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Rocks Stars

Rocks Stars


May 1, 2013

David Pickerell. The Accidental Distiller?
By David Ransom

David Pickerill headshot with cowboy hat and Hillrock in hand

“Never even thought about it.” That’s the answer you might get from David Pickerell, if you ask if he always dreamed of making whiskey. Interesting to hear, no doubt, especially from the mouth of one of the industry’s greatest icons and most prolific distillers, who, probably more than anyone alive, has helped to shape the face of modern American whiskey, particularly craft distilled whiskey, and make it what it is today.

Pickerell is probably most recognized for having been the Master Distiller at Makers Mark for 14 years, a job he backed into after Makers Mark owner Bill Samuels saw his promise and his meticulous attention to detail, and asked if he’d take the job. Of course, that appointment didn’t come out of the blue, Pickerell spent years setting himself up for it, he just may not have realized that distilling whiskey would be the outcome of his plan.

Born in Fairborn, Ohio to a middle class family that “didn’t have all that much,” Pickerell showed a talent for analytical thinking at an early age. “From the age of five, my obsession was anything chemistry,” he says. By high school, he was at the top of his class in math and chemistry (two cornerstones of distilling), and also in football, making the All-State team. This led to a scholarship to attend West Point Military Academy, at which he earned a BS in Chemistry upon graduating in 1978. Post-graduation, he spent another 5 years in the Army as a cavalry officer, before being asked by his alma mater if he’d like to teach. Accepting, Pickerell attended the University of Louisville (while there, possibly drinking some bourbon from nearby Bardstown while studying, thereby seeding his interest in the chemical process of distillation?) before returning to West Point as a professor. Eventually, Pickerell realized that a career in the military was not for him, and thankful for all the Army had given him, he left the service to make his own way in the private sector.

One of his mentors at Louisville had been Dr Charlie Plank, a professor in the chemistry department who taught thermodynamics, the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between heat and other forms of energy (thermodynamics play a key role in the distillation process). Upon leaving West Point, Pickerell touched base with Plank and through inquiries based on his advice, started working on consulting projects around the world building stills in distilleries for large companies like Continue Reading…

Rocks Stars


August 21, 2012

By David Ransom

Five questions for Marco Faraone, a native of Rome, Italy and Time Out Sydney’s 2010 Bartender of the Year. Marco created the Island Bar, a two-story bar built of recycled shipping containers on Cockatoo Island, a former naval shipbuilding base and prison in Sydney Harbor. There, he also produces Cocktail Island, a celebratory festival of the cocktail each September.

Q. How many years have you been coming to Tales?
A. Four. Although, it’s all starting to get a little blurry…

Q. What’s your favorite ingredient?
A. Campari.

Q. As a veteran of Tales, what advice do you have for Tales Virgins?
A. Take it easy and pace yourself. Don’t start too fast on the first day, or you might not last…

Q. Cubed Ice or Crushed?
A. Both.

Q. What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the bar business?
A. As much as you may enjoy making drinks, you must enjoy this industry because you love the people, not for the love of the drinks you create. The drink is the tool that connects you with the people. They ultimately are what support your bar, support your business, and make the industry what it is today.

Rocks Stars


August 1, 2012

Rocks Stars Goes To Tales of the Cocktail
By David Ransom

5 questions for Joaquin Simo of Death & Co, New York City, Named U.S. Bartender of the Year at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Awards

Q. How many years have you been coming to Tales of the Cocktail?
A. Five…ish, I think…

Q. Do you wear an armband?
A. No

Q. Sponsorships aside, what’s your go to spirit right now?
A. Whatever’s in front of me… and Sherry, which technically isn’t really a spirit.

Q. As a veteran of this industry, what advice do you have for someone just getting into the business?
A. The most important thing in this business is who’s in front of you, not what’s in the glass. Always
remember, we serve people, not drinks. With that as your mantra, the world’s yours to conquer.

Q. What’s your favorite garnish?
A. None, I don’t use them much. Then again, I suppose cucumber ribbons, because they annoy the waitstaff…

Love it! Congratulations on your recent accolade…

Rocks Stars


July 27, 2012

Rocks Stars goes to Tales of the Cocktail

Five Questions with Franky Marshall, one of NYC’ most respected (and colorful) bartenders, who currently splits her time between two of that city’s greatest establishments, The Monkey Bar and The Tippler.

Q. How many years have you been coming to Tales of the Cocktail?
A. Four years.

Q. What advice do you have for a first time Tales attendee?
A. Hydrate…

Q. What’s your favorite cocktail ingredient to work with?
A. Peppers – chilies, poblanos, etc.; I love the profiles they give.

Q. Do you have any words of wisdom for someone just starting out in the bar business?
A. Absolutely! Three words: do your research.

Q. Cubed Ice or crushed?
A. Really?!? (laughs). That depends on the drink, but cubed as a rule…

Rocks Stars


July 21, 2012

By David Ransom

There’s one thing that Ann Tuennerman, aka Mrs. Cocktail, says she doesn’t do that simply makes no sense to me. Then again, her publicist roots run deep, so maybe that’s just the spin on the story that she wants us to believe… More on what it is, later.

