Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Visit to Hillrock Distillery

There are days when my life definitely doesn't suck.

Last Tuesday, May 22nd, was one of them.

I was introduced to Hillrock head of marketing Danielle Eddy at Pegu Club during Manhattan Cocktail Classic at the Women Behind Bars seminar. She presented me with what appeared to be this mini perfume bottle, which turned out to contain the first solera aged Bourbon made in the USA, produced at Hillrock Distillery in the Hudson Valley. I was very intrigued. After some follow up, it turned out she was arranging trips for spirits professionals to tour the distillery in Ancram, New York the following week. Hired cars with door to door service. Dinner was involved too. Would I like to go? 

Hey, is whiskey wet when the Pope, a bear and a one-legged duck drink it in the woods? 

That Tuesday, our amazing, kind and patient driver, Jones, picked Stephanie and me up in Brooklyn on the way to the other four daytrippers scattered around Manhattan. We had chosen the 80s pop station on Sirius radio to play us out of Brooklyn, and Eddie Grant's "Electric Avenue" provided the perfect soundtrack to rev us up for the day. The fun continued as we picked up USBG (United States Bartenders' Guild) NY chapter VP Marshall Altier and headed west. Publicist and writer Cynthia Parsons McDaniel was next, then Louis 649 owner Zach Sharaga and finally Inside F and B founder Francine Cohen. We were off! 

Though it was a cool, cloudy and wet day, it felt great to finally experience some country scenery after so many months stuck in the city. When we were nearly at our destination, we noticed two lawn chairs sitting on the hill, which to me set a sweet tone for the rest of the afternoon. (We later learned they belong to a local couple known by all as "Chuck and Chuck.")

The distillery is halfway up an impressive hill (hence the "Hillrock"). The founder, Jeff Baker, actually lives on site with his wife, Cathy, in a stylish colonial house a little way's up. We gathered there on the porch before our tour began, and were greeted by Storm (he's the gray one) and Shadow, the regal Australian sheep dogs that not only preside there, but actually appear on the crest of Hillrock's logo. 

First was a visit to the malting chamber, where barley was spread out to begin its long journey. I've toured distilleries before, but this was the first time I actually saw the process. First hand. 

Then we had a look at the stills and mash bins.

We all got to sample the new make as it passed through. It's like a grown up version of tasting from the chocolate river in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! (In our case, we had their full blessing to "touch with human hands." Hey, all that alcohol kills any germs, folks. That's me with Head of Ops Tim Welly, Cynthia in the background.)

I'm excited about the solera Bourbon, aged the same way as certain sherries, with younger whiskey added to older ones to age together and slightly oxidize. Genius idea and some pretty fabulous juice! This is Master Distiller Dave Pickerell (you might remember him from such whiskies as Maker's Mark) taking a sample from the solera. 

We sat down to taste the first two Hillrock products that will hit the market later this summer, the aforementioned Solera and their Single Malt, both excellent and shining examples of American craft distilling made with careful attention to detail. I've mentioned in my articles that although I want to support craft products, too many producers are impatient to see their brand on shelves and start to turn a profit. Thus they don't age their spirits long enough or cut too many corners in the process. This is not the case here. Was especially delicious paired with local foie gras and cheeses.

One of their fun packaging ideas is to sell the single malt directly in a 3 or 5 liter mini barrel with a tap on it. This gives the customer the option to further age and develop the spirit as they store it. Great idea for bars and restaurants, especially.

After our tasting, we went back up to the house where a three-course, chef-prepared meal of local goodies awaited us: spring pea and mint soup, roast beef and veggies with savory Hillrock sauce and bread putting with sweeter Hillrock sauce. All of this washed down with good 1996 Bordeaux, which we brought more of out onto the porch to sip and chat.

There's me with (L-R) Hillrock owner Jeff Baker, Cynthia Parsons McDaniel and Zach Sharaga.

Then, suddenly, as if a planned grand finale had been art directed with the Disney special effects department, the sky began to change, then change back again, resulting in an unbelievable double rainbow over the grain fields!

But soon the rains came in and it was time to head back into the city. Jones still had a long night ahead of him delivering us all back safely.

Behind every great distillery is a great dog, and Hillrock has the fortune to have two of them. Here they are standing guard in front of the house as the clouds rolled in.

