Columbia County's Craft Distilling Renaissance
New York’s craft-distilling scene is booming. Here are a few ways
to spice up your spirit knowledge while tasting delicious cocktails made
from Columbia County’s local, farm-raised grain.
By Erin Carden
Before the Industrial Revolution transformed America in the late 19th century, most Hudson Valley Americans knew where their food came from—they prepared it with their own hands and followed every part of its journey from farm to fork. Fast forward two hundred years to 2021, where we are deep into a renewed interest in this early 19-century farm-to-table approach. Today, not only is the Hudson Valley bursting with new eateries and markets focusing on locally sourced ingredients, but we are also seeing the resurgence of an industry that has all but disappeared over the last 80 years.
The Hudson Valley was once known as New York’s “breadbasket,” producing more than half the country’s barley and rye. With an abundance of high-quality grain, most towns in upstate New York had their very own local distillery, as distilling was a way to preserve excess grain and fruit. Then, in an effort to clean up the country amidst rampant crime and corruption, the National Prohibition Act of 1919 wiped out legal distilleries. It was not until 2002, eighty years later, that the Hudson Valley’s distillery scene began to slowly come back to life. In 2002 the farm distillery license was passed, and people began legally making spirits once again.
We are now experiencing a kind of craft-distilling renaissance. In 2018 New York was home to more breweries than at any time in history, with figures continually climbing.
The magic of Hudson Valley spirits hail from the region’s unique soil composition, which has led to an abundance of farms producing some of the highest quality grain, fruit, and botanicals in the state and surrounding areas. Plus, thanks to a New York law, farm distilled spirits must contain 75 percent of New York-grown raw agricultural materials, which is why spirits from this region are especially unique and delicious.
Today’s twenty-first-century craft distilling golden age is what led me to leave my cramped Brooklyn apartment and head north towards Columbia County’s open fields. I wanted to see for myself, what exactly I had been missing.
Hillrock Estate Distillery
Hillrock Estate Distillery, located in Ancram, New York, is a leading farm distillery specializing in “field-to-glass” whiskey, meaning the barley and rye used to produce their spirits are grown directly on their farm. Founded in 2011, the 850-acre farm distillery has roots spanning back to 1806 and is the first distillery in the United States since before Prohibition to floor malt and hand craft whiskey on site from estate-grown grain.
One sunny Saturday morning, I drove to Hillrock Estate Distillery for a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour and tasting that completely transformed the way I think about whiskey. After meeting our charismatic tour guide and exchanging hellos with the eight others on our tour, our first stop was the malthouse, the starting point for malt whiskey production. The second we entered, I was hit with a whiff of something familiarly smokey yet distinctly earthy. What we were smelling, our tour guide explained, was peat—a collection of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter (like moss and grass) which is added to the kiln (where the grain is dried) to give the whiskey a smokey flavor. (Hillrock imports their peat from Scotland.) As our tour continued we could see thick clouds of peat smoke drifting through the air, the deep, earthy smell now felt somewhat comforting—like sitting by a log-burning fireplace in the winter.
After the malting process is completed, the fermentation stage begins. During this phase, the grain is ground in a bizarre-looking giant metal tank and converted into beer, which will be distilled in the next stage of the process.
During this phase the beer is boiled out and then distilled—the alcohol content of the liquid is increased in a copper still. The machinery used in this process was extremely impressive looking.
Three separate machines, each made from beautiful shiny copper—and
marked with Hillrock Estate Distillery’s elegant logo—are
all used in the distilling process.
While we were there, our tour guide invited us to take turns standing over the large cylinder responsible for holding the freshly distilled raw alcohol so that we could experience the sharp, sweet-smelling liquid that would soon be transferred to a wooden barrel to begin aging.
Last on our tour was the rickhouse where we learned about the last stage of the whiskey-making process: maturation. Much like wine, distilled whiskey is also stored in wooden barrels—also known as casks—of various sizes and for specific periods of time. Casks are made from a wide variety of woods—often oak—which plays an important role in determining a spirit’s flavor profile. The goal of maturation is to remove harsh flavors from the raw alcohol while adding distinct and unique flavors that come from the cask’s wood.
Our guide began to explain the typical flavors one can expect from a whiskey, throwing out words like “oaky,” “caramel,” “vanilla,” and “honey.”
I’ve always been fascinated with experts and spirit enthusiasts who can tease out two to three to ten flavors in a given drink. That had not been my experience, however; as someone who can probably count on my fingers the number of times I’ve had whiskey, it always tasted like, well, whiskey. The tour guide’s descriptions though, which were almost sensual, made me think the upcoming tasting might change this.
Next up was the tasting. For this they seated me at a table on their back patio facing a sprawling open field—a perfect setup for the first warm day of the year—and gave me five small cups, each containing a generous splash of a different kind of whiskey. I marveled at the beautiful plate full of local cheeses, charcuterie meats, and dried fruit they brought out for me as well. It was quite a spread.
As I sat down I asked the tour guide, “where exactly is the barley grown on the estate?” “Right here,” he pointed straight ahead at the open field. “You’re looking at it.” Although it wasn’t yet the harvesting season, so no barley could be seen, (that takes place in July) it felt grounding to know that I was about to drink something that had grown from the very same earth I was looking at and standing on at that very moment. It was a true authentic Hudson Valley farm-to-table experience.
As I basked in the afternoon sun and took turns sipping from the five types of whiskey, I closed my eyes and tried to name as many smokey dessert and fruit flavor combinations I could think of. As a non-whiskey expert, our tour guide coached me through each of the whiskey’s flavor profiles.
