Celebrity collaborations with spirit companies are nothing new. From George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila to Danny DeVito’s Limoncello, there’s a wide variety of them — even KISS is now getting in on the game in earnest. But today we’re looking at a whiskey that wasn’t just endorsed by Metallica — it was born from their music. Literally.
Metallica was formed in 1981 in Los Angeles by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. The band would go on to become one of the greatest and most influential bands in the world, earning nine Grammy awards and selling over 125 million albums. They also earned the nickname “Alcoholica” due to their excessive hard drinking lifestyle in the 1980’s, and would eventually see band member James Hetfield enter rehab in 2010 to help him deal with his alcoholism. James has maintained an abstinence from drinking alcohol ever since.
In 2018, the band announced that they had formed Sweet Amber Distilling Co. and partnered with Dave Pickerell (of WhistlePig fame) to create a unique line of whiskey. The idea was that they wouldn’t just let the whiskey mature naturally in the oak barrels — instead, they would actively play a playlist of their music throughout the rickhouse to encourage the whiskey to move into and out of the wood of the barrels, enhancing the taste. Each batch would have its own playlist that can be looked up online and listened to while drinking the whiskey.
The brand name for the whiskey — “Blackened” — was the first song on their 1988 album “…And Justice For All.”
According to TTB records, the company originally worked with Strong Spirits in Bardstown, Kentucky to create the first version of the whiskey. Strong Spirits is a custom whiskey bottling company that takes pre-made spirits and cranks out small batches of product under other labels. That doesn’t seem to have lasted very long, though, as about 20 days later the TTB approved WhistlePig to begin mass producing the Blackened brand of whiskey. WhistlePig (or their holding company Moriah Ventures) has produced the spirits ever since from either their Vermont or New York locations.
Somehow, they manage to be simultaneously obscurely vague and also oddly specific about their production methods.
As for what this whiskey actually is, the stores have labeled it as an “American Whiskey” — which is probably the broadest and vaguest description you can possibly have for an American bottled whiskey. The bottle gets a little more specific, saying that this is “a blend of straight whiskeys”… but again, that only really tells us that there was some charred oak barrels involved at some point. The website further clarifies that this is a combination of bourbon and rye, which helps rule this out as a straight re-bottling of WhistlePig but doesn’t clarify much else.
That said, given that the late Dave Pickerell was involved and the fact that this is produced by Dave’s home company WhistlePig, I’m willing to bet we’re dealing with a bourbon-accentuated version of the imported Canadian rye whiskey that they use in their other ventures. Especially given that “a blend of straight whiskeys” is almost exactly how they market their own brand of spirits. But that’s an educated guess and we still don’t know for certain.
Once the mystery whiskey has been produced somewhere by someone, it is shoved into “black brandy” casks for finishing — although what exactly makes them “black brandy” isn’t really disclosed.
While in the barrel, the whiskey is subjected to a specific playlist of Metallica songs hand selected by the band members. I’ve got batch #94 here, which (a bit ironically) used this playlist selected by James Hetfield, the recovering alcoholic in the band:
- THROUGH THE NEVER
- THE OUTLAW TORN
- TRAPPED UNDER ICE
- SUICIDE & REDEMPTION
- LOW MAN’S LYRIC
- NO REMORSE
The addition of sound waves to the finishing process is thought to encourage the whiskey to move into and out of the wood barrels, taking some of the flavors from the wood and adding them to the whiskey.
After an undisclosed period of time in the sherry casks, the whiskey is bottled and shipped.
This is a truly great bottle design.
The body of the bottle is basically a cylinder, with nearly sharp 90 degree edges at the base and the shoulder. There’s a slight slope as the neck joins the body, and that nice long neck is capped off with a wood and synthetic cork stopper. The design is not just visually appealing, but also easy to hold, easy to pour, and easy to control.
