Exclusive: Master Distiller Rob Dietrich Discusses Metallica, Whiskey + More
"The culture of Metallica is unique."
Rob Dietrich is chatting with Ultimate Metallica about his journey with the thrash legends, first as a fan and now—for the last three years—as Master Distiller & Blender for Metallica's Blackened American Whiskey.
"Anyone who knows Metalica knows the depths of loyalty that the band has to their fans," he says, confidently, "as well as the depths of loyalty the fans have to the band. You recognize there is a real culture there."
Dietrich grew up listening to all kinds of music, thanks to the fact that his parents didn't allow a television in the house. Because of that, they amassed an impressive collection of vinyl, ranging from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Jim Croce and Harry Chapin.
"The first time I found my music, it was when my friends introduced me to punk and metal," he recalls. "That was my music, my people. The first time I heard Metallica, it was Master of Puppets. I was blown away, like, what the hell is this? I was in the seventh grade, so it was some awesome and scary shit."
The first time I heard Metallica, it was 'Master of Puppets.' I was blown away.
Growing up in the small town of Olathe, Colo.—about 10 miles from the "big city of Montrose," as Dietrich puts it—the young rocker turned his love for rock into a lifelong passion for anything and everything that was eclectic, heavy and fast. That passion started with service in the military, and after serving in the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division from 1992-1995—which included two tours in Somalia and relief operations in Haiti—Dietrich was drawn to the music industry.
"I got into music production and that's where I thought my career was going to be," Dietrich says. "I started with Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco in 1996, working festivals and events. Eventually, I was a rigger and a stagehand, then a stage manager, then a tour manager—those types of things."
As he recounts his different gigs in the industry, he remembers the first time he worked a Metallica show.
"It was 1996 and I was a stagehand," he says. "I was a rigger for the show and then Metallica's team threw me and a few other guys Metallica T-shirts and said we were on the crew. I pushed on Metallica cases and I pushed off Metallica cases. Nothing else. I remember I got a guitar pick from that show and even a bass string from Jason [Newsted's] guitar."
He stops the conversation for a moment as he thinks about that memory.
"I was stoked. Completely ecstatic."
A Legacy, Moving Forward
From the military to music production, Dietrich eventually found himself working in a seemingly new industry, though one that was still a lot of fun. Learning the craft of distilling from Jess Graber—who founded Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and Tincup Whiskey—Dietrich started working in the whiskey world in 2006. Thirteen years later, he accepted a call that brought him back full circle to Metallica.
"It really felt like I was coming back to my roots," Dietrich explains about joining Blackened American Whiskey, the whiskey collaboration that began with the late Dave Pickerell and Metallica. "I've said this before, but it feels like I have my dream job—my dream job within my dream job."
A few months before Dietrich accepted this dream job, the highly-respected luminary Pickerell passed away. Though he was excited to get the call, it was, to say the least, bittersweet.
"The whiskey industry, it's a close-knit community," he admits. "We know everyone, we know all the projects we're working on. If you're out on the whiskey circuit, we're going to be on panels together, things like that. Dave and I knew each other really well, but I never got to work on a project with him. With Blackened, it feels like I'm working directly with him—a spiritual handshake so to speak."
Early on in his tenure with Blackened, Dietrich received some good advice from someone who knew a thing or two about continuing on with a project following the death of an irreplaceable team member.
"I had a conversation with [James] Hetfield," Dietrich tells us. "He doesn't live too far away from me in Colorado and I went up to visit him. He asked me what it was like taking over for Pickerell, and he quickly brought up the correlation between Jason taking over for Cliff [Burton].
Hetfield understood the balance of what was hanging over my head.
"It kind of struck me, Hetfield understood the balance of what was hanging over my head while at the same time recognizing that you have to move forward, too. It was a really poignant conversation and it hit home for me—to respect Dave's legacy, I needed to exercise my own artistry in his environment."
