Almost twenty years ago, Jeff Baker was one of the first in the region to sustainably rotate his pasture-grazed beef and dairy cows. When he decided he wanted to start crafting a product, he turned that same eye for self-sufficiency and sustainability to making whiskey.
“This area is really becoming what I call ‘The Napa Valley of the East,’” he says. “You’ve gotta treat it fairly.”
Up through the early 19th Century, the Hudson Valley produced a large portion of the country’s grains. The land is well suited to the crops, and as local vintners have long noted, fluctuating temperature and humidity in the Northeast cause barrels to swell and shrink, stirring spirits and aging them more quickly. What would normally be considered an eight- or ten-year-old whiskey might be achieved in the Hudson Valley in as little as six to eight years.
Yet just because it’s faster doesn’t mean the Hillrock Estate Distillery team is rushing anything. Every aspect of their spirits is handled on-site at their Ancram farm. Grains are planted, raised, and harvested, then malted, smoked, and distilled, and finally aged and finished before being bottled by hand.
Grains are grown entirely without pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. Spent distillers’ grain goes to feed local livestock, which occasionally make their way back to the Hillrock team as meat or dairy.
“It was critical that we control every part of the process. You’re effectively distilling down the tastes in the fields, the terroir. Nobody’s actually thought about whiskeys like wines.” Well, nobody else except Master Distiller Dave Pickerell.
“Dave Pickerell is kind of the master of finishing,” Baker says, laughing. Pickerell has chemistry degrees from West Point and the University of Louisville, and spent fourteen years distilling for Maker’s Mark. Baker reached out to him when he was first kicking around the logistics of a self-contained craft distilling operation. Within months they were distilling together on the farm.
Baker is a firm believer in the DIY philosophy. “Our view has always been, ‘What can we do here that’s going to be world class and a level that’s not typically found in the industry?’” Right now the answer to that is two-fold: solera aging, and Scotch.
Hillrock Estate’s custom-designed still separates the “head,” “heart,” and “tail” of the distillate to better control the flavors inherent in their spirits, which exit the apparatus at about 130 proof.
Solera aging is a process usually reserved for ports, sherries, and occasionally rums. Rather than fill, age, and empty barrels, solera aging involves removing only a portion of a barrel’s contents — perhaps 5-10 gallons at a time — and transferring it to a cask from an older batch. In this way, young whiskey not only ages faster, but because no barrel is ever fully emptied, the average age of an entire rickhouse gradually grows older and the spirits more flavorful. Hillrock whiskeys travel from virgin casks through two additional levels of aging, before finally being finished in Oloroso sherry barrels and acquiring the fruity, nutty tones ingrained in the from two decades of winemaking.
A new release, the Napa Cabernet Cask-Finished Solera Bourbon, goes through this entire process before spending another 2-10 weeks in cabernet barrels. The result is smooth bourbon with light hints of fruit and a very floral back end, that is about 37 percent rye with an average age currently greater than six years (and growing older all the time).
As for “world class,” how does near-perfectly authentic Scotch sound? One of Hillrock’s claims to fame is their one-of-a-kind malting floor, the only one at an American distillery since before the beginning of prohibition. Truthfully, since the rise of industrialization, floor malting has been completely supplanted by larger commercial processes. There are currently only about a half-dozen distilleries in Scotland that still floor malt their grains on-site — and now Hillrock.
“The Cathedral” is the first new malting house to be built at an American distillery since before the age of prohibition.
After being turned by hand twice daily in the “malting cathedral” as Baker calls it, Hillrock’s harvested grains are smoked with peat imported directly from Speyside, Scotland. “Don’t even ask me how we got the import license for that!” Pickerell jokes. The finished product is the most Scotch a single malt can legally be when made in the U.S. It’s delicious and smoky, even more so with a few drops of water (added to alter the breakpoint of the alcohol and release the flavors). If you’re looking to quantify all that, Wine Enthusiast rated it 97/100 and named it the best American single malt ever.
Not pictured: Their Best of Hudson Valley 2014 award for “Best New Way of Making Bourbon.”
Hillrock offers distillery tours by appointment on weekends from 12–4 p.m. at $20 per person, which includes a keepsake etched tasting glass. This fee is even waived should you purchase a bottle during your tour. (You can also call ahead to reserve one!)
A bottle of solera bourbon will run you $80, while the Double Cask Rye is a little more expensive at $90 and the George Washington Rye a bit cheaper at $50. Any of the specialty finished whiskeys or the single malt will set you back an even $100. While they’re certainly a bit pricier than your everyday whiskeys, the tour-and-tasting price cannot possibly be beat. And who knows? After you taste a few of these handcrafted spirits that price tag starts looking more and more worth the indulgence.
Hillrock Estate Distillery
408 Pooles Hill Rd., Ancram