What really makes this stand out is the label. The most prominent feature is the black visual representation of sound waves that is used as a label on the front of the bottle, with the brand name in white. The other information is painted on the bottle in white ink, with Dave Pickerell’s signature on the bottom.
I love that the bottle design is visually stunning and ergonomically easy to use. I love that the label is inventive, and only big enough as needed to convey the idea behind the brand without unnecessarily covering up the whiskey inside. I think this is a fantastic design, evoking the hard rock of Metallica in a sophisticated format that would appeal to the millennial generation of whiskey drinkers, and whoever designed it should be damn proud of themselves.
From the name “blackened” you’d expect the whiskey to be darker with a more smoke forward flavor profile, but as soon as you take a sniff you notice that it’s actually very sweet. Caramel is the first thing that comes to mind from the aroma, with only a hint of vanilla behind it in the typical one-two punch of oak barrel aged notes. Bringing up the rear is some good raw corn, and if I really strain my senses there’s a touch of apple in the mix there as well (albeit, way in the background).
Taking a sip, I’m actually surprised at just how bland this is for a whiskey. There’s a good bit of raw corn in there along with the usual caramel and a hint of vanilla, but beyond that there isn’t much to write home about.
On the finish, there’s a distinct bitterness that creeps in from the side and lasts long after what little flavor existed has disappeared. But while that unwelcome guest has made an appearance, noticeably absent is the usual black pepper spice on the finish that normally comes when you add some rye to the grain bill.
Surprisingly, things are getting a little better with the ice. Usually the more delicate flavors disappear when you drop in an ice cube, but in this case all you are really doing is toning down that bitter aspect.
What starts to develop here is that sweet apple flavor. Instead of just being a background character, that flavor is now front and center. It’s definitely more of a sweeter gala apple than a granny smith, which is nice and balances the other flavors well. Mixed in with that apple is the caramel and vanilla flavors, although they are significantly toned down.
And, thankfully, there’s no longer a bitter finish to the experience.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Normally, I like a darker and richer old fashioned – something with a bit of smoke and depth. That’s definitely not what you get here, but that’s not to say it isn’t bad.
This is a decidedly lighter version of an old fashioned, with the sweet and bright apple flavor being the predominant flavor that the whiskey brings to the table. The good news is that it balances nicely with the darker aspects of the angostura bitters to present a pretty darn good cocktail. And, thanks to the ice (and the sugar content), that bitterness is nicely counteracted to provide a smooth and even finish.
This isn’t terrible, but it is a bit disappointing.
What I’m looking for here is for the whiskey to add something to the conversation that I wouldn’t get with vodka. Usually this is a bit of flavor and some spice, but in this case neither really make that much of a difference.
The apple heavy flavor of the whiskey does do a good job blending with the bright and bitter ginger, which is nice. But there isn’t really anything new and interesting there. It’s just a fruity note to go alongside the ginger beer and doesn’t do a great job standing out. Much more of a supporting character.
Other than that, there’s no “there” there. Usually with a spirit that has some rye content, there’s a spicy kick at the end to provide a little something extra, but that’s almost completely gone here.
I love it when people try new things with whiskey production. Oak barrel aging is a process that has been around for centuries with very little changes, which means it’s about due for some improvements. In this case, while I applaud Metallica for their efforts and ingenuity — and I think they do have the right idea about sound waves encouraging quicker aging — I don’t think the juice was worth the squeeze.
Dave Pickerell was a man who knew his way around a whiskey still, so I have no doubt that the spirits that went into the casks were top notch and exactly what was intended. But in the end, despite all the high tech equipment and the custom selected soundtrack, there just aren’t really any significantly interesting flavors to warrant all that energy.
Strip away the fancy bottle, the celebrity tie-in, and ignore the novel aging process, and just look at the whiskey itself: to me, it isn’t worth what they are asking. It’s an acceptable whiskey, I just wouldn’t ever pay that much for it again.
Produced By: BlackenedProduction Location: Vermont, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $45.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
A song of sound and fury, signifying nothing.