On paper, Ann is probably the unlikeliest choice for a Rocks Star to grace this column since its inception a few years ago, as she has never actually worked in a bar, and her restaurant experience is limited to working at Wendy’s while in high school and college. Yet, at the same time, she is probably one of the most deserving recipients of that moniker, as it is she who has created and developed the most influential cocktail and bartending conference in the world, Tales of the Cocktail (, which is held each July in New Orleans, and will mark its tenth anniversary this year.

Although she was born in Louisville, Kentucky, Ann does not remember a life other than the one she’s lived in New Orleans, as she arrived in the Crescent City at the age of three months, and considers that city her true home. It is in New Orleans, that Ann grew up, went to high school and college for a marketing degree, and then started out on her professional career; first in public relations working for local legend Malcolm Ehrhardt (whose Ehrhardt Group actually donated office space to Ann to help get Tales up and running in its early years), and then working in communications for various radio and TV stations in the area, including WEZB and the WB Network.

She did leave New Orleans once, for three months, to live in New York, but that was not by choice. That was due to the arrival in town of a very angry woman named Katrina, and as soon as it was possible for her to return, Ann did just that. “New Orleans may not be in my DNA, but it’s definitely in my blood,” she says. “I can’t even think of living anywhere else.” Good for us, she wasn’t smitten by New York, as Tales of the Cocktail had only been up and running for three years when Katrina hit, and it could easily have become yet another of the tragic losses endured in the wake of that awful storm by the city that invented the cocktail.

Ann’s commitment to the New Orleans, and more importantly its historically significant thread in the fabric of the world’s culinary heritage, is what keeps her constantly striving to find ways to show off the city she loves. Along with Tales of the Cocktail, she’s also started the city’s first Continue Reading…

Rocks Stars


March 30, 2012

By David Ransom

Ask Duggan McDonnell how he ended up where he is now, and he’ll invariably launch into a sermon (quite literally) on how to take the long way to getting into the bar business. For Duggan, one of this country’s most respected bartenders, owner of Cantina – one of San Francisco’s most beloved bars, and most recently, producer of one of the hottest spirits out there these days, Peruvian Pisco (with his brand Campo de Encanto), there never had been a plan to get into the business at all. He actually (really!) wanted to be a minister.

Born in San Francisco and raised in San Jose California, Duggan was brought up in a very religious household. Originally raised Catholic, he took religion very seriously, and when his mother became born-again, Duggan went along for the ride, eventually majoring in theology at college in Seattle. “Religion is nothing if not a great story,” he says, “and for me, the story is what’s important in everything, whether it’s teaching the masses about the ways of the Lord or about the ways of the bar.”

However, it was the scholarly pursuit of writing that most captivated Duggan, and he eventually left religion behind to focus on that, receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco before moving back to Seattle to write “full-time.”

Of course, writing the great American novel full-time doesn’t pay much, so Duggan had to work other jobs to pay the rent while following that dream. Some of the more interesting jobs he took were as an elevator operator at Seattle’s famed Space Needle, an apartment building manager, a customer service rep at, and a busboy at the Scooby Doo Café.

Maybe it was his stint with Scooby, Shaggy, Daphne, Freddy, and Velma that sparked a flame, or maybe it was his job selling wine at Costco Continue Reading…

Rocks Stars


December 21, 2011

By David Ransom

There was a period when a prospective employer looking at Tad Carducci’s resume may have written “underachiever” in the margin. His father would probably have agreed…

Yet, delve a little deeper into Tad’s life, and one will see that, contrary to what seemed for some people to have been, at times, a relatively un-inspired chosen path, there’s an underlying brilliance and incredible work ethic that has launched him straight to the upper echelon of the cocktail world to join names like DeGroff, Reiner, Abou-Ganim, and Saunders.

But was this always the plan for Tad? Probably not; and he admits it. The oldest son of an attorney and social worker, Tad grew up in the suburban New York City town of Hackensack, New Jersey with dreams of becoming an actor (much to his father’s chagrin). He realized early that he had the gift of charm, and didn’t have to put much effort in to get by socially or in school. “Being the oldest, I got away with a lot of shit,” he says, “my siblings got away with nothing.” He admits, even now in his thirties, to still having a “healthy case of ADD,” and that he was “never the best student.” At one time, his father even threatened to send him to West Point so he’d “shape up.” But he also showed great intelligence early, getting accepted to Cornell Hotel School. Of course, he never went, eventually enrolling at Rutgers University to study his true love of acting.

That love of acting and performing has been a thread almost his entire career, popping up many times over the years. Sometimes, it’s ruled his direction, like the time he moved to Dublin, Ireland to play guitar in a band, and other times it’s just popped up briefly, like when he juggles, does magic tricks, or rides his unicycle. Yet, whether it’s been an undercurrent helping direct his life’s flow, or a full blown tsunami of energy, like when he acted Off-Broadway or did “flair bartending” (think Tom Cruise in Cocktail), that artistic streak has also helped Tad become that One in a Million success story in an industry populated largely by people who will never be recognized for their talent or work ethic.

