If Upstate New York's Hillrock Estate Distillery is following a "We're No. 2, so we try harder" strategy ala the old Avis car rental promotions, the innovative whiskey maker is making a forceful statement this month with the release of two—count 'em two—new whiskeys.
The first is a single-malt barley with a strong terroir positioning that places Hillrock firmly in the pantheon of Hudson Valley craft distillers, alongside the ground-breaking Tuthilltown Spirits, which makes Hudson Bourbon. The second is an unaged rye that Hillrock makes in partnership with Mount Vernon to expand production of a whiskey created in style of George Washington's 18th century stills.
Hillrock will also celebrate the launches with an open house from noon to 5 p.m. at the Ancram, N.Y., facility on Saturday, June 15, with the master distiller David Pickerell in attendance for discussing the whiskeys and signing bottles.
Pickerell, who also runs programs for a number of other microdistilleries, has been a major proponent of the importance of terroir (the unique signature that the soil and climate conditions of a locality gives to a product) in this age of craft whiskeys. Hillrock Estate Distillery Single Malt Whiskey is certainly an exemplar of his "field to glass" ethic. All the whiskey's barley comes from the 100-acre Hillrock Farm two hours north of New York City, where it is also malted, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled.
Somewhat akin to a Scotch malt whisky, Hillrock Single Malt employs the traditional on-site, floor-malting method, which has all but disappeared even in Scotland itself. The facility also uses specially designed pot stills. However, unlike most Scotch whiskies, the barley is not peat smoked. (For now at least. Hillrock, which released the world's first solera-aged Bourbon in October, plans smoked whiskeys for the future, using both locally harvested and imported Scottish peat as well as fruit and nut woods.) The Hillrock Single Malt, which gives no age statement, also enjoys a finish in Olorosso Sherry casks.
The second new Hillrock release is George Washington's Rye Whiskey—Estate Edition, a replica of a whiskey that was itself already a replica. In 2007, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which maintains the former home of our first president, began a project to refurbish the distillery that Washington ran on his estate more than 200 years ago.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and Pickerell (as master distiller) worked in conjunction with a number of the master distillers from major U.S. whiskey companies. In 2009, the first samples of rye whiskey patterned after the spirit that Washington made began to flow from the Mount Vernon stills.
Washington's operation, at a peak of 11,000 gallons a year, was probably the most productive still house of its time. Nevertheless, the output of the five stills—tiny by today's standards and working only seasonally—is hardly enough to keep up with demand. To increase production and make the experience available to more whiskey enthusiasts, Mount Vernon now partners with Hillrock to recreate the whiskey in New York State.
Pickerell uses the same grain recipe, and a small amount of the rye made at Mount Vernon is added to each batch. The mash bill (60 percent rye, 45 percent corn, 5 percent barley) was determined by an analysis of whiskey actually made by Washington, says Pickerell. As the whiskey is unaged, it is rather raw in comparison to whiskeys that have been matured in wood. Nevertheless, it has a clean, slightly fruity and crisp character.
The Estate Edition, at 86 proof, will initially sell in New York and Chicago at a suggested retail price of $70 for a 375 ml bottle. The Limited Edition, made at Mount Vernon, went on sale at the presidential estate in April at $95. A portion of the proceeds support educational efforts at Mount Vernon.
Hillrock Estate Distillery Single Malt Whiskey (96.4 proof, or 48.2 alcohol by volume; no age statement; $125 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: A light amber color with a lemony quality. It comes down off the glass in slow fat legs.
NOSE: The aroma starts out bready and yeasty with a bit of a Tequila note, then gets rounder and heartier before turning to honey and fruit with a touch of lemon.
PALATE: While it comes off quite spicy and rye-like in the mouth, it is a bit more pungent, with autumnal spices, cinnamon, eucalyptus, juniper and cloves.
FINISH: It seems to snap to a finish, but opens up again with the return of that Tequila note present on the nose. A novel whiskey experience.
CIGAR PAIRING: Daniel Marshall DM2 Red Label Torpedo (6 1/4 inches by 54 ring gauge, $8.90, 89 Points, February 12, 2013 Cigar Insider).
Hints of chocolate, nougat and roasted nuts come through this veiny smoke, though the draw was notably firm. The herbal finish lingers on the palate. The Hillrock beelines for the cigars cocoa quality, accentuating that as well as the nuttiest. The Daniel Marshall in turn calls out the fruit found on the whiskey's nose. Berries as well as sweet lemon arise. A very friendly partnership.
Ashton Sun Grown Pegasus (5 inches by 54 ring gauge, $11, 90 points, April 2013 Cigar Aficionado).
This dark, oily cigar is bold and strong with woody notes that take on a bit of salty leather and spice. The draw is lush and substantial. The whiskey tames the charcoal taste of the Sun Grown, eliciting the leather and spice, and turning out a saffron note that lasts on and on. The cigar makes the single malt spicier in turn with a bit white pepper. Another successful pairing.