Field to Glass: A Visit to Hillrock Estate Distillery

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Jeff Baker & Dave Pickerell

I really felt something.  Sure, when I’m touring wineries and distilleries, I am interested, educated and very much enjoying myself.  But this visit was more.  After driving out of Hillrock Estate Distillery in upstate New York, I felt something.  I felt complete and utter admiration.

Hillrock Estate Distillery is like no other.  Owner Jeff Baker and Master Distiller Dave Pickerell hosted my family and I recently for an inspiration inducing visit.  I had given my parents a bottle of Hillrock Bourbon for Christmas, and this visit was part two of the gift. My mother had previously stated Hillrock was the only brown spirit she enjoys without an ice cube.  The people have spoken!

Our visit fell shortly after a metro area snow storm.  We appreciated driving north out of the Westchester snow belt, and arrived in rural Ancram.  Had snow been on the ground, we would have missed the defining feature of Hillrock Estate Distillery: 100 organically farmed acres of grain that transform into every bottle Hillrock produces.

IMG_2508Hillrock is one of the few “field-to-glass” whiskey producers in the world, crafting its whiskey from its own estate grown grain.  When Jeff purchased the property, he returned a long tradition to New York. In the 19th century New York was the country’s breadbasket, producing more than half the country’s barley and rye, which naturally led to more than 1000 farm distilleries in the region.  Jeff’s property and the right distiller had the potential for something very special.

In came Dave Pickerell.  Dave is a world famous Master Distiller with a 14 year run at Makers Mark.  Prior to meeting, his article in The Whiskey Advocate in 2010 caught Jeff’s attention.  Dave wrote: “Part of my dream is seeing lots of new expressions of whiskey … good ones … from all over America… hit the market… representing a new sort of terroir, where true geographical differences in the U.S. can not only be expressed but also clearly differentiated.  I believe that the effects of locality on grain, water, and climate can be best expressed in a micro-distillery. “

IMG_2495Frankly, this was a revelation to me.  In the wine world, “terroir” is both a hot buzzword and a long standing concept, but in distillation, how groundbreaking!

Jeff led us through the process, followed by the dogs (there always seems to be a distillery pet!)

I saw two components never before seen in the US that made a spirits geek like me go nuts: a malting and a solera system.  Huh?  Floor malting is the historic technique of preparing barley for fermentation. Floor malting is crucial to the Scotch process in Scotland.  These days, however, even in Scotland distilleries are abandoning their maltings and going for the easier route of purchasing barley from big commercial maltings.  I can’t say I know any other US distillery that has their own malting!

IMG_2492The Solera harkens another country: Spain. In Sherry production in Jerez, a solera system includes tiers of multiple barrels, in which the newest spirit is added at the top, and incrementally blended down the tiers with older and older barrels, until you get to bottom tier.  It’s tedious and takes years.  At Hillrock, the team manually transfers just a few gallons of spirit from young to incrementally older barrels.  What an undertaking.  It’s like transferring a swimming pool to another swimming pool with a dessert spoon.  The commitment to quality and hand crafting could not have been more obvious.

As we tasted in the new distillery tasting room on the bucolic estate, we were buzzed not from Hillrock’s amazing line of spirits but from witnessing something so inspirational. Jeff and Dave are creating the highest quality whiskies from the unique terroir of their fields.  Even my mother approves!

Hillrock spirits and more great finds are at www.vintology.com.

Questions and feedback welcome to elizabeth@vintology.com

 

*Reposted with permission from Girl Meets Vine. http://elizabethmillerwine.com/girlmeetsvine


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