Distillery Focus

A locavore's tipple

Liza Weisstuch goes in search of slow food whiskey
By Liza Weisstuch
Standing in front of the still house at Hillrock Distillery, Jeff Baker points east to a distant ridge line that runs north to south along lush greenery. It’s the eastern border of New York’s Hudson Valley. To the west is the Hudson River. His sprawling property is in an area known as the ‘Chimney to Montreal.’

“That’s barley there, and rye over there,” said Baker, owner and founder of Hillrock Estate Distillery. It was a temperate October day and as he spoke he swept his arms this way and that across the farmland to accentuate the expanse of the nearly 100-acre estate. “We planted last fall; we’ll harvest within the next few weeks,” he said. His two Australian shepherds came bolting down the grassy hill towards him.

The still house is part of a three building mini-complex that also includes a malt house and a granary with a refined tasting room on par with Napa Valley’s finest. The malt house (“More like malt castle,” Baker says of the structure with a 24-by-36 foot malting floor) is the first of its kind to be built on distillery grounds since before Prohibition. The buildings appear to sit precisely in the middle of the expansive farmland. They are quaint and were designed to match the early 1800s architectural styles of the Baker home on a nearby hill, which dates back to 1806 and was moved piece by piece from its original location miles away. The buildings look diminutive in their majestic postcard-ready surroundings, which feel more English countryside than Lower Hudson Valley, an hour outside Manhattan. But within these modest structures, giant things are happening.

“In the early 1800s, New York grew two-thirds of the barley for the country. We had the idea of making a spirit from estate-grown barley and looked around and saw nobody’s doing this,” said Baker. “This is truly field-to-glass in the spirit of estate wineries. We can do individual whiskies from individual fields, and play around with terroir.”

As the American craft distilling industry grows exponentially, it’s critical for a distillery to distinguish itself. To paraphrase the ever-so business-savvy Gypsy Rose Lee: “You gotta have a gimmick.” Or at least a yarn to get people to pay attention to your brand.

But there’s a difference between creating a spirit that telegraphs a story or a legacy and developing an engaging narrative around a spirit in real-time. Baker, who continues to work as an executive managing director and partner of his own real estate investment company, and his wife Cathy, a real estate broker in Manhattan, embarked on the latter. Hillrock Bourbon is the nation’s first Bourbon aged in the solera style, a technique common among Spanish sherry producers that involves systematically blending younger spirit with more mature ones during the ageing period. Hillrock launched in New York in October. It’s produced entirely with grains grown on the estate (or on one of the 150 nearby acres of farmland that the Bakers lease), a short distance from the building in which they’re floor malted. It’s Slow Food for the whiskey fanatic, a locavore’s tipple.

Overseeing the operation is an industry vet who has a solid track record that blends getting start-ups off the ground and designing innovation. Dave Pickerell, who boasts 14 years tenure as master distiller at Maker’s Mark and now runs his own consulting company for craft distillers, serves as master distiller, but he credits his apprentice, Tim Welly, a veteran wine maker, for the idea of solera aged whiskey.

“He asked: ‘why has this never been done in America?’” said Pickerell, who learned about the solera process while at Maker’s, thanks to visits to a sister sherry company in Jerez, Spain during Maker’s Allied Domecq era.

“Our process does two things: it adds season upon season. When dealing with terroir, every season is a little different. Every time you pull out spirit and put back in, you’re adding another season to the overall mix. Because it’s grain to grass, terroir is enhanced, and you get the most extreme of the terroir: clove, cinnamon.”

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey clocks in at 46.3% ABV. Production began with 10 seed Bourbons for the solera, each of which was aged six and a half years, then finished 36 days in sherry barrels, which add a nutty fruitiness to the nose and a persistent fig note.

“Traditional solera is built using sherry barrels and can be finished using Bourbon. We decided to have tongue in cheek fun for geeks. We build it with bourbon barrels and finish with sherry butts. We stood the process on its ear,” said Pickerell.

But any innovation has hurdles. After a great deal of study and inquiries, they developed a process that adheres to the standard rules of Bourbon production that dictate, for instance, that the spirit has to touch new wood first and that nothing can be mixed in the storage account.

to research all kinds of rules about Bourbon making and researching how to work within them,” said Pickerell. “Some might see the rules and take it as a ‘no’ to innovation, but we called the government up and satisfied the requirements by creative means.”

Baker describes his modus operandi as “traditional with modern conveniences.” The malting floor is the most obvious throw-back feature, but the modern conveniences are perhaps more intriguing. There’s an electronic temperature control on fermenters, which allows the distillers to control temperatures so as not to build up fusil oils. The mash tun is a hybrid vessel that affords exceptional flexibility. It can be used to mash corn American style and ferment and distill it on the grain. But there’s also a false bottom for when they want to wash grains in the true Scottish style and allow the residue to stay in the cooker while the sugar-rich water is then fermented.

And considering the amount of experimenting Pickerell has in mind, that flexibility will come in handy. There is already 10,000 gallons of spirit ageing.

“We wanna do all kinds of playing around with single malts,” he divulges. “There will likely be a lot of small, early releases to show our playing, some heavily peat-smoked, some smoked with fruit woods. Small releases of fun, tasty stuff while we sort out what to do for main product. We also have a really nice rye ageing.”