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.