Bourbon from the Hudson Valley of New York? Doesn't Bourbon only come from Kentucky?
Though some people believe that Bourbon can only be produced in Kentucky, that is actually incorrect. About 95% of all Bourbon is made in Kentucky but you'll also find Bourbon legally made across the country, in places including Indiana, Utah, Wisconsin and New York. In 1964, Congress passed a resolution, stating bourbon was a "distinctive product of the U.S." granting the term legal protection. This is akin to the protection granted to wine terms like Champagne, Sherry and Port, so that Bourbon can only be legally produced within the U.S.
What legally constitutes a bourbon? According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, 27 C.F.R. 5.22(b)(1)(i), there are several basic, legal requirements for a spirit to be declared a "bourbon." First, it must be produced from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn. Second, it must be distilled at not more than 160 proof. Third, the final product cannot be more than 125 proof. Fourth, it must be aged in charred, new oak containers. There is no restriction that it must be produced in Kentucky.
Hillrock Estate Distillery, located in Ancram, New York, and our host was Jeff Baker (pictured above), the owner of the estate. He was personable and earnest, leading us through the malt house and distillery, telling us the history of the estate as well as explaining their production process. It was a fascinating insight into this craft distillery, and my respect for their operation increased through the tour.
Back in the 1820s, New York produced about two-thirds of the country's barley and rye, and the Hudson Valley was home to many such farms. Because of all this grain, over 1000 distilleries opened, creating a variety of spirits, though Prohibition would close their doors. Nowadays, we are seeing a craft distillery revival across the country, and a number of new distilleries have opened in the Hudson Valley region. It is still only the tiniest fraction of what once existed there, but it continues to grow and evolve.
In 1995, Jeff purchased the land which would become the Hillrock estate, and now encompasses over 250 tillable acres. Initially, he began the region's first, pasture-raised, sustainable beef operation. He restored a 1806 Georgian house on the property that once had been owned by a Revolutionary War Captain who was also a grain farmer and Freemason. Eventually, he decided he wanted to produce whiskey, so he constructed a distillery, malt house, granary and barrel house, locating all of them at the center of the estate, About four years ago, they started making whiskey.
As they began to produce whiskey from their grains, they soon learned that their whiskies possessed distinctive notes of clove and cinnamon, indicative of the terroir of their estate. This is exactly what Jeff hoped for, that their products would be reflective of the land, water and climate of their estate. He didn't know what flavor profile that might entail until their whiskey production begun. As such, you should detect clove and cinnamon in all of their whiskies.
written before about this issue. It has been said that terroir is an opportunity and the choices that are made in the production process can obscure and eliminate terroir. Not all spirits show terroir, but Hillrock is making positive choices intended to lead to their whiskies reflecting the terroir of their estate.
For their peated whiskey, Jeff has been importing Scotch peat but he has been actively seeking a local source. Unfortunately, what he has found so far have been part of protected wetlands, so inaccessible to him, but his search continues. Finding local peat sources is an issue for other whiskey distilleries in the U.S. too. I recently wrote about the Westland Distillery in Washington who were able to purchase a 60 acre peat bog though they haven't yet produced any whiskies using this peat. If Hillrock can find a local source of peat, they can enhance the terroir of their whiskey.
However, creating your own malt will contribute to the sense of terroir of your product. As I already mentioned, choices made in the production process have the ability to obscure terroir. The more you produce on your own, the more terroir can be reflected in the final product. It is clear that the malt they produce at Hillrock will be very different from whatever malt they could buy from a commercial malter. Few whiskey distilleries are willing to go so far, to have their own malt house, so it is indicative of a serious dedication.
Hillrock uses a variety of different oak barrels for whiskey maturation, including some small barrel aging, and Jeff noted that barrels may be their greatest expense. Interestingly, they are storing away about 80% of their production for extended aging. That is a significant investment, which hopefully will pay off sometime in the future, as well as a sign of confidence. They could easily sell much more whiskey now, recouping more of their investment, but instead they have chosen to think long term. Fortunately, they have the resources to store and age all of those barrels and I am eager to return to Hillrock in the future to sample those longer aged whiskies.
Their production level is low, and they only produce about one 30-gallon barrel per day, making about 60,000 bottles (5,000 cases) annually. This is a minuscule amount, especially compared to a major company like Makers Mark, which shipped 1.4 Billion cases last year. Even the annual production of the rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon whiskey is still 7000 to 8000 cases. Currently, most of the Hillrock production is sold within the Northeast region, though they hope to one day expand to the West Coast and even Europe.
Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky. Everything is still shiny and new-looking.
Thirst Boston. While we were at Hillrock, Dave led our tasting of three of their whiskies, and he was jovial and personable, an excellent person to spread whiskey passion. And I loved his hat!
There are four tiers in Hillrock's Bourbon Solera, which they started about eight years ago. The first tier is their "nursery," which uses new charred oak barrels. The next two tiers are 53 gallon barrels, which are set in place, and never move. In the final tier, the bourbon spends about 36 days in a 20 year old Oloroso Sherry barrel. Once they bottle the Bourbon, it currently has an average age of six years. Over time, the average age of the Solera Bourbon will increase. Though the Bourbon would technically qualify as a Straight Bourbon, they have chosen not to label it as such.
From my first sniff of this Bourbon, I was mesmerized. It possessed such an alluring nose, a complex blend of smells, and you would be tempted to simply sit with a glass and enjoy the aromas without even tasting it. However, the taste won't disappoint either, providing a complex melange of flavors, including caramel, vanilla, nuttiness, butterscotch, toffee, and plenty of spicy notes (due to all that rye), There seemed to be be mere wisps of clove and cinnamon, mostly noticeable on the lengthy finish. This was a well balanced Bourbon, impressive in its complexity and quality. and I knew I needed to purchase a bottle. Highly recommended.
The Double Cask Rye Whiskey ($90) is produced from 100% rye, and aged into two different types of barrels. Initially is it matured in a charred #3 barrel and then ages further in a new, American oak #4 charred barrel. The idea behind this maturation is to provide some caramel and vanilla elements to balance out the strong spiciness from all that rye. On the palate, there is still an intense spiciness, though very appealing, and balanced well with additional flavors of caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, dried fruit, clove and cinnamon (which are even more prominent in this whiskey). Another winner from Hillrock.
“How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon -- and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter.”