Craft Distillers And Heavy Metal Bands Are Making Whiskeys That Rock

One late August day, members of the heavy metal band GWAR were set to visit Catoctin Creek Distillery. The distillery’s co-founder Scott Harris wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A fan of Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, Harris says he likes easy-listening music, which is about as far away as one could get from the stage antics, graphic imagery, and demonic get-ups of GWAR.

“They were like, ‘Yeah we’ll bring our costumes, we’ll take some pictures.’” Harris says. “And so we were like ‘Okay!’ And not sure what that was going to be like. It was pretty fun.”

Three band members—Mike Derks (Balsac the Jaws of Death, rhythm guitar), Brad Roberts (Jizmak Da Gusha, drums), and Bob Gorman (Bonesnapper, backing vocals)—of the hard rocking, intergalactic artistic collective visited the Purcellville, Virginia distillery to taste whiskey samples for what would become Ragnarök Rye, a new collaborative release from the band and Catoctin Creek. The somewhat unlikely match stems from the band’s history within the state—GWAR is from Virginia and formed at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1984. As they gained worldwide fame, they remained a local success story, eventually opening GWARbar in Richmond in 2014.

“It didn’t seem to me like they were very metal folks, but I think they know about the band and the band’s history,” Michael Bishop, who goes by Blothar and sings lead vocals, said of working with Catoctin Creek. “And not only are they local to Virginia, there are some ways that their organization resonates with GWAR.”

Three people, one in costume, pose in front of a still

Scott Harris (far right) wasn’t sure what to expect when members of GWAR offered to bring their costumes to his Catoctin Creek Distillery but speaks glowingly about the work they’ve done with the band.

This is more than a case of musicians jumping on the celebrity whiskey bandwagon: Heavy metal acts are connecting with craft distillers across the country to create whiskeys that speak to a sense of community and craftsmanship. “It’s a place where a small group of people are extremely dedicated to producing a product. And GWAR is really unique in the world of rock music because it is an artist collective,” Bishop says. “It’s not a lot different. You’ve got people who are working really hard to make something unique at a distillery. And we do the same at our studio in Richmond.”

Ragnarök, whose name was inspired by the same Norse mythology GWAR applies to their band, will be 100% rye finished with maple and cherrywood staves—wood types that are native to the state. “It’s all kind of coming from that Virginia base,” Harris says. The distillery plans to release two 1,000-bottle batches in 2021, and any initial hesitation on Harris’s part has been replaced by unbridled joy. He’s eager to show off the whiskey’s artful packaging (designed by GWAR), and his eyes widen as he describes the custom-sculpted bottle topper. “We’ve seen nothing but exuberance and enthusiasm about this release,” Harris says of fan response to the heavy metal crossover. “It’s obviously not that radical to do it because other people are doing it.”

From Mosh to Mash

Ragnorök Rye joins a list of other heavy metal-themed whiskies released since 2018, when Metallica first announced Blackened, a blend of whiskies “sonically enhanced” with the band’s music. While the whiskey isn’t tied to any one craft distillery, it has relied on the expertise of respected distillers Rob Dietrich, former distiller at Stranahan’s and, before him, the late Dave Pickerell. Blackened was a pacesetter of sorts, relying not just on the band’s cachet to sell the whiskey, but placing a focus on whom they chose to work with in the world of whiskey.

Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo says the band has always embraced new concepts and techniques, and that they apply that same mindset to the whiskey. Each batch of Blackened receives its own playlist—songs that are played to the resting barrels in order to promote vibrational reactions. Collaborating with progressive whiskey makers became a must.

Men pose with rock instruments

After working with Dave Pickerell on their initial launch, Metallica turned to Rob Dietrich (second from right) to be their master blender. (Photo by Danny Clinch)

“To try to even attempt that, you’ve got to have an individual with a certain type of mindset, who sees the practicality and the artistry of that,” says Trujillo. “Dave Pickerell was that person. Rob [Dietrich] obviously is very passionate about whiskey and craft and the whole concept, but he’s also passionate about music and he’s passionate about Metallica and our mindset and how we do things. You need to partner up with people who are like-minded, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Dietrich has been at the helm since 2019, and says the whiskey operation continues to grow. “I’ve been a huge Metallica fan since I was a kid, so for me, it’s really exciting to get to work with them, and see their passion for what we’re doing with the whiskey and their honest excitement about it,” he says. In 2020, the band released a cask-strength version of Blackened. And in 2021, they announced a collaboration with Kentucky’s Willet Distillery, a straight rye that will be the first in their Masters of Whiskey series.

Less than a year after Blackened debuted, Iowa’s Cedar Ridge announced a pair of whiskeys created in collaboration with the band Slipknot. No. 9 Iowa whiskey and No. 9 Reserve are the product of Shawn “Clown” Crahan, the band’s percussionist, exploring his own familial history and relationship with whiskey. The band is from Des Moines, Iowa, and so the partnership, like GWAR’s with Catoctin Creek, was a celebration of regional ties and local craftsmanship. “Being in Iowa and being so close to my home made it feel like something I could work on, hands-on,” Crahan says. “I’m always invited up there. They show me anything I want. They’re willing to teach me anything.”

