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. 

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