Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TasteCamp At Hudson Valley: Hillrock Estate Distillery

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough."
--Mark Twain

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.

While attending TasteCamp in the Hudson Valley, I sampled a Solera-Aged Bourbon which thoroughly impressed me. Besides the Bourbon, I sampled two other whiskies, a Peated Single Malt and a Rye, and they too were impressive. The story and philosophy behind these whiskies is fascinating and compelling, an intriguing tale of "field to glass" and terroir. Tradition is respected and emulated in a number of respects. This is not a simple craft distillery but one seriously dedicated to producing a special type of whiskey. And there is clear passion at work. This is a distillery that all whiskey lovers need to know.

We toured the 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.

It is important to Jeff that they try to produce "field to glass" whiskey, which is reflective of the terroir of their estate. As such, they grow all of their own grains organically, including winter rye, barley and corn. As about 90% of U.S. corn is GMO, Jeff has ensured that they grow sufficient non-GMO corn for their purposes. That is an important factor to numerous people. Harvesting is conducted from individual fields and the amount of the yield takes second place to the quality of the yield.

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.

Most people are familiar with hearing about terroir and wine, and may also have heard the term used with certain foods too, such as cheese and tomatoes. However, some spirits can evidence terroir and I've 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.

Another important element contributing to the terroir of their whiskey is their malting process, where they release some of the starch in their grains through a partial germination. What makes Hillrock more unique is that they have their own "one man malt house," and they may be the only distillery in the U.S. to have one. Most distilleries and brewers across the world purchase malt from commercial malters rather than make their own. Even only a few Scotch distilleries make their own malt. It is a labor intensive process, so many have found it much easier to sinply buy their malt elsewhere.

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.

In the floor malting process, barley is soaked in water and then spread out over the floor to start germination. It will remain on the floor for about two to three days and must be raked, to stir and aerate the barley, every six to eight hours for about thirty minutes. While we were viewing the malt house, two men were raking the barley. Jeff mentioned to us that all of the barley we saw would eventually be used to produce about $60,000 of whiskey.

After two to three days, the grain will be sent through a hatch in the floor and down into a kiln (pictured above). The grain will then be smoked and toasted over the course of about three days, and we got to taste some of the barley, which had a nutty and smoky taste.

There is no such thing as a bad whisky. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others.
--William Faulkner

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.

The logo of the distillery has the phrase "aqua vitae" which means "water of life," referring to whiskey. The term "whisky" originated from an ancient Gaelic term, "uisge beatha," which also means "water of life."

The two dogs, Australian sheep dogs, on the logo are Jeff's dogs. Pictured above is Storm is on the left and Shadow on the right. They accompanied us into the malt house.

We spent a little time in the distilling room, learning about the process, and getting to see some of the equipment in operation.

This 250 gallon copper pot still was built by by Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky. Everything is still shiny and new-looking.

At the end of our tour, it was time for some whiskey tasting. Dave Pickerell (pictured above) is their Master Distiller, and he previously spent 14 years working at Maker's Mark. Dave also runs Oak View Consulting, assisting a number of other distilleries, such as Whiskey Pig and George Washington's Distillery. He is nationally recognized as a whiskey expert, and his services are sought out by many distilleries. He will also be in Boston in a couple weeks to present a Rye seminar at 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!

We began the tasting with the Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey ($80), which is produced from a mashbill of 51% corn and 49% rye, and has a 46.3% ABV. This may be the only Solera Aged Bourbon produced in the country, a process that is most well known for making Sherry. The Solera system is a method of fractional blending which includes a number of different levels of barrels. On a regular basis, a portion of alcohol is removed from the barrel at the bottom level, and that alcohol will be bottled. The lower barrel is then refilled from the barrel above it, and that barrel is refilled from the barrel above it. The top barrel is filled with new alcohol once some of it is removed.

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 Single Malt Whiskey ($100) is a peated whiskey made in a Speyside style, meaning it is intended to be a lighter whiskey. Interestingly, Dave usually makes bold whiskies and this may be the softest one he has ever produced, but he still really enjoys it. This whiskey spent about 8 hours with the peat, though Dave mentioned they have produced another whiskey, a "smokebomb," which spent 18-20 hours with peat. No caramel color is added to this whiskey, and all of its beautiful color is natural. I found this whiskey to be smoky and intense, with strong spicy notes, a pleasant nuttiness, some citrus notes, and more noticeable clove and cinnamon flavors. Complex and intriguing, this was an excellent peated whiskey, perfect for the fall and winter. I had to buy a bottle of this whiskey too, and it is also 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.

If you travel to the Hudson Valley region, you definitely should take some time to visit Hillrock Distillery. And if you can't make it to the distillery, and are able to find their whiskies at a local retailer, then splurge. There are high quality whiskies, evocative of the terroir of the estate, and you won't be disappointed. I'm eagerly looking forward to watch the evolution of Hillrock, to see what their longer aged whiskies taste like in the future.

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.”
--W.C. Fields

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