Hillrock’s esteemed Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey was the first in line. According to our tour guide, this is Hillrock’s most popular whiskey. Finished in a sherry cask (a cask originally used for making sherry wine), the residue of sherry in the wood gives the bourbon a sweet and smooth flavor. Since it was the first whiskey I tasted—not to mention the fact that it has a high alcohol content as a bourbon—it was a bit of a shock to my pallet. After cleansing with a slice of sharp parmesan cheese and some dried apricots, I took another sip, and then, the traditional oaky, caramel, vanilla flavors popped. By the end, I could distinguish the lingering nutty and fruity finish, almost like an apricot marmalade.
Next up was the Hillrock Cabernet Finished Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey. Since this whiskey is aged in a cabernet cask from Napa Valley California, I could taste the cherry flavor upfront, and there was a darker, more subtle cherry finish. In my opinion, this was the best-smelling whiskey of them all.
Moving on, the Hillrock Double Cask Rye Whiskey—made from 100% rye—was a little unnerving. While rye whiskeys are generally not the most palatable, I was able to appreciate the mix of fall flavors—mint and clove with a cinnamon finish. Our tour guide described its smell perfectly, “like a flat vanilla Coke,” he said with a wide smile.
Hillrock’s Single Malt Whiskey, the highest rated American single malt (with a score of 97 by Wine Enthusiast, a score never previously given to a scotch) proved to be even more of an acquired taste than the Double Cask Rye. There was a lot going on in this one. The complexity of its flavor came from the fact that it’s smoked with peat—the smokiness was immediate and it lingered on my pallet. As I took one sip after another, our guide recited the many hidden dessert flavors—honeycomb, shortbread, dark chocolate, and toasted marshmallow. No matter how long I closed my eyes and tried to picture a dessert spread as I sipped, I could not distinguish the mouth-watering flavors our guide was raving about. “Not every whiskey is going to be for everyone,” he told us, laughing at my sour expression.
Last but certainly not least was Hillrock’s ‘Owner’s Special Reserve,’ a one-of-a-kind whiskey that can only be purchased at the estate. This one was a rye whiskey finished in a virgin sherry cask—meaning nothing else had ever been stored in the cask except for sherry—which gave it an extra silky and creamy texture. It was high proof—a whopping 116.4—which gave it a spice forward bite, but the sweetness of the sherry took the edge away. Overall it was very well balanced and had a fairly mild temperate.
By 3:00, a little over thirty minutes since the tasting began, each cup of whiskey had been emptied of its copper-colored liquid. I had devoured most of the charcuterie plate, leaving behind only a few scattered almonds and a brie rind slowly melting in the afternoon sun. I left Hillrock Estate Distillery shortly after with rosy cheeks and an iPhone full of pictures, feeling like a well-fed, sun-kissed, whiskey expert.
Whether you are a whiskey whiz or a complete newbie (like me), a Hillrock Estate Distillery tour is a perfect way to add some fun and flavor to your upstate New York weekend getaway. Hillrock offers tours and tastings every day from 11 am–4 pm. Visit their website to learn more and reserve a spot in advance.
Next stop on my Columbia County craft
Cooper’s Daughter Spirits at Olde Yorke Farm is a woman-owned and family-operated distillery and cooperage located in Claverack, NY. Founded in 2015, Cooper’s Daughter is a farm-to-glass distillery that sources foraged and farmed Hudson Valley ingredients to produce seasonal, small-batch spirits. Apple orchards and black walnut trees located on the farm are used to produce their whiskey, vodka, and bourbon, and the barrels used to age their bourbon and whiskey are also made onsite.
Compared to the sophisticated allure of Hillrock Estate, the charm of Cooper’s Daughter comes from its hip, rustic, and laid-back setting. Every weekend year-round (Friday–Sunday), they open their cocktail garden equipped with tents, heaters, and even a giant fire pit where people can come in large or small groups to sip on some of the freshest and most artisanal cocktails, local beer, cider, and wine that Columbia County has to offer.
Cooper’s Daughter produces two types of barrel-finished bourbon, the signature being their one-of-a-kind Black Walnut Bourbon and the other, their Smoked Maple Bourbon. Both are aged in a brand new American white oak barrel and then transferred to a second barrel once used to hold tree sap.
Their most popular spirit—Black Walnut Bourbon—is aged in a barrel finished with tree sap collected from the Black Walnut trees on their property and in the surrounding grove. Once the trees are tapped, the sap is collected and then boiled down to a unique and delicious, nutty dark syrup.
[Black Walnut Tree sap collecting in plastic bags at Olde Yorke Farm]
[In these four pots, Black Walnut Tree sap is being boiled down into syrup which will be used to coat Cooper’s Daughter’s bourbon-aging barrels]
I arrived at Cooper’s Daughter around 5:00 pm, turning down a small driveway that borders Claverack Creek. I ordered one of their most popular cocktails—”Night Sky”—made with mulled peach whiskey, black currant liqueur, and lemon juice. Not only was it delicious—crisp, tarte, and sweet—it was also beautiful. Tiny yellow edible stars floated on top of the bright, red-purple liqueur—a fun and unique way to jazz up a cocktail.
As I reclined in one of the ten wooden lawn chairs surrounding the fire pit and sipped my drink, I observed the multitude of interactions around me. On the far right-hand side stood the head distiller boiling Black Walnut Tree sap. In between tasks he threw a red frisbee to a leashless dog with fluffy grey fur. From time to time people sitting nearby stood up and took turns throwing the frisbee, petting the dog, and inquiring about the boiling sap operation.
This is the kind of cocktail garden you can go to with a friend or a date on a Friday after work, or perhaps gather with a group of family members to celebrate a birthday, or even alone, with a book on a Sunday afternoon. No matter what kind of vibe you’re feeling, this charming farm distillery is a place where any drink or food enthusiast can come to unwind.
Other distilleries to visit nearby: