Each week here at MALT we like to bring you a slice of Americana in liquid form, whether it’s from Taylor or myself or the imminent debut of Abby, as we attempt to fill the scurrying sandals of Adam and Alexandra.
Variety is a key component of life. As much as some like the status quo, or Pictures of Matchstick Men, there is a need for us to offer more than just whisky or Scotch. The team are free to review whatever they like and that’s an attraction I’m sure.
Personally, I’m finding Scotch a trifle dull of late with an avalanche of single malt releases that really were bottled too soon, or better still, should have been vatted or put into a blend of some kind. A vibrant market has encouraged a boom in average or meh whiskies that don’t warrant bottling. So forgive me, if I help out Taylor on his American craft road trip now and again. It’s fun and that’s what whisky should be all about even with the potholes and price of petrol.
Recently, I spent a day with Jessica of The Academy Drinks who was on her way to Speyside to harness more knowledge around our wonderful spirit. Parting gifts included the Sagamore Spirit Rye Straight whiskey and this bottle of Hillrock, which she believed was something different and a distillery (compared to WhistlePig) that had the foresight to harness its own spirit from the outset.
The distillery website is a lovely thing and lays out the background to the Hudson Valley, which at one time produced an abundance of grain for the nation. It reminded me of the Kingdom of Fife in some respects and the Hudson distilleries were wiped out by prohibition. Hillrock started with a vision that their whiskey should be produced using their own grain that is also floor malted. Hence the ‘field-to-glass’ ethic that not many distilleries can lay claim to nowadays, even in Scotland, or Ireland.
From a Scottish perspective, Hillrock distillery has that classic New England style exterior and is set amidst the rolling fields that provide a stunning backdrop. Within this small cluster of buildings, you’ll find the most picturesque malt house where the malting is performed. To discover more, Jeffrey Baker, Owner & Founder of Hillrock Estate Distillery, kindly took time out to answer our questions:
MALT: the ‘field-to-glass’ ethic that you have adopted as a whiskey distillery is an almighty challenge. What drove you to adopt this method and how difficult was it to achieve?
Hillrock: Jeff grew up working on farms and has been committed to sustainable farming for over 30 years. Hillrock was founded on the knowledge that growing our own grain on the estate would result in unique whiskies reflecting the terroir of the Hudson Valley. Hillrock farms over 850 acres using sustainable/organic principles which is a major undertaking in its own right. The required effort and cost is significantly higher than if we simply purchased commodity grain, but is critical the quality and ethos of our “Field-to-Glass” ™ whiskies.
MALT: what are your views on terroir and its importance to whiskey, being initially a concept from wine making?
Hillrock: from day one we have controlled every aspect of production from planting and harvesting heirloom grains, to traditionally floor malting and smoking our estate-grown grains so we’d have greater control over how malting and smoking would influence our spirits and feature our local terroir. The Hudson Valley’s unique terroir is captured in everything we do and we believe that our location—prime farmland that utilizes the crystal clear water and a favorable climate— along with our commitment to a hand-crafted, ‘field-to-glass’ philosophy has created truly unique, world-class whiskies.
I still get a smile to this day when I think about Dave Pickerell halting construction across the estate right after our first run came off the still. We had over 30 contractors on site finishing our facilities and he summoned them all over to come and taste the new make. Universally everyone responded that clove and cinnamon undertones were coming out and we decided to embrace that in all of the spirits we produce.
MALT: what are your current production levels and do you anticipate the need to expand in the near future, or do you wish to keep the current size and style of the distillery intact?
Hillrock: we recently completed an expansion of our distillery, allowing Hillrock to triple production to approximately 20,000 cases per year. Our new Copper Pot Still, Lauter Tun and Fermention Tanks were custom made in the USA by Vendome Copper & Brass and were among the last systems designed by Master Distiller Dave Pickerell prior to his passing late last year. Looking to the future, this expansion will allow us to increase distribution over the coming years both domestically and overseas while maintaining our commitment to hand-crafting the highest quality whiskies.
MALT: how important is the use and support of heirloom grains to Hillrock distillery? Is there a core group of grain types that you grow annually? Have there been any grains that have proven too difficult to grow or source to make distillate viable?
Hillrock: we control every aspect of production at Hillrock, which includes everything from growing our grain using organic principles to hand bottling our whiskey on the estate. For us, it’s extremely important to support the revival of heirloom grains which were traditionally grown in the area in the 18th/19th century. The core grains that we grow annually include non-GMO corn, wheat and barley and we continue to explore different grain varieties.
MALT: moving onto the whiskey we have today, what was the reasoning behind the implementation of the solera system?
Hillrock: just like fine wine, whiskey gains complexity over time and that is why we’ve implemented the first solera system for whiskey in the USA. Solera aging involves a pyramid of barrels where a small portion of whiskey is removed periodically from the lowest tier of barrels and an equal measure of whiskey from our nursery is added to the top tier of barrels. No barrel in the Solera is ever emptied, and over time, the older whiskey in the Solera mingles with younger whiskies to create unmatched depth and complexity.
