Pot Of Gold: Ancram Distillery Crafts Field-to-Glass Bourbon
With all the elegance and quality of a Napa Valley winery, Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram, NY opened for business on September 15, 2012. Owner Jeffrey Baker is determined to create top-notch bourbons that match the magnificence of his stunning, expansive farm and production facility, where whiskey lovers are invited to taste his wares and learn about the process of distilling spirits. And at Hillrock, the curious can learn about the process from start to finish, because — unlike most spirits producers – Baker and his team are actually growing much of the grain they use to produce the bourbon.
With experience in farming and the restaurant industry, Baker has long had an interest in sustainable agriculture; he owned one of the first rotational grazing dairy farms in the industry some years ago in Saratoga County, NY. Seeking a shorter weekend commute from his “day job” at Savills in Manhattan, he found a 100-acre farm in Ancram, which had been owned by a Revolutionary War Captain, Israel Harris, who also happened to be a grain merchant. Baker says he “was looking for something to do on this land. Something that reflects the terroir.” While making farmstead cheese or growing grapes had appeal, once he learned the history of the land, he decided to pursue a venture more relevant to his farm’s history, one that involved grains.
After doing some research, Baker learned that the Hudson Valley had at one time produced two-thirds of the country’s rye grain. Recognizing that the growing craft distillery movement still had room for new ideas, he came up with the plan for Hillrock Estate Distillery. As Baker notes, we are in the middle of “an explosion in the food business. People are willing to pay more for quality.” This trend led him to set his sights on making “the best whiskey in the world.”
Happenstance was on his side. David Pickerell, Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark for over a decade, had recently left the iconic Kentucky distillery and begun consulting on other projects. Bringing him on board was a no-brainer for Baker, who sought him out for “his great experience as a distiller, plus his experience as a chemical engineer, building distilleries all over the world. And he has a great palate… Someone like that wouldn’t be free for long.” Baker rounded out the production team with Tim Welly, formerly the cellarmaster at Millbrook Winery, who also has a great palate, according to Baker.
Farm-to-table is already a mantra in our region. Hillrock Estate extends this concept to the world of spirits – call it field-to-glass. By controlling and owning nearly the entire process — the growing of the grain, the malting, and the distillation — Hillrock can produce spirits that accurately express the terroir.
The making of whiskey begins with grain; Hillrock uses homegrown rye and barley from the estate’s 96 acres of fields, all of which will soon be sown with heirloom organic varieties. Baker sources corn from local organic farmers, but intends to grow his own in the future. While the vast majority of distilleries purchase malted grains — known as malt — from large factories, the Hillrock team, following its vision of complete integration, built its own malthouse, making Hillrock “the first distillery to have built one since prohibition,” Baker notes. This allows them to fine-tune the process as needed, allowing for much more control over the final product. After harvest, the grains are cleaned and steeped, then spread out on a specially built, heated floor to germinate, in a process called “floor malting,” as shown below. (Think of how a Chia Pet grows “hair” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what malting is.)
At just the right point in the germination process, the grains are dried, and readied for fermentation and distillation, which happens in a gleaming, custom-built 250-gallon copper pot still that was handmade in Louisville, KY. Pickerell points out the bulging part of the pipe leading out of the pot, known as the “onion,” noting that “It was hand-hammered, to a 1/8” thickness.” The still is currently producing Estate Bourbon, a blend of 51% corn and 49% rye – the latter from Hillrock’s own fields – which will be aged in white American oak barrels, in accordance with the strictly regulated Bourbon-making process.
The initial production will be used in Hillrock’s Solera Aged Bourbon — the first and only solera-aged whiskey to be produced in the United States. The solera aging process comes from Jerez, Spain, where Sherry barrels originally filled some hundred years ago are never fully drained in the bottling process, leaving a bit of the original sherry in every bottle produced. Welly explains that his Wine & Spirit Education Trust studies at the International Wine Center in NYC exposed him to Sherry wines and production techniques. “I found out that the solera system does create a consistent product over years, and one with incredible complexity,” he says. He suggested it to Baker, who liked the idea; with Pickerell’s experience and knowledge of the arcane world of alcohol law, the Hillrock team was able to implement this process to produce a bourbon that is unique on many different levels.
Says Pickerell, “No one can out Maker’s Mark Maker’s Mark. And nor should they try.” Hillrock Estate seeks its own flavor profile. The terroir at Hillrock Estates gives its grains a particular essence of both clover and cinnamon, which is pronounced in the distilled product. Beyond this distinctive terroir, the team has been exploring other means to differentiate Hillrock Estate bourbon, including experimenting with various approaches to aging their spirits — in barrels as small as two-liters and as large as 53 gallons — in order to develop more complexity in the finished product. Every distillery works slightly differently, but in general, raw spirits are aged in the larger barrels. Smaller barrels have a higher ratio of surface area of the wood to the spirit, which can produce a stronger and more complex effect, which Pickerell and Welly readily, and effectively, demonstrate in the tasting room.
To be sure, the results of this exacting field-to-glass approach don’t come cheap. Hillrock’s Solera Aged Bourbon will set you back $80 for a 750ml bottle, and $125 for the Single Malt, which will be available later this year. In 2013 Hillrock will release its Estate Bourbon and a 100% Rye Whiskey with prices to be determined. Baker realizes his pricing is aggressive but he says it’s worth every penny given the quality in the glass. In addition, there’s a premium for rarity; Hilllrock will produce only 1,000 – 2,000 cases in its first year, gearing up to an estimated capacity of 6,000 cases per year.
If you’d like to try before you buy, or if you’re ready to dive right in, you can taste, and purchase, Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon on site at the distillery; the visit to the spectacular farm and production facility is worth the trip. The by-reservation weekend-only tasting and tour costs $20 per person; the fee can be applied toward any spirits purchase.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to visit, Hillrock is now on the menu at a number of nearby restaurants, including as No. 9 and 52 Main in Millerton, and Agriturismo and Stissing House in Pine Plains. You can also pick up a bottle at local liquor stores such as Cascade Spirit Shoppe in Amenia, Little Gates & Co. in Millerton, and Village Wine & Spirits in Millbrook. Availability is growing quickly; check Hillrock Estate’s Facebook page for updates. Or buy it at the distillery, any day of the week; just be sure to call or email first. – Timothy Eustis
Hillrock Estate Distillery
408 Pooles Hill Road
Ancram, New York
Open by appointment for purchases on weekdays, and for tours and tastings on weekends ($20 fee, applicable toward spirits purchase); please call or email for reservations.