No Gimmicks Here
While Blackened American Whiskey would appeal to a huge swath of metal fans simply for the connection to Metallica, the liquid is actually much more intertwined with the band than some people may realize. Thanks to a sonic-enhancement process known as Black Noise, barrels of Blackened are rocked by low-hertz frequencies of Metallica's music. The vibrations—the sound waves—literally shake the barrels. As experts explain, this causes "greater interaction between the whiskey and the wood, thereby extracting more flavors and colors."
Even before he arrived at Blackened, Dietrich had been contemplating similarly unique distilling methods.
"I was thinking about vibrations, but really only related to motion and movement," he explains. "I was never thinking about sound. The depth of detail at Blackened takes it to a scientific level and that's been new to me. That's what I was completely intrigued by when I came. For me, understanding the whiskey process, I got that. But the sonic-enhancement process, that was intriguing. That's what I dove into. I started researching it and learning all about what Dave had left me. It's completely fascinating."
While some may write Black Noise off as a gimmick, Dietrich is quick to say it couldn't be further from that.
We've brought the masters of whiskey, the masters of metal and the masters of sound together.
"We've brought the masters of whiskey, the masters of metal and the masters of sound together to sort this thing out and figure out how we can make it work, to make it function," he says. "If you've been to a Metallica concert, you know there is no gimmickry to how they approach their craft and their passion. They apply the exact same to this process and, really, to anything they do. It's one-thousand-percent authentic."
While each band Metallica member has different levels of involvement in Blackened, they are all invested in its continued growth.
"When I talk to Lars [Ulrich] about it, he has a very unique curiosity about the process and how we do things," Dietrich says. "The same with James. I'm able to sit and smoke cigars with him and he'll ask me questions about it all. I appreciate how much curiosity is there and how much they're all part of it. They leave the whiskey making up to me and the team, but the interaction they have is genuine and sincere."
The latest Black Noise journey is centered around Metallica's 1984 Ride the Lightning. In April 2022, Blackened announced their latest whiskey, the Kentucky Straight Rye Double Cask Finished Whiskey known as Rye the Lightning.
Rather than simply hitting the casks with the studio album, though, Dietrich and his partners-in-crime decided to create a playlist that featured the band's live performance of Ride the Lightning from Orion Music + More in 2012 where they performed the album in its entirety for the first and, as of now, only time ever.
"To be able to incorporate our fans in the Blackened journey and have them be a part of the whiskey-making process is really unique," Rob Trujillo said when Rye the Lightning was announced. "This [is] a true collaboration."
The Metallica Family
Near the end of Dietrich's first year with Blackened, Metallica surprised fans when they canceled their upcoming run of shows in Australia and New Zealand. The announcement came with the heavy news that Hetfield would be entering rehab once again.
"As most of you probably know, our brother James has been struggling with addiction on and off for many years," the announcement read. "He has now, unfortunately, had to re-enter a treatment program to work on his recovery again."
Today, Hetfield seems to be healthy and happy, performing live and touring the world with his Metallica brothers. Regardless, though, his history with alcoholism—and the band's infamous history best wrapped up in their well-earned moniker, Alcoholica—lingers as Blackened continues to grow.
"The reality is that Hetfield is sober and he enjoys that choice he's made," Dietrich says. "And yeah, he recognizes that some of their fans drink, but not all of them do. You know, that's another unique way that he's able to connect with a lot of the Metallica family. For him, the most important thing is to always spread the message to drink responsibly. There are people who struggle, and if they do, it's important to James that they find the help they need. But if you're enjoying responsibly, it's just another facet to the Metallica family. He respects that, even though he might not indulge in it."
Dietrich is ecstatic to be working within a culture like what Metallica and Blackened have created, especially as the world continues to get out of the fog of COVID.
"I remember before their festival shows [last year], James told me that we're all feeling rusty and fans are going to be rusty and our crew's going to be rusty, so let's just have some fun," he remembers. "That's what I love. We keep all of this fun."
Dietrich thinks more about the unique culture of the Metallica family that he has been welcomed into—not just with Blackened and the band, but also with all of the fans that he meets.
"I've had a lot of great experiences at shows and festivals," he says. "I see a lot of familiar faces and it's awesome. This is truly a global community. There's a camaraderie here—everyone helps each other and takes care of one another. It's extraordinary. I love seeing that connection."