Cedar Ridge head distiller Murphy Quint says he got the call about Slipknot’s interest in working together just as Dietrich was announced as Blackened’s new whiskey maker. The two, who are friends from their time working together at Stranahan’s, shared a laugh about the timing of it all. “I was really proud of Murphy for working with Slipknot and the way they approach it,” Dietrich says. “It’s important for people to realize that not all celebrity brands are just slapping a label on something and hoping that it’s going to sell.”

A man in a mask signs a whiskey bottle

Bottle signings afford Shawn Crahan of Slipknot, otherwise known as Clown, another avenue to connect with fans.

For Quint and Cedar Ridge, there was a concerted effort to produce a whiskey worthy of Slipknot’s name, one that was different enough from their existing range, which Quint describes as approachable. “It was a really interesting and exciting challenge for our production team to produce something that matched their sound with our whiskey,” Quint says. “I’ve been a fan for quite some time, and I’m even more so now.” The two whiskeys are permanent expressions and share a recipe—a blend of 60% bourbon and 40% rye, both made at Cedar Ridge—the difference being that the No. 9 Reserve comes from a selection of barrels at least 4 years old, and carries a higher price point.

Since connecting with Cedar Ridge, Crahan has fully immersed himself in whiskey knowledge and has taken to studying fermentation, even making his own vinegars at home. “I want to know what’s going on and I want to make it,” he says. “I’m fascinated by every layer of the oil painting known as whiskey.” He speaks longingly about a grandfather he never got to meet, a Belgian who moved to Iowa to work on the North Western Railroad. He imagines the relationship he had with whiskey back then, and it’s an image that has propelled him in this journey. To honor his grandfather, to honor the state’s legacy of corn farming, and to honor his fans with a product he’s proud of: These are the ideas he continues to reinforce with his whiskey. “The mark was, let’s do this right with the right people and make sure our culture gets the right thing,” Crahan says. “And we’ll just keep developing as we go.”

He Came to Rock

In Ancram, New York, Scott Ian, lead guitarist for the band Anthrax, has struck a true friendship with Cathy Franklin and Jeffrey Baker, owners of Hillrock Estate Distillery; it’s a relationship that has produced multiple single barrel releases. Ian didn’t always have a taste for whiskey, relying on rock heavyweights like Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister or Pantera’s Dimebag Darrel to give him a crash course. He wasn’t moved by rock’s whiskey basics—glasses of Jack and Coke or shots of Crown Royal—but found Maker’s Mark enjoyable and began tasting with more curiosity, assembling a collection that now includes Blanton’s and Pappy Van Winkle. Years later, Anthrax released single-barrel whiskeys with Jefferson’s Reserve and Knob Creek, but Ian wanted to go deeper. After a 2019 show in Connecticut, he requested a specific flight of whiskeys.

“We’re a New York band, let’s do a whiskey [from] New York state,” he recalls thinking. “I was adamant about choosing a New York distiller.” In a blind tasting of seven or eight samples, Ian picked Hillrock as his favorite. “It’s just so amazing. Literally, I made these friends who are just the most wonderful people—Cathy and Jeffrey and their kids, and they’ve been so unbelievably kind and generous to my family—all based on the fact that that’s the whiskey I chose.”

A guitarist jumps into the air

Scott Ian, lead guitarist for Anthrax, released a number of single barrel whiskeys before striking a friendship with the owners of Hillrock Estate, where he has visited and stated several times. (Photo by Mark Horton/Getty Images)

That tasting led to The Healer, a single-barrel solera-aged bourbon named in honor of Dimebag Darrel’s music and its whiskey influence on the band, released in June 2020. That same summer, Ian and his family were visiting the East Coast, and Franklin invited them to the distillery for a tour, dinner, and drinks. Ian’s crew had such a great time that they extended their trip and stayed at the distillery’s guest house for three weeks at one point. “That’s when I did the barrel tastings, and that’s how I chose Evil Twin 1 and Evil Twin 2,” Ian says of the Double Cask Rye barrel picks. “It’s become more than just putting out a whiskey. We’ve met them and we’ve lived with them and we became very good friends with the family.”

The love goes both ways, as Franklin says she adores Ian, adding that he has a fabulous palate. “The nice thing about Scott, he’s going to distill here,” Franklin says. “He is that sophisticated and passionate about craft whiskey. He was here for part of our harvest. He’s gone through the grain. He really understands it. He could teach a class on Hillrock.”

While the Evil Twin single barrels were hot commodities, selling out fairly quickly, Franklin and Hillrock are far from through. The distillery has worked with other bands, like Motörhead, with more collaborations in the works, and Ian already has barrels earmarked for future releases. He says that he’d like to have a permanent expression, but it would have to make sense for all parties. “Yes, I would love to do that,” he says.

