|Distiller Tim Welly adjusts a valve on the new still at Hillrock Estates Distillery.
ANCRAM — The newest distillery in New York State ran off its first batch of whiskey Tuesday, a single malt made from grain grown on Hillrock Farms, home of what will become Hillrock Estates Distillery spirits. The event came about two weeks later than planned, delayed until power was restored to this storm-ravaged area.
With master distiller Dave Pickerell guiding the operation, he and Hillrock owner Jeff Baker and distiller Tim Welly tweaked the new Pickerell-designed still to achieve the desired alcohol level that quickly resulted in a run of full-flavored white spirit that will be put into new wood barrels later in the week, thus beginning the maturation process.
As I wandered about, photographing the day’s activities, I couldn’t help but compare the tableau to one several weeks ago when Pickerell headed up a distilling session I attended at George Washington’s rebuilt Mount Vernon, VA, distillery.
As I observed then, in the circa-1799 distillery “The air was a thick stew of humidity, dust motes, cool water, fruit flies and the occasional spark from kindling wood being stoked in the brick ovens below the copper pot stills.”
|Distillery owner Jeff Baker checks the process.
Here, in a state-of-the-art facility that came to fruition in less than a year from concept to equipment installation, a lonely honeybee was the only intruder.
A cool breeze wafted through the pastel-walled interior, mixing with the sweet familiar smell of fermenting grain; hoses, gaskets and metal fermentation tanks smacking of modern technology; gleaming copper and polished brass shining on the two-story still and the adjacent mash tun made to order at the Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, KY. It’s an apparatus that is a thing of beauty as stills go.
“Jeff told me he wanted the best design he could get,” Pickerell explained, “then when it was finished he said ‘Now make it pretty.’ I think we did.”
Despite the modern technological rendering of an age-old process, it still has all the appearances of wizardry and magic when the clear distillate trickles from the still into the receiving container.
“It is a kind of magic, isn’t it?” said Pickerell. “I like to tell people I’m a modern alchemist. I turn grain into gold.”
|Dave Pickerell adds milled grain to the mash tun.
The distillery was the dream of Baker, an executive managing director of Savills LLC, a New York City real estate investment banking firm. In a 25-year career, he completed more than $12 billion in transactions for such clients as Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Price Waterhouse.
Baker obviously thinks big in all things.
He purchased this 100-acre Columbia County farm, and a nearby 100-acre plot, a decade ago and has been biding his time as the land rebounded from chemicals used by prior owners.
He now has an eye on having his farm certified organic, part of his support of the farm-to-table movement that has taken hold in the Hudson Valley.
He had a colonial-style house dismantled and transported from Washington County to be reassembled on a hilltop here.
He is planning to make the distillery visitor-friendly in the foreseeable future, with the ability to host 40-person dinners, as well as offering an outdoor patio, a tasting room, and an interior replete with colonial-style lamps such as those he already has suspended over the new still.
“I’m not sure exactly when we’ll open to the public,” Baker said, “but we’re not too far away from completing the interior rooms.”
Go here for a photo album of the day’s scenes.
An adjacent malt house is under construction and should be completed by about year’s end. That will allow Hillrock to handle its own grain malting rather than having it done off-premises as is the current arrangement. Once that is done, it will mean a fully on-premises field-to-bottle operation.
Welly, who had been cellar master at Millbrook Winery in Dutchess County before joining Hillrock this year, is head of operations and the distiller now, with Pickerell as the consultant. He’s a veteran of the restaurant and wine industry in sales, distribution and as a buyer. As part of the transition to distilling, he has been working under Pickerell and right up to the last minute today was busily making notes on a yellow legal pad seldom far from his reach.
Pickerell, an industry superstar and former Maker’s Mark master distiller, has a busy consulting business with craft distilleries around the country, juggling 20 of them right now. The former Army officer and West Point faculty member is the managing member and senior consultant with Oak View Consulting in Mt. Washington, KY.
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