Before my TasteCamp trip to the Hudson Valley, I was vaguely familiar with a few area distilleries: Tuthilltown bourbon, Demarest Hill Winery grappa, and Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery. But that was the extent of my experience - until the TasteCamp spirits tasting at Hillrock Estate Distillery - which, in the words of Through the Bunghole, was EPIC. Not only did we learn about the premiere "field-to-glass" distillery that hosted the event, but a dozen other Hudson valley distilleries sent representatives to showcase their products - exhibiting a fascinating range of spirits made from locally grown grain or fruit.
Hillrock Estate is the first of its kind in the United States (post-prohibition, that is): a field-to-glass distillery. In other words, the estate grows rye and barley, malts the grain on site (using imported peat), and distills the fermenting mash into whiskey. Thus total control over all aspects of production. Our tour started in the courtyard framed partially by two restored buildings, one a 1806 Georgian house built by a successful grain merchant and Revolutionary War Captain.
In the background were fields of organically grown heirloom rye. Once harvested, the grain from each plot is floor malted - a labor intensive process that requires the grain to be raked every 6-8 hours over the thee day germination process. The raking releases heat and carbon dioxide while spreading moisture - promoting consistent germination. When the required amount of starch has been produced, the grain is air dried, and de-culmed to remove the rootlets. At Hillrock Estate, the grain is most likely roasted using imported Scottish peat to add a degree of smokiness to the finished product.
Proprietor Jeff Baker was able to acquire the services of Master Distiller Dave Pickerell (of Maker's Mark fame) to manage the estate's operations. Distiller Tim Welly, former cellar master at Millbrook Winery, lead our group through the distillation process as we sampled several bins of sour mash - noticing the changing sweetness-sourness ratio of the fermenting mash. We also tasting a recently distilled heart - straight from the 250-gallon custom copper-pot still - very smooth and sweet.
Pickerell then lead us through a tasting of three Hillrock Estate whiskeys, starting with the world's first Solera Aged Bourbon. The process takes six years so the initial bourbon is mature "seed" bourbon sourced by Pickerell. Like any bourbon, this whiskey was aged in new oak barrels and then a percentage is transferred to small oak barrels containing Hillrock Estate whiskey. The final step is finishing a percentage of the small oak whiskey in 20 year old Olorosa Sherry casks. No barrel is fully emptied in the Solera process so the whiskey matures with increased complexity. Over time, the estate bourbon will eventually replace the seed bourbon. The Solera Aged Bourbon (46.3% ABV / 92.6 Proof, $80-$90) showcases some spicy rye flavors, mingling with caramel and cinnamon, and finishes with figs and nuts.
The next two whiskeys were pure estate spirits, starting with the Hillrock Estate Single Malt Whiskey (48.2% ABV / 96.4 Proof, $105-$120), produced in the lighter Speyside style. The barley was harvested from the estate with very little peat used during roasting. The spirit was then aged two years, resulting in a smooth, lighter whiskey but full of sweet spices - cinnamon and clove particularly. The final whiskey was the Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye (45% ABV / 90 Proof, $80-$95) - 100% rye straight from the estate's 250 acre rye plantings. The spirit is first aged in new oak with a #3 charcoal and then finished in new oak with a #4 charcoal - hence the Double Cask. This is a bold and spicy whiskey, full of caramel and sweet raisins to balance the rye. I believe I found a favorite. Public tastings are also available at the distillery - check theCompass Winery Brewery Distiller Locator app for directions. Cheers to Jeff Baker and his team at Hillrock Estate. Next up, the best of Hudson Valley spirits.