Thanks to Danielle, Dave, Tim and especially Jeff and Cathy for such a fantastic and generous experience. Can't wait to see Hillrock Whiskey evolve in all the exciting and creative directions they have in store. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Going Pink

I've never been much of a pink girly girl. Even when I was very young, my wearing pink phase lasted like five days, and from there I was always drawn to darker, less bright colors. Until now, I never allowed my reds to swing brighter than a muted coral.

But suddenly I'm all about the pink.

What is happening to me?

I recently wrote an article on Lillet Rosé, a juicy pink treat from the classic French apéritif producer. This is pretty great stuff, folks. It's not just me drinking the Aid de Frais. I'm pretty sure this is the rosey culprit. It matches this weather perfectly. One of the things I love about it, besides the lip-smacking flavor, is since it's slightly fortified, I can keep a bottle around to sip from when the mood strikes. Much as I adore rosé vino in the warmer seasons, these days it can be hard to commit to opening a full bottle if I want to be sure to get my money's worth (cheap Jew on a budget that I am.)

Well, this week has sure been up and down. Great highs during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (above is the Iroquois #2 from Hotel Bars Past and Present at Lantern's Keep) on the weekend and earlier in the week. But once the schmoozing and stunt-drinking ended, and my liver had a moment to stretch, it was back to real life. This means back to chores, chasing paychecks and trying to get some sort of handle on the eternal mystery of the opposite sex.

After all that drinking, I needed a drink.

But just a wee one.

So having finally perfected my oven fried chicken (hint: use an egg wash, flour AND panko, and make sure the baking pan is already hot and sizzling when you add the chicken) after a long day of the above mentioned, I decided to reward myself with just a little of a something. Luckily I had a bottle of just the stuff in my fridge.


I'm thinking I need to find a pink dress to match.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Support the Rack!

Speed Rack, it's cocktails for the boobies!

Last Thursday night were the finals of the competition, which promotes female bartenders from top cocktail spots across the nation and raises funds for breast cancer awareness. The event was founded by   libation angels Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails) NYC. There were four judges, cocktail industry dignitaries Dale Degroff, Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders, as well as celebrity chef Amanda Freitag. In each round, the competitors, all regional finalists, raced to execute four different cocktails (taken from a list of 50 standard recipes), one chosen by each judge. The bartender who makes them the fastest and most complete in flavor and overall execution (don't forget your garnishes, ladies) wins the round. Our winsome MCs for the evening were top industry personalities Simon Ford and Chris Patino. And let's not forget the tireless barbacking duties shared by some of NYC's finest, such as Michael Neff of Ward III and Rum House and the lovely Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero themselves. 

While the competition is the main event, there's lots happening on the sidelines. This year it took place at the Prince George Ballroom in Murray Hill, which is big enough to allow for several brand-sponsored cocktail booths surrounding the stage. Money is raised through entry fees as well as the selling of raffle tickets, t-shirts and other merch. Here I am getting my rack's worth of raffle tickets.

The brand representatives were definitely an enthusiastic bunch. Here are the ladies of Lillet in their roller derby finest, worn the whole night (all five hours + !) with smiles to match. That's William Grant brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey and Lillet ambassador Amanda Boccato standing. 

This was fun, but also quite the feat of endurance for all involved. It took seven rounds (four regular, two semifinals and one final) in over five hours, including over an hour of preliminary face-offs. Lots of booze to be had, but sadly no water except the one fountain or some plain Perrier (if you asked those making spritzy drinks nicely.) Small bites were provided by Viktor and Spoils and Pies n Thighs, though we could probably have done with more snacks. We even experienced a toilet paper and hand towel emergency. So for those of us who stuck it all the way through, it was as though we were living in an alcoholic version of desert island survival - booze, booze everywhere, but not a drop to drink! At one point, beer was our best source of nourishment.

Still, we happily made it through. In the end, it was down to two feisty ladies from Houston in first and second place respectively: Yael Vengroff of Fitgerald's (though she was one of NYC's own for a while) and Alba Huerta from Anvil and Refuge. 

They say everyone's a winner, but in this case, it was truer than ever. I was tired from watching the event. So I can only imagine how hard everyone worked as competitors, barbacks, judges (that's a lot of cocktail to evaluate!), MCs, promoters, ambassadors, food vendors and everyone working the merchandise and check in. You were all amazing. We thank you from the bottom of our busts!