Co-owner Cathy Franklin tells me over the phone that Hillrock Estate, the distillery she runs with her husband, Jeffrey Baker, is like their “fourth child.” And when I arrive at the picture-perfect estate and facilities, I can feel the love in the air. I accidentally enter through the distillery operation, and the alluring smell of fresh mash is in the air, too. Jeffrey, a successful investment banker and trained architect, and Cathy, a leading realtor with The Corcoran Group in New York City, have always held a keen fascination for craft, sustainable agriculture.
Jeffrey was raised on a farm in Western New York state, and despite his Wall Street success, the farm boy was never bred out of him. The family owned a sustainable dairy farm in Vermont, which they converted to one of the first grass-fed Angus beef operations in the area. They owned a restaurant in Saratoga Springs (specifically “Hattie’s,” an elevated soul food establishment that is something of a local legend). They moved to Ancram, New York, on the eastern shore of the Mid-Hudson Valley, in 2000—making the stunning decision to relocate, piece by piece, an 1806 farmhouse built near Saratoga by a Revolutionary War captain to a commanding hilltop at the new property. That captain was also a grain farmer, and that planted the seed, pun intended, for a distillery operation. In 2010, Hillrock Estate Distillery was born.
“In the 18th and 19th century, New York was the country’s bread basket, producing as much as half of its barley and rye,” Jeffrey tells me. “Wherever you have a lot of grain growing, you have grist mills. And where you have grist mills, you have distilling. There were a multitude of local distillers in this area, but they all disappeared during Prohibition. We wanted to re-introduce the idea of local terroir to the whisky business, like wine. The idea was ‘field-to-glass.’”
Just taking a chance, they contacted master distiller David Pickerell, who had just departed a successful 14-year run at Maker’s Mark in Kentucky. Ideas gelled, plans were made, and the rest is history. Pickerell agreed that terroir was the future of whisky, and his own expertise, insights, and inventiveness synced with Hillrock’s ideas. Jeffrey’s training as an architect came into play, and the distillery was created in a matter of months. Distilling operations started in 2011.
Between acreage at the estate and additional acres within a 10 to 15 mile radius, Hillrock grows and controls 100% of their grain needs (barley, wheat, rye and corn). The operation was the first in the country since Prohibition to use a traditional malting floor. About of ton of grain is spread out in the malting room, raked like a Zen garden, and allowed to germinate naturally before being moved into a lower chamber for fruitwood- (or peat- in the case of the singe-malt product) smoking, kilning, and additional sugar releasing.
A Strong Finish
One thing to bear in mind is that nearly every Hillrock Estate product receives a final kiss of cask finishing, in ex-sherry, sauternes, or cabernet vessels. And that information doesn’t appear on the standard engraved bottle. Those details can be found, rather, on a signed side label, almost like a book spine. In fact, the overall design of the gorgeous jewel-cut bottle was to allow collectors to display their Hillrocks sideways on a shelf, referencing the side labels to make their selection.
Here are some notes on the distillery’s extraordinary primary offerings (all start at about $99, with slight variations for special cask-finished versions):
Solera Aged Bourbon
Be advised that Hillrock’s Solera Aged offering is almost a double entendre. The distiller ages the bourbon base spirit using the solera casking method, wherein spirits are aged in a set of barrels, portions of the aged spirits are then decanted into new barrels, the space is filled with younger distillates, and that process is repeated over several phases. But no barrel is completely emptied, so you have a constant intermingling of older and newer spirits. In addition, that final product can also be finished in heritage sherry casks that were used in the original sherry’s own solera process. Again, the side label gives the details on the exact finishing note you’ll taste.
Double Cask Rye Whiskey
A 100% rye distillate is barreled in #3 charred oak barrels and then moved to #4 charred barrels for a secondary aging after two years of primary barreling. The differing levels of smoke vs. wood flavors created by the barrel switch produces a very unique balance, but that only serves to enhance the rye’s natural peppery notes and create an appealingly darker hue than many ryes. Hillrock has produced a malted-rye version of this spirit (regrettably, it is sold out) and also finishes their rye products in a variety of sherry and wine casks for an added bump of flavor. Consult the side label for the specifics.
Single Malt Whiskey
During my visit, production was pivoting to Hillrock’s 100% barley single-malt (e.g. scotch you can’t call scotch). Their distilling machinery was converted to traditional scotch-style production, and open fermentation tanks were bubbling away with brew. I was offered a sip of some just-mashed barley and was struck by the clarity of its sweetness, as well as grain and botanical notes of something like breakfast cereal, with a bit of the reedy sugariness of fresh maple juice used for syrup production. The final product, most of which is released after a six-year barreling, is also often finished in a variety of wine and sherry casks. That final finishing note, in conjunction with a gorgeous peatiness from imported Scottish smoking fodder (introduced after traditional floor malting), can create a variety of flavor experiences. But the base malt spirit stands decidedly front-and-center, and is quite excellent, even at a relatively young age.
On the Horizon
Dave Pickerell passed away in 2018. But production at Hillrock, under his exacting specifications and lingering inspiration, has only increased and grown since then. Jeffrey and Cathy have big plans for the operation, but they don’t include selling it. “I think people have a natural aversion to a beloved product that starts cutting corners,” Jeffrey tells me. “We want to pass this kick-ass business on to our children.”
Current volume is about 240,000 bottles a year, which routinely sell out. Hillrock products are available in about 16 states currently, but there are plans afoot in this area also. “We’re currently releasing just a portion of what we produce,” Jeffrey says. “We are reserving the lion share of our spirits production for additional aging. When those expressions start getting released, it will be another big chapter in our story.”