Tad’s road to the top started like many others’, at the bottom. His first job in the hospitality business was as a busboy in a wedding hall. One day the bartender no-showed and Tad was thrown behind the service bar and taught to make the drinks for the waitstaff. He realized he liked it, and by the age of 20, after stints making pizzas and working at MacDonald’s (still an admitted guilty pleasure), was bartending full time.

When he left the ‘burbs for the big city to follow his dream of acting, like many others he paid the rent working in restaurants, sometimes behind the bar, sometimes not, but always enjoying what he did, and always doing well. As his enjoyment of the hospitality business grew, the acting bug lessened, and he moved full-time into restaurant work, eventually parlaying his growing love of wine into a job at Windows on the World as Assistant Cellar Master under Kevin Zraly and Andrea Immer-Robinson. While he eventually went back to bartending, it was not before he became a certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and gained his Advanced Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (so, he CAN study…).

“My strength in this business is hospitality,” Tad says, “and welcoming, entertaining, and Continue Reading…

Rocks Stars


November 1, 2011

LIQUOR LIBERATED Founder Introduces Millions of Readers to Better Drinking
By Francine Cohen

It’s a good thing that in his 1922 poem The Wasteland TS Eliot referred to April as the cruelest month; because if he had written “November is the cruelest month” he would have confounded the next generation’s sociologists as they look back into culinary history to pinpoint the moments when Americans suddenly became food and drink obsessed and embraced terms like “foodie” and “cocktailian.”

Why confusing to call November cruel? Because if one tracks factoids about the hospitality industry’s history and progress then they know that November is a monumental month worth heralding. It’s in this month that the two media launches which entirely changed the face of how modern day Americans find pleasure in food and drink, and how they interact with chefs, farmers, purveyors and bartenders, happened; in November 1993 we saw the first Food Network broadcast (then called Television Food Network) and November 2009 marks the date the month that launched, opening up a whole new world for spirits aficionados.

In our book, there’s nothing cruel about any of that. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s great reason to celebrate the immediate embrace of’s content and the site’s rapid growth to over 100,000 email subscribers since launch (not to mention hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans and strong partnerships with other media outlets such as Huffington Post that drives the number up to touching 1-3 million consumers per month); it all has proven to be a boon for the entire hospitality industry. And, though the food revolution has been going on for a while, it took the introduction of a spirited website to drive that passion for good drinks and quality alcohol to the forefront.

Funny that the website which makes better spirit knowledge accessible all started over a late night beer. But then again, great ideas often do. founder Kit Codik explains how he arrived on the scene and unknowingly changed the face of drinks appreciation, “I went to Tales (>) two years ago before I started – I didn’t know anyone. All I was there to do was to learn the industry. I met Noah [Rothbaum – current Editor of] there and we had an Abita ( in a plastic cup at Absinthe House from 5-6.”

At the time that Codik and Rothbaum were bonding over Abita didn’t yet exist. This past year was the festival’s largest media sponsor, but back then, over that beer, Codik was in New Orleans strictly on a research mission to see what was percolating in the spirits industry and determine how he could tap into it in a way that opened up the marketplace to consumers in a consolidated and compelling way they’d never seen before while exposing brands to potential new consumers.

The serial (and successful) entrepreneur came to the cocktail festival with a name in mind for his website and realized he needed to do more research into the booze business. Codik admits that his approach to building is not the traditional way to get a business off the ground. But it seems to be working just fine. He comments, “In 2008 I was scratching my head and wondering why when it is an industry generating $60 billion at retail and $20 billion at wholesale, the brands’ digital advertising spends were only 1 to 3% of their marketing budgets versus the 10 to 12% that other categories were already spending on digital marketing.”

He continues, “You don’t normally do this, but I actually built this backwards with a name. Usually you start with a market problem or opportunity and that seeds the project. Instead we started with a name and determined whether there was an opportunity to build the tremendous brand without a capital outlay. It was a tough time to raise capital, but I had been in the start-up world for a long time and had enough people in my network and it went from there. My business partner and I met the guy who owned the domain name. He pitched us to work with him on a different business plan and, while we loved the name and loved the guy, we didn’t love the plan. So we went our separate ways. He called us again later and ended up saying he’d take $4.5 million for the domain name. had just sold for $3 million and had just sold $5 million. We knew the domain is valuable and it’s a huge industry so we said to him ‘you give us the domain and you’ll get a seat on the board, and equity, and we’ll set a finite timeline to research the industry.’”

This arrangement worked. And, despite Codik’s admitting he was more of a wine drinker than a spirits guy prior to the launch of and had no real knowledge of the industry at the time he undertook this venture, Codik took to it quickly and intensely. He says, “It’s funny how things come together. I’m so passionate about building the business and, while I think about as a digital business, fundamentally we’re in the spirits industry. It permeates everything we do and I’m very passionate about it. I feel like I found my home.”

His home was centered on a vision that he explains as this, “Let’s build an email centric business that has a highly targeted audience.” Codik envisioned a site that was both approachable and authoritative. To that end he created a “dream team” board of industry advisors Continue Reading…