Hillrock Estate Distillery

This weekend, Debbie and I escaped to the Litchfield Hills in northwestern Connecticut for a one night getaway. We hadn’t been out that way in quite some time, so it was a thrill to see the beautiful countryside during our favorite month of October. We stayed at the Interlaken Inn in Lakeville. It was a short trip, but we packed it full of fun.

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We only had a loose agenda. When we checked in at the hotel lobby, I picked up a flyer for Hillrock Estate Distillery. I had never heard of Hillrock, but it was located in Ancram, New York, about 25 minutes away. We checked out the website on my iPhone and called them to see if they were doing tours. No one answered, so I left a message, but as soon as I hung up, they called back. I learned that they do tours on Saturday’s by appointment, which was perfect for us. We booked our tour for 4:30 later in the afternoon.

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Debbie isn’t a whiskey drinker like me, but she appreciates farming and the distillery was located at Hillrock Farm in the “bread basket” of Hudson River Valley. The drive to Ancram was beautiful. The weather was perfect for an October afternoon. The foliage was probably just past peak, but it was still stunning. It has been a great year in the northeast for colorful leaves. We arrived at the farm shortly after 4:00, which was earlier than expected, and were greeted by Tyler, who was our guide.

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Tyler is a Gung ho 22-year old former plumber who hooked up with the Hillrock team while working on the facilities with is father’s plumbing and contracting firm. He is learning the whiskey craft from master distiller, Dave Pickerell. Pickerell consults for several craft distillers, including Hillrock. Over the course of 110 minutes, Tyler gave an excellent tour. Clearly, he has learned a lot about whiskey in the past 12 months.

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Hillrock is unique because they are a complete “field-to-glass” distiller. They grow most of their ingredients on their owned or leased land. That includes the rye and corn. I gathered that one of the key (and only) items that they import, is the peat for their smoking process. That comes from Scotland. Everything about Hillrock’s process appears to be well though out. The facilities were purpose-built for this task.

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Their website tells the story better than I could, and in three paragraphs:

In the early 1800’s, New York produced more than half the young nation’s Barley and Rye and the Hudson Valley was the country’s breadbasket. With abundant high quality grain, local craft spirits flourished and over 1000 farm distilleries produced Whiskey and Gin reflecting the unique terroir of the region. In the 1930’s, Prohibition forced these distilleries to shut their doors and this wellspring of American spirits was left dry.

Hillrock Estate Distillery is changing this. Our mission is to produce the finest hand-crafted spirits made with our own grain, floor malted, craft distilled in our copper pot still, aged in fine oak and hand bottled at our estate in the Hudson Valley Highlands. Crowned by a fine 1806 Georgian house built by a successful grain merchant and Revolutionary War Captain and meticulously restored to its original beauty, Hillrock Distillery overlooks our rolling barley fields and the distant Berkshire Mountains. Like our premier spirits, every detail refined, no expense spared, quality steeped in the tradition of 200 years of rich history.

Hillrock is proud to be one of the few “field-to-glass” whiskey producers in the world and the first USA distillery since before Prohibition to floor malt and hand craft whiskey on site from estate grown grain. Hillrock’s commitment to quality embodies the rich history of artisanal distilling in the Hudson Valley. By controlling every aspect of production from planting & harvesting heirloom grains, to smoking our malt, to crafting whiskies in our copper pot still, to aging in small oak barrels and hand bottling, we are able to create the highest quality whiskies reflecting the unique local terroir.

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I love a good business story like this, and I love a good shop tour. I enjoy start ups, marketing, organic farming, old school technology, mechanics, craftsmanship, chemistry, the environment, and history. This little business has it all. Oh, and I love whiskey, which they have in a big time way! I learned that the founder/owner, Jeff Baker, has done well in a variety of farming, restaurant, and real estate ventures. He manages a New York City based real estate investment firm. I learned that he studied architecture and that skill was handy when designing Hillrock’s facilities. There is a large farmhouse on the property that has historical value. We were told that it was moved from its original location to Hillrock and then restored.

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The tour started with just the two of us, which was great. Then, like out of a movie, five minutes after Tyler started his spiel, a limousine pulled up and 11 people climbed out. The group was a mix of men and women, and judging how they were dressed, they came straight from a chic part of Manhattan. We soon confirmed where their trip originated, and we were right. It was kind of funny. They spilled out of the car and then joined us. Tyler was patient, so we gave them a few minutes to sort themselves out. They had made tour reservations earlier in the week.

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25 minutes later, before we had even left the building where the rye is malted, the group of Manhattanites decided that they had enough. They said good-bye, piled back into the limo, and drove off down the dirt driveway, leaving Debbie, Tyler, and me to ourselves. We were happy to regain our private tour and it was even better that it was the end of the day. We had a blast. We got a crash course in whiskey making, and I’m ready to go back to learn more. Tyler was assisted by Lauren, the Distillery and Sales Manager. She was covering for him in the still room while he was with us.

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We learned how they harvest the grains. In one building we saw the floor malting process and the smoking/drying process. We checked out the kiln and got to handle the different grains and the peat. We saw where they age the barrels. Back in the main building, we spent a lot of time checking out the still. We learned about “happy yeast” and the other nuances of the craft. We watched Lauren use a refractometer. We learned that their barrels are made by local coopers. The copper still was manufactured by a Kentucky firm. The quality of the water is critical to making good whiskey. Hillrock taps into an aquifer that supplies that key ingredient used throughout the process.

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We moved from the still room to the tasting room, which was pretty cool. I was imagining holding a private event on the premises, though they said that they haven’t done that at the young venture. I think they started in 2011, but have really just got their production going in the past few years. They are only distributed in New York and a few other states. I’ve got an idea on how to bring them to Connecticut. They make three types of whiskey: Solera Aged Bourbon, Estate Single Malt, and Estate Rye. They also distill George Washington Rye Whiskey for the folks at Mount Vernon. It was interesting to learn about Solera. After the process was described, Debbie likened it to sourdough bread. The idea is that each batch of bourbon has a bit of the original batch in it.

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We got to try all four whiskeys while standing at the whiskey bar. It was a fun end to a great tour. Tyler and Lauren worked their magic on us because we left there with four bottles, an empty five liter barrel, an empty 25 gallon barrel, and smiles on our faces. After we loaded the barrels in our Subaru, we headed back towards Millerton as the sun was setting. The farms and foliage were picturesque. It was a very cool afternoon. Lauren had given us a solid restaurant reference, and it worked out great. We dined at Serevan in Amenia. The location, the ambience, and the food were fantastic.

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Chef Serge Madikian had several dishes that worked for our vegan/vegetarian diets. We were fortunate that they were able to get us a table without reservations because after we were there for 30 minutes, the place filled up. Chef checked on us several times, which was welcome. The restaurant was founded in 2006, and it was great to see them going strong in 2014, which is saying a lot. Restaurants come and go, but Serevan looks to be a solid establishment. We had a great meal. It was fitting that behind the bar, a bottle of Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon was dead center on the counter. It stood out from all the other bottles.

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