Whisky Advocate

Hillrock Estate Distillery: tiny, vertical, and beautiful

July 2nd, 2012

Whisky Advocate’s managing editor and contributor Lew Bryson reports on his visit to Hillrock Estate Distillery.

I recently took a trip up to Hillrock Estate Distillery, near Ancram, New York. The distillery is east of the Hudson River, near the Massachusetts border, in a rolling, wooded valley near the Berkshires, an area that was settled by Dutch grain planters. This is a part of the country I’m well familiar with; my wife grew up here, and we were married about fifteen miles away. So I wasn’t surprised to find that the roads to Hillrock were narrow and winding, or that the place itself was beautifully rural.

Hillrock is the baby of Jeffrey Baker, who made his money in banking…but has a farming background. He’s been involved in small-scale farming as a sideline for over 20 years, having started with a dairy farm in 1989, then organic beef, finally moving down from the Vermont border to Ancram, where he became interested in the concept of field-to-glass distilling. He was particularly interested in the idea of tasting a difference from grain grown in one field vs. another, and eventually hooked up with well-known distilling expert Dave Pickerell.

Dave’s spent quite a bit of time here in the past year, and was there when I arrived at Baker’s 1806 farmhouse. They were in a mood to celebrate: they had just that very minute received an approval email from ATTTB for their solera bourbon label. We went out on the porch, looked down on the distillery, sitting in a sunny spot between a barley field and a rye field, and talked.

Hillrock’s all about details. The rye and barley is grown here and on another 100 or so acres in the valley (the corn is grown by local farmers); it’s being grown organically, but they haven’t received their certification yet. They built a malthouse with floor maltings, what they believe to be the first such in-house distillery maltings in the country since Repeal. They’re using a variety of smoking techniques for some of the malt (and looking at old maps to find local peat sources). They are distilling on a combi-still (a pot still with a column) with a series of adjustments applicable to the type of spirit produced that Pickerell would take pains to show me (distillation began in October, 2011). They are currently aging spirit in seven different barrel sizes.

It was the seven different barrel sizes that led Pickerell to laugh and admit, “Sometimes I do things that are a pain in the ass.” His day-to-day distiller (and maltster, and warehouse manager, and bottler…), Tim Welly, grinned in tacit agreement.

That in turn led Baker to admit that he went along with all of it, and instigated some of it. That’s why he’s the sole investor. “I’m a detail-oriented guy,” he explained. “If you’re going to do this, something this insane…do you really want an investor looking over your shoulder?”

We did sit down and taste the solera bourbon, which includes aged stock they bought and mingled with small-barrel aged Hillrock distillate. It is a good whiskey, with a cinnamon-spicy, fruit-laced finish. Dave recalled his excitement when that spicy note appeared. “That’s from that field,” he said. It was proof of the terroir concept, when they knew they had something with the estate-grown grain concept.

The solera bourbon will be available in New York around the beginning of October, as will a single malt whisky that is about to begin a wood finishing process. Dave was a bit cagey about that, only saying that he’d done research and found a dynamite wood to season whiskey; further pressure would only get that it was a type of fruit tree. Or maybe a nut tree. And he wouldn’t tell me more.

The tasting room is more like a small vineyard than most small distillery’s, with graceful wood furniture and samples of locally-grown foods. The whole place is simply elegant, and will make a great tour once it’s open.

There’s not going to be a lot of whiskey out of Hillrock, but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of them, and more of this type of high-end distillery; like Distillery No. 209, a high-end gin distillery in San Francisco that I visited last fall. This is going to be part of the future of whiskey distilling, a small and very interesting part.

No Responses to “Hillrock Estate Distillery: tiny, vertical, and beautiful”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    Definitely an interesting part of the story, Lew. Thanks for the info. You guys should get up to Massachusetts and take a look at Berkshire Mountain Distillers, while your at it.

  2. Lew Bryson says:

    Thanks, Red. Berkshire’s high on my “next to visit” list.

  3. I love reading stories about new distilleries, I recently did a blog on the Kilchoman Farm Distillery in Scotland that reminds me of this.

    What I think is important is that consumers have a responsibility to promote local and spread the word if it the whiskey is good. Getting a new product out on the market is difficult enough. Otherwise, down the road these wonderful little distilleries end up closed, in most cases.

    Thanks John for bringing a new one to light. I am going to be in the Boston area in September, I hope to have the chance to see this one in action and try their bourbon (do they give tours yet?)



    • Lew Bryson says:

      Tours will probably be starting in September, when the product hits the market.

  4. Gary Gillman says:

    Good work and I like the concept of the solera, smart thinking.


  5. Joan McGinley says:

    Nice, Lew! And just an added note that Hillrock will be exhibiting at WhiskyFest New York in October.

  6. Jason Pyle says:

    Great article Lew! Quick note – Copper Fox Distillery has been floor malting barley in their Va. Distillery for a number of years. So this is now the second.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Thanks, Jason. That’s the tough part about the burgeoning craft distillery biz: very hard to keep up!

  7. lawschooldrunk says:

    I always wanted to floor malt in my living too!

  8. Tadas A. says:

    Very lovely looking disitilery and love everything local idea! You can see more pictures of it here:
    Solera sounds like a great principle for new disitllers to get a more balanced flavor. Premium looking bottle too. Funny to see 1806 date on the bottle while the disitllery opened in 2011 – small manipulation.

  9. sam k says:

    Hey Lew, after thinking about this for a while, I’m wondering how the solera process works within the confines of the regulations for bourbon. There would have to be new barrels involved for at least two and as many as four years. As the solera uses barrels continuously over time as vessels to mingle the product, would the new oak be on the top row for at least two years, or would there be a change to all new wood at some point in the process?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Sam, Dave explained it to me, and then asked me to please not disseminate the information. The whole labeling hinges on a point of federal booze law, and he’s figured it out. He feels that if someone else wants to do a solera bourbon, let them figure it out. I can see his point, and it only seems fair…so I’m staying mum for now.

  10. Tadas A. says:

    Hillrock label says only that it is a “bourbon whiskey”. No word “straight”. Federal law states:
    – “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. (
    Which means that white dog has to go to a new chared oak barrel initially. You cannot use a barrel that already had whisky. So the first barrel has to be new every time. As far I understand other barrels in the solera system can be reused ones.
    The law does not state how long does the new make (bourbon/rye/wheat/malt/rye malt whiskey) has to stay in the charred new oak containers. Only “straight whiskey” requires minimum 2 years in them.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      No doubt that the issue here is the short-aged small barrel whiskey that Hillrock is putting into the solera; they just started distilling last fall. Definitely under 2 years on that stuff, and it’s blending in with the older stock they sourced (don’t bother asking; they weren’t talking).

      • Tadas A. says:

        Solera system with sourced juice and their yourn whiskey sounds like a great idea for startup whiskey distilleries. As they grow and time passes they would get more aged whiskey of their own and solera would allow them to transition from sourced whiskey taste to their own without a sharp change in taste profile which could alienate existing clients.

  11. Bob Siddoway says:

    I find the using seven different barrel sizes and incorporating the terroir concept (like in wine making) truly interesting for a bourbon! It’s sure felt like whiskey has recently been heading the way of regional wine making and this only proves that point!

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