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Farm to Glass and Sip to Grin

Aside from its undeniable beauty, the first thing you notice after stepping onto the grounds of Hillrock Estate Distillery is the sweet, scotchy smell. A distinct smokiness hangs in the air, begging you to try whiskey giant Dave Pickerell’s latest craft spirits. Like the very best couture, Hillrock whiskey is painstakingly difficult to make and impossible to replicate. And, as is the case with a hand-tailored getup, Hillrock whiskeys have the remarkable ability to be both highly specific and agreeable to anyone.

I had the pleasure of driving up with Danielle Eddy, Hillrock’s director of PR and spirit encyclopedia personified. After working as the PR director at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Eddy took one look at Hillrock and was instantly sold. Pulling up to the grounds after a two-hour tales-of-the-spirit swapping session, I could see why. Like the Solera aged bourbon the estate produces, the Hillrock landscape boast a purity, an allure that relies on nature rather than pretension.

Hillrock has plenty to brag about. Their “farm-to-glass” philosophy promotes on-site grain production and malting, a rarity in the world of whiskey distilleries. Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark, has his fingerprint in nearly every major American whiskey distillery. To name a few, Pickerell is currently Master Distiller at Hillrock, WhistlePig Farm, and George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon. However, despite its accolades, Hillrock’s cozy tasting room makes you feel right at home, greeting you with shelves lined with their signature Solera aged bourbon, double cask rye, and single malt whiskey.

Off the bat, I had the pleasure of meeting distiller Nicole Cardish. “We have chicks!” Eddy declared, “we have real whiskey chicks!”

Real, indeed. Distilling for Pickerell is no easy feat, yet at the tender age of 24, Cardish has a palate few will develop over a lifetime. After finding Hillrock through an online job posting, the Green Mountain College graduate went from milling grain to handling the steeping tanks. She was hired as a full time employee in January 2014. When I asked her which aspect of her job she loved the most, Nicole replied, “I love everything.” She joined me for my tasting later, ducking into the distillation room every few minutes to no doubt meticulously adjust something.

I was led through the grounds by Eddy, Cardish, and Julep, one of Hillrock’s many canine companions –check out Storm and Shadow on the Hillrock crest.

The magic starts with the malt: Hillrock claims the first American purpose-built malt house on premise at a distillery before prohibition. The grain, at this time of year barley, sits in a steeping tank before being thrown onto the floor and left at a controlled temperature and humidity for about three days. The whiskey whizzes wait for just the right amount of unipolar sprouting, raking the grain every six hours. Think a zen garden is relaxing? Upgrade to a room of combed malted barley.

Afterward, the barley is pushed down a latch where it goes directly into a kiln. Here, smokey elements, such as Scottish-imported peat, are added. At this point, the grain tastes like a healthy cereal, reminding me once again of the unadulterated nature of Hillrock’s product. The toasted grain is either stored for later or taken to the distillery, where it’s cooked according to Scottish or American standards. The Scottish method strains out the grain, whereas the American method includes it with the cooking. Either way, the mixture is fermented with yeast, producing sugar and carbon dioxide. At this point, the mixture functions as a crude, sour beer.

“We could drink it now,” Eddy pointed out, “but we don’t make beer. We make whiskey.”

Distilled in the Vendome copper pots Pickerell helped design years ago, the whiskey is separated manually through foot pedals into three sections: heads, tails, and heart: the desirable, barrel-worthy part of the whiskey. This is where a distiller’s taste is invaluable, as they decide what goes into the barrels for aging, and what goes back into the distillation process for rework.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Television or a stodgy relative may have told you otherwise, but whiskey isn’t always meant to age for decades. In fact, such a process is not only time consuming for craft distilleries trying to turn a profit, it can lead to nearly undrinkable spirits. With his casual demeanor and Pendleton wool hat, it’s plain to see why Pickerell would want to put a stop to this impractical attitude. What’s also obvious is that Pickerell’s tenacity would stop at nothing to see to it that a new method of aging would be done in the smartest way possible.

Rather than a marathon, Pickerell likens the process of aging whiskey to a relay race, with every lap adding another layer of depth to the bourbon. The first lap is extraction, pulling the whiskey in and out of the wood, the process of which is dependent on the surface area to volume ration. The second lap is reaction, the chemical play of the reactants: time, temperature, and concentration. By the third lap, the product is drinkable. In theory, complete. But the fourth lap is is vital afterthought: recovery, the removal of the product from the barrels.

The process of removing whiskey from the barrel is, ironically, called “finishing.” Finishing promotes esterification and lightens the whiskey up, adding fruity or floral notes. As Pickerell pointed out, there are, of course, many ways to promote this last touch: throwing the whiskey in a used wine barrel, adding charred fruit and nut woods. But Pickerell believes in a different philosophy. He referenced Madeleine L’engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” citing the fictional process of “tessering:” pulling two points in time together. With this visual conjured, Pickerell explains solera aging. The process works in a pyramidal structure, with rows of small barrels transferring their contents to one another after time intervals. This way, Hillrock’s solera aged bourbon contains the complexity of aged whiskey while saving time and breathing, relieving the bourbon of too much oakiness. Hillrock currently clocks their barrel number at 129, and it’s rapidly climbing to approximately 400.

But making a Solera aged bourbon in America isn’t as simple as the mechanical process, which is difficult to start with. Pickerell and the rest of the Hillrock team had to overcome hurdles with the TTB. However, nine months later, Hillrock was approved to produce and label Solera aged bourbon. They are the first distillery in the U.S. to be able to do so.

Indeed, Pickerell is a whiskey trailblazer down to the distilling equipment he employs. When asked if the equipment used to make whiskey holds the same bearing on the product as the ingredients involved, he exclaimed, “Oh heavens, yes!” He’s worked with Vendome Copper and Brass Works to design pre-engineered copper distillery equipment sold in parts, so buyers can choose from a “Chinese menu” of distillery pieces. “Some people don’t believe in copper equipment,” Pickerell pauses, choosing his words carefully, “and those people will never make good whiskey.”

With taste as discerning and specific as Pickerell’s, Hillrock’s farm-to-glass philosophy is particularly pertinent. What better way to guarantee a good product than when everything is under your nose? Save for the Scottish-imported peat, Hillrock’s resources are its own. Jeffrey Baker, Hillrock’s owner and financier to boot, grew up working on farms and has been a driving force in the farm-to-table movement.

“My whole love of farming led me to think that it was time to create a real mesh between farming and distilling again. I was amazed no one was doing it. But the fun part was the collaboration between all of us. The combination of my architectural background and Dave’s knowledge of building distilleries made it all came together. We’re happy to see that it actually worked, and that people are excited it about it.”

Indeed, since opening up their doors, Hillrock’s whiskeys have picked up numerous awards, including Best Spirit award at the 2nd Annual Spirit of the Americas competition. Eddy noted that at it’s always easy to identify the whiskey preferences of the judges at various competitions depending on which Hillrock product brings home which medal. “If the rye gets the gold, then the single malt gets the silver. But they always win something.”

The Hillrock team predicts that craft distilling and farm-to-glass methods are fixing to skyrocket. As has been the case with New York’s proliferation of cocktail bars, they predict only the top distilleries will stick it out, Eddy coining the process “spiritual Darwinism.” Whether other distilleries will be able to tackle Solera aged bourbon remains to be seen, but Baker predicts craft distilling opportunities golden as bourbon will arise. “Just look at us. We’re tiny, and there’s been plenty of room for us.”

Let’s raise our glasses to whiskey dreams.

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