Fighting Somali warlords, managing rock concerts, wrenching on vintage motorcycles and distilling whiskey made Rob Dietrich the right man to call when Metallica faced a dark tragedy.
We sat down with Rob in Louisville, Kentucky. He was there with his 1938 Ford dual cab delivery truck, dubbed the “War Wagon”. Rob is a rugged looking man with a style all his own. His square jaw is accentuated by thick mutton chop sideburns and windblown hair that probably hasn’t seen a comb in some time. He leans forward as he speaks, his voice and body language full of enthusiasm and urgency. He’s a man’s man who has led the life of a bachelor and adventurer. The kind of man you’d enjoy sharing whiskey and stories with. And his story is a captivating one.
After growing up near Telluride, Colorado, Rob Dietrich joined the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, an elite force trained for combat and skiing in mountainous and arctic conditions. But in 1993, Rob found himself in a hot, gritty, urban environment, fighting in the Battle of Mogadishu during the tragic “Black Hawk Down” incident where two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.
“I was attached to artillery doing target acquisition. At that time, the Somali warlords were very keen on popping off mortars in the dark, at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. Our job was to track the trajectory within 10 meters of where that was fired from and 10 meters of where it landed and give that information to our Blackhawk units or our troops on the ground so that they knew where to find the bad guys and take them out.”
“It was a very different environment than what we trained for. We adapted very quickly to do some forward observer stuff where we were getting eyes on intersections. These guys were pulling up in a truck with a mortar tube on the back, pulling a tarp off and firing some mortars at us, putting the tarp back over it and getting out.”
The Dark Continent was a stark contrast from Rob’s upbringing in Colorado. “I grew up fast for sure. I turned 21 in basic training and had my 22nd and 23rd birthdays in Somalia because I did two tours over there. Just a lot of good guys. We worked with the Marines and the Army Rangers. It’s just that brotherhood of brothers in arms. We all had each other’s back.”
Targeting terrorists during those long, shadowy nights in Somalia, Rob couldn’t have imagined his future role as the Master Distiller for a whiskey brand named Blackened. “We attempted to make some homemade wine, some hooch that was just terrible. We used Kool-Aid packets from the MREs and fermented it using some bread yeast from one of the Navy ships. It was awful. Believe me, I didn’t think I had a future in making booze.”
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After his time in the Army, Rob took a new direction in his life. “When I got back from Somalia the first time, I bought a half-sized school bus three days before I was redeployed to Somalia. I bought it from this guy and I had to beg him to keep it in his back yard after I just paid him cash for it, because I had no place to park it. When I got back, I moved it to the barracks parking lot, gutted that thing and built it into a beautiful home. When I left the Army, I lived out of it for a couple years on the Oregon coast, surfing and working as a carpenter. I really enjoyed the freedom of it.”
Rob’s next step was a transition into the music industry. “I ended up in San Francisco working with Bill Graham. The first show was the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Golden Gate Park. From there I was hooked. I spent a good ten years doing music production, managing venues, stages and creating festivals. It was truly a great time to be doing that. There were so many great bands that were still touring, like the Allman Brothers, historic and legendary bands. It was an extraordinary experience and I couldn’t have asked for a more natural segue into distilling.”
Rob returned to Colorado, learning the art of distilling from Jess Graber, founder of Tin Cup whiskey. Then, in 2006, Rob began working with Stranahan’s Single Malt Whiskey in Denver, helping to build their portfolio of whiskeys with new expressions including a sherry cask finished whiskey. Eventually he became their Head Distiller. But in 2018, the untimely death of distilling legend, Dave Pickerell, would alter the trajectory of Rob’s career.
Formerly the Master Distiller with Maker’s Mark, Dave Pickerell went on to help others launch a number of craft distilleries. In 2017 Dave worked with the heavy metal band, Metallica, to create a unique whiskey called Blackened.
A variety of whiskies are blended, then poured into Spanish black brandy casks. Each batch of Blackened has a unique Metallica playlist that is used to sonically-enhance the whiskey during finishing. As the well-aged whiskey rests in the finishing barrels, the music is played to the barrel at a very low frequency, causing the whiskey inside to move and interact with the wood. The movement of the whiskey and the amount of interaction depends on the song being played, so the variation of the music creates a slight nuance from one batch to the next. This process is known as Black NoiseTM.
Sadly, Dave died of a heart attack November 1, 2018, just one year after launching Blackened whiskey. That’s when a call was made to Rob, asking him to come to the rescue. Fortunately for Metallica and the rest of the team at Blackened, Rob chose to accept the mission.
These days you’ll usually find Rob working from a lab in his house in the mountains of Colorado, where he follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, artfully blending whiskeys and monitoring the results of the Black Noise finishing process.
Introducing Blackened Batch 100 Playlist Box Set
He recently released a limited edition of Batch 100 that comes in a box with a number of goodies including two vinyl discs, so he’s definitely putting his mark on the brand.
When not making whiskey, Rob loves working on vintage motorcycles and cars. “I’ve spent so much time underneath cars, probably more time under them than in them. I just love the old rigs, but motorcycles are my passion. I love doing international motorcycle trips. I’ve done Thailand twice, I’ve done Argentina, Chile, Baha. I think my next one’s going to be Iceland.”
“My (Kawasaki) KLR is tried and true. I call it the goat and I’ve done the Continental Divide trip with it. That thing will go up anything I want it to and I’m not afraid of beating it up. But I have other vintage bikes. I have a ’72 Moto Guzzi Eldorado. I have a Russian Ural motorcycle with a sidecar. I originally got that for my dog when he was still alive. That thing is just too much fun.”
Rob feels his life has come full circle: Living in the mountains and riding motorcycles, while working with whiskey and rock ‘n roll. He takes a sip of Blackened whiskey from his shot glass, leans back in his chair and reflects, “I have my dream job within my dream job.”