Stretching along 100 acres of sloping farmland, Hillrock Estate Distillery produces some of the finest whiskies to come from the Hudson Valley, the entire state of New York, and arguably the country. Beyond this plot in the town of Ancram (which houses the distillery, barrel house, visitor center and an elegant Georgian home dating back to 1806), Hillrock owns and leases another 850 acres nearby—a move that allows them to grow all their own barley, rye and corn. This unique position, reminiscent of the region’s historic grain-producing roots, means that the brand has control over the final product. And all of this is visible to anyone willing to trek the 90 or so miles north of NYC to see it for themselves—and taste some of the limited edition tipples Hillrock keeps on site.
Hillrock opened its doors in 2011 and, while their tasting room is the best place to conclude a visit, their portfolio of award-winning whiskies is the best place to start when understanding the vision of founder and owner Jeff Baker and the late Dave Pickerell, their master distiller. (Pickerell, one of the most recognizable and awarded names in the industry, spent 14 years at Maker’s Mark and later contributed to the development of WhistlePig.) Baker and Pickerell successfully imagined a range of spirits true to the farm’s local values, but certain to appeal to the palates of modern, international whiskey consumers.
Hillrock’s workhorse is their Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey which receives finishing in 20-year-old ex-Oloroso sherry barrels. The 92.6-proof product epitomizes the values of today’s artisan New York whiskies: complex, caramel-forward and utterly delicious. Hillrock’s Estate Single Malt Whiskey and Estate Rye both embody the nuances of the brand’s specific growing, production and aging methods—as well as the diversity of barrels they use from around the world. There are no weak spots in the portfolio.
This also goes back to their incredibly specific processes. After harvesting the heirloom grains, the Hillrock team does something that hadn’t been done in US distilleries since before Prohibition: they malt their wheat on the floor of a dedicated malt house. For three or four days, steeped grain is spread out, turned over and raked. This maintains control over germination, and ultimately sugars. Perhaps shockingly, Hillrock’s team then dries the grain with fruitwood smoke or peat to add complexity. Rarely do US-based distilleries import peat, known best for its role in smoky Scotch whiskies.
From malting to mashing, the process continues into Hillrock’s 250-gallon copper pot still for distillation. All aging then takes place on-site, in barrels ranging from port to Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez to virgin American oak. A unique pyramid-like process lends the Solera Aged Bourbon its name. Every step is carefully monitored, all the way to the hand-bottling.
In the facility, a gentle peated scent lingers in certain rooms. Attentive staff members shift components from one stage to another—careful to preserve every drop of liquid. And all of this is engulfed by the idyllic nature of the Hudson Valley. The Berkshires rise, visibly, in the distance. Baker and his dog stroll along the property, too. When joining them, and Baker’s wife Cathy Franklin, it becomes clear just how they are able to produce world-class whiskies here: they honor the heritage of their region with passion and precision, all while incorporating the best attributes from the ever-developing world of distillation.
Hillrock’s core range is available online at New York Craft Spirits, where bottle pricing begins at $87. Though there’s nothing like a distillery visit, complete with a tour and tasting. On location, Hillrock stocks many covetable limited releases that employ experimental finishes.
Hero image courtesy of Hillrock Estate Distillery