MALT: the solera system that we’re used to in Europe often means there are batch variations and the contents are always evolving and being added to. Have you noticed any variations between releases since the release debuted in 2012, or have you strived to keep things consistent as much as possible?
Hillrock: the beauty of the Solera system is that changes occur very gradually over many years. In our Bourbon Solera, the evolution has resulted in increased complexity and depth and well as additional spice as the percentage of rye content has moved up slowly over the past 8 years.
MALT: new distilleries often source stock to launch their brand whilst waiting for their own spirit to mature. For your solera aged bourbon you married sourced with your own spirit, which was then finished in 20 year old oloroso casks – how important was it that some of your own produce was included in this recipe? Have you now been able to move towards 100% of your own liquid now, or do you have plans to do so?
Hillrock: when we set up our Bourbon Solera 8 years ago, Dave Pickerell sourced older seed bourbon which mirrored the mash bill and character of the estate bourbon we were producing. From day one, we have been adding our estate bourbon to the Solera which has gradually become the dominant element.
MALT: Hillrock has expanded its range with rye and single malt releases including a peated smoked variant. How successful have these been received by the national market which is more bourbon in appreciation? Does experimentation remain a key component of the Hillrock approach?
Hillrock: when we launched Hillrock in 2011, Single Malt was the first spirit we made. We felt that there was a strong opportunity to create a truly American Single Malt that was reflective of the unique Hudson Valley terroir. Our Single Malt has received about a half-dozen best in class awards to date, Wine Enthusiast gave us their highest rating ever (97) for the category, and our Single Malt just won “Best Whiskey” in in the Los Angeles International Competition, so someone’s liking what we’re doing. We’ve chosen to make a whiskey crafted with traditional scotch production techniques, including the use of estate grown, floor malted/peat smoked barley. We’re now releasing single malts that are five to seven years old and made with 100% estate grown/malted barley which have been aged first in new charred American oak barrels, then aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso & Pedro Ximenez (“OPX”) barrels. While the classic interpretation of single malt is still our primary focus, we’re also exploring how smoking with local peat and fruit/nut woods impacts the whiskey.
MALT: your whiskies are available on the east and west coasts of America and a limited supply has made it across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom previously – when can we expect more examples of Hillrock to be distributed internationally, or is national demand at a level where foreign markets cannot be adequately supported currently?
Hillrock: one of the major objectives of our recent expansion, was to allow us to expand distribution overseas to important markets such as London and Paris over time. For now, we are effectively allocating our limited available supply to major domestic markets.
Mark will be interested in this wee segment as each field crop is harvested and stored separately prior to being processed and malted. This showcases the terroir ethic that is becoming a buzzword in whisky currently and arguably here we have a superior American version. I’m calling it Terroir Plus. The fact that they are floor malting their very own grain is another level to what Bruichladdich and Waterford are doing right now. Yes, it is on a much smaller scale, but even so, there should be an acknowledgement to the whole concept and owning each stage of the process. Not even the mighty Springbank has its own fields, nor can Francis at Daftmill floor malt his own grain.
To make things really interesting, I dispatched a sample to our resident terroir enthusiast for his thoughts on a new discovery…
Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – Mark’s review
On the nose: fairly straight down the line fennel and cherry notes, though any sprightliness fades quickly. Caramel, wholemeal bread toast, jammy. Pencil shavings. Slightly perfumed after a while – floral notes, jasmine. Sandalwood and coconut.
In the mouth: lovely mouthcoating feel, very pleasing texture. Many of those notes from the nose follow through perfectly here: it’s mellow though. Everything is slightly distant. Caramel woodiness, with some gentle heat. Strawberry jam, a touch of Worcestershire sauce tartness. Creme Brulee. Candied fruits, rum toft. All in all well-balanced affair.
As an everyday bourbon. And I don’t mean that patronisingly, I genuinely mean there is a time and a place for a whiskey like this. It’s friendly, good fun, plenty of flavour.
Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – Jason’s review
On the nose: very wheaty with caramel and cherry soda. Digestive biscuits, wood shavings, honey, gingersnaps and faded orange. Nutty with walnuts lingering with bread dough and a meaty quality. A gentle vanilla caress,
In the mouth: pleasant, a touch flat and drying with a certain woodiness. Cherries persist and there’s a touch of alcohol on the fringes suggesting its youthful origins. There is a nice mouthfeel. Fennel, tarragon and varnish bring an unusual front of flavour followed by Szechuan pepper, rosemary and sage.
This has promise. Also, credit where it is due, as Hillrock has invested in the concept and created something that can only grow and continue to stimulate. With more releases on the horizon and potentially wider distribution; we are looking forward to further releases further down the line.
Lead image is our own and the others are kindly provided by Hillrock distillery.