The SOMM Journal

October / November 2015

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26 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2015 { craftwatch } TERROIR IN WHISKEY? ESTATE-GROWN grain? Who does Jeff Baker think he is—a Piedmont prince? No, but this sometime gentleman farmer and real estate investment banker saw that the path to differentiating his Hillrock Estate Distillery from the rest of the crowded whiskey category lay in the land. The boutique craft spirits boom in the United States has been nothing short of epic. Ten years ago, there were 50 craft distilleries; today, there are over 600 distilleries who fill the current bill of the current definition of craft (according to the American Distilling Institute, those producing less than 100,000 proof gallons of spirit annually). New York, in particular, has seen intensely fast growth of new, bright-eyed, barley-tailed fledgling distillers, to the point where you'd think they were giving the grain away. And popularity of whiskey shot up 7.4% in 2014. So how in the name of Booker Noe does a new distiller differentiate himself or herself? To Baker, the answer was clear : become the first modern distillery in the country to grow its own grains on its own land. A wine geek by nature, Baker took the estate winery concept and applied it to his fledgling whiskey business. And when he began the search for a like-minded Master Distiller to bring his idea to life, one name kept coming up over and over : Dave Pickerell. An in-demand Master Distiller who ushered Maker's Mark into the mod - ern era during his 14-year tenure there, Pickerell yearned to express the idea of terroir in spirits. "He was the only person in the industry talking about whiskey's histori- cal connection to local places," Baker says. When he came across Pickerell's ground- breaking article written on the terroir of grains in whiskey, Baker knew he'd found his man. The two immediately began the work of creating the country's first field- to-flask operation, planting over 100 acres of organically farmed barley and rye, and sourcing the same in corn from a nearby grower in Ancram, NY, in the Hudson Valley, where Hillrock is located in a Georgian- style house built in 1806. Baker also had an on-premise malt house built to process his barley in Ancram. In 2011, Hillrock kicked off with a still, custom-designed to Pickerell's specifica - tions, by the famed Vendome Copper & Brassworks in Kentucky. To get their bottles to market in a year—record time in the life of a whiskey, which normally lingers for several years before being released to the world—Pickerell procured a small amount of "seed" whiskey (already aged bourbon from another producer that met his stan - dards) and then used smaller barrels to age what he had made himself. In another first in the whiskey world, he borrowed the idea of the solera system from the Sherry world, mingling older whiskey with younger, along with smaller-sized barrels, all in an effort to speed up the aging process in order to launch their first product to market within a quick year. The result: the aptly named Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Pickerell has been fawned over with all the solera copycats that have popped up since. Today, Hillrock—which began by making around 5,000 9-liter cases—is poised to double production. Pickerell is still coming up with new ideas, experimenting with dif - ferent saturations of his peat-smoked single malt: to date, he has created an eight- 14, and 24-hour smoked version. He is also trying out different barrel "finishes" for his rye—that is, after spending several years in new American oak, the whiskey is moved to spend its final days in Port or Madeira barrels to meld those flavors and aromas into the final product. And that New York estate grain? Yeah, you can taste it. Pickerell insists that Hillrock's whiskeys have a distinctive cinnamon note, along with other baking-spice accents as well. More than the thumbprint of Baker's land, though, the two men are excited about ushering in a new era of whiskey—one that actually started long, long ago: "Remember, in the early 1800s, New York State was growing two-thirds of the barley for the whole country. It had a real tradition," says Baker of the logic of New York–grown and distilled spirits. "Kentucky as a center for bourbon is not really an issue. And I don't want to move to Kentucky, anyway." NEW YORK STATE'S HILLROCK ESTATE DISTILLERY GOES FOR TERROIR IN WHISKEY by Amy Zavatto From Field to Flask The range of Hillrock whiskeys: Solera Aged Bourbon, Single Malt Whiskey, Double Cask Rye and an Estate Edition George Washington Rye, based on George Washington's original recipe and made with rye grown at Hillrock Estate. PHOTO COURTESY OF HILLROCK ESTATE PHOTO COURTESY OF HILLROCK ESTATE The team (left to right): founder Jeff Baker, Master Distiller Dave Pickerell and Tim Welly, Assistant Distiller and Head of Operations.

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