clamoring to get our whiskey out in the international market. We want to do that responsibly, and we want to do that carefully. What was great is that when Metallica started out to make a whiskey, it was important for them that it stood on its own. That it wasn’t just going to a larger company and slapping a celebrity name on it, but it was designed to be a whiskey that is a contender in the whiskey world.
And that has proven itself, by winning awards through different competitions. So I think that’s really exciting for us, and the more people hear about it, the more they see it, the more whiskey we have to make.
Drinkhacker: How involved are you in communicating with the band as the brand continues to grow and expand?
Rob Dietrich: Fairly closely! They’re genuinely not only interested, but they are involved. There’s a genuine curiosity about how the process works. Getting their involvement with the Black Noise process and being able to have the playlist and having the band put their fingerprints on the process was really important to them. They’re great guys to work with. They’re very passionate about what they do, and it’s important to me that I get to have the same freedom just as they approach their artistry and their craft. As artists, they give me the same platform to be able to work from and have that same kind of creativity. That’s really where the Masters of Whiskey series was born from, from being allowed to have that creativity. Just like musicians are collaborating with other musicians, we’re collaborating with other whiskey makers.
Drinkhacker: As far as the blending goes, can you tell me about any recent failures? We talk about the wins, and a lot of the wins get bottled. But I’d love to get your perspective on something you tried or were really hopeful about that just didn’t quite work out.
Rob Dietrich: That’s a great question because you can’t make an omelet if you don’t crack a few eggs. I learned just as much from mistakes as I do from the whiskey that wins. During blending, I might start out with a great base but then I add something I’m like, “Oh, that’s done. That just didn’t work.” Sometimes it takes a little bit to get around some of those hurdles. This flavor profile is bugging me and I don’t want over-cask finish something. I don’t want to under-cask finish something. For example, in blending, if the blend is a little bit off, what do we do to adjust it? What if we followed our protocol and something is still not quite right? So I’ve got to really dissect down to what whiskey we need to add to really balance that flavor back out. Sometimes an initial blend might not not be great. So I’ve got to fix that somehow, and how you do that is with more whiskey,
Drinkhacker: What are some things that you could see this brand doing on a longer time horizon?
Rob Dietrich: I would absolutely love to do collaborations with other international whiskeys and international distillers. There are so many phenomenal whiskeys out there. That’s my personal wishlist, to travel and interact with whiskey fans from all over the world. What I get mostly excited about is dreaming about new whiskeys and whiskey makers I would love to team up with!