Hitting That Stage

Paul Hletko knows a thing or two about working with musicians. His FEW Spirits in Evanston, Illinois has released whiskeys with The Flaming Lips, Alice in Chains, and as of 2021, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. “Some people primarily want to have their name on the bottle, other people primarily are huge fans of whiskey and want to be a little bit more intimately involved,” he says. “That desire to create and be a part of it is always going to be at the forefront for musicians.”

That certainly is true for the recent wave of heavy metal releases, but there are additional parallels that may help explain why these all emerged. For one, it is harder than ever for musicians to make money. Streaming has seriously cut into album sales and the pandemic brought touring to a screeching halt. “What better way to find a different income stream than to have it be something that you are passionate about and something that you love just like you love being in a band and making music?” Ian asks. “This is something that I want in my life, and now I want to share it with other people.”

A group of men pose in front of a poster

Paul Hletko (far left) of FEW Spirits has worked with a number of musicians across multiple genres, including The Flaming Lips.

There is no denying the link between hard rock and hard liquor, either. All of these musicians are quick to emphasize responsibility, but acknowledge the role whiskey has played within the genre. “The whole kind of whiskey angle, it’s an important part of rock and roll history,” Trujillo says. For Crahan, pairing whiskey and metal can allow for greater enjoyment of both. “[Drinking] whiskey responsibly just sets that vibration right for that thing that is very known in aggressive music,” he says. “I think they go hand in hand.”

Also consider, many of these hard rockers are well into their 50s. They are more interested in savoring a moment than in partying it away. “You kind of realize, if you’re going to stay in the game long enough, you have to take time to enjoy things,” Bishop says. “At least, in some sense, it’s a survival mechanism. People slow down and find something that they can enjoy.”

Trujillo, once known as the Whiskey Warlord when he was playing with Ozzy Osbourne, recalls a night before he joined Metallica when he and drummer Lars Ulrich bonded over drinks until early morning, a test of sorts to see if he could hang. Now he views whiskey differently. “Probably nowadays my experience with whiskey is more centered around soothing and relaxation than like bouncing off the walls and going in the slam pit,” he says.

It is perhaps a harsh reality that rock stars grow old, but for these musicians, whiskey making is just another form of creative expression. Ingredients are like instruments, coming together to make something beautiful. “Distilling a batch is much like writing a song,” Ian says. “All the work that goes into it to get to the finished product. Writing, recording, mixing a song. Same thing as far as harvesting, distilling, bottling; everything that goes into a small batch craft bourbon. There’s so much passion and so much creativity in both things.”

Doubters can bemoan the influx of celebrity whiskeys and question their intention, but these craft distillers are highly enthusiastic about working on the whiskeys, and are looking to develop new expressions and messaging that grows these brands in unexpected ways. “It’s a trend we’re really excited about, and we hope it continues,” Quint says. “I think any growth in the world of whiskey is good for all these distilleries in general. So hopefully it continues. We all appreciate metal, that’s for sure.”

And that’s where these whiskeys stand out: There is a mutual appreciation and respect and the recognition that, together, they can tell a story that rings true to both band and distillery. “You introduce band fans to your whiskey brand, but also introduce fans of your whiskey brand to the musicians,” Hletko says. “Ideally, it cuts both ways. Everybody should win when you do these things.”

Rock Worthy Whiskeys

Blackened Cask Strength (Batch 106)—55.35%, $55
Band: Metallica
Collaborator: Rob Dietrich
Score: 91 points
What’s inside: A blend of straight whiskies, including Tennessee bourbon, Kentucky bourbon, Indiana rye, Indiana bourbon, and Canadian rye, finished in black brandy casks and sonically enhanced with different Metallica playlists
Availability: Limited, with additional batches planned. The regular blend is widely available

Ragnarök Rye—46%, $99
Band: GWAR
Collaborator: Catoctin Creek
Score: 87
What’s inside: 100% rye whiskey (Hazlet, Brasetto, and Ryman strains), finished with sugar maple and cherrywood
Availability: Limited, with two batches totaling about 1,000 bottles each

No. 9 Iowa Whiskey—45%, $40
Band: Slipknot
Collaborator: Cedar Ridge
What’s inside: A blend of 60% straight bourbon (74% corn, 14% malted rye, 12% 2-row malted barley) and 40% straight rye (51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn, 3% 2-row malted barley), aged for 3 to 4 years
Availability: Both the No. 9 Iowa Whiskey and No. 9 Reserve are widely available

Evil Twin 1 Single Barrel Double Cask Rye—60.05%, $160
Band: Anthrax
Collaborator: Hillrock Estate
Score: Not Rated
What’s inside: 100% rye whiskey, first aged in new #3 char American oak barrels, then moved to new #4 char American oak barrels
Availability: 238 bottles, all sold out, though the band has since released a follow up and has future single barrel picks planned

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