Spirited for Field to Glass

Originally Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012


Jeff Baker pulled into the distillery on Sunday in his John Deere gator driving over the rolling hills of his 120-acre farm. Organic rye and barley grow there — under the sunlight of the Hudson Valley. He was smiling. It was 5 o’clock; it was magic hour and definitely time for a cocktail.


The afternoon meeting was indeed magical and for 25 years Farmer Jeff has been magically making food responsibly in our community. Jeff is not your typical farmer but has a passion for farming that has been in his blood since he was a little kid. He told me he worked on the farm since the age of 10. Born and raised in Western New York, when he finally moved to New York City after launching a career in architecture and real estate, he quickly bought farmland in Ancram, because “I couldn’t stand life without being on the farm,” Jeff said. Clearly a pioneer and ahead of his time — Jeff has been leading the locavore moment for decades.


With an architecture acumen and love for his farmland in Columbia County — Jeff did the impossible — he disassembled his Georgian house built in 1806, located near Saratoga (that was actually owned by a grain merchant and war captain). The house apparently deserved a view, so Jeff cataloged the inventory of the house piece by piece, moved the house to Hillrock, where the distillery operates today, then rebuilt the home to its original state — by hand — with locals — adding only a few modern conveniences. They completed the rebuild in 2006, 200 years after it was originally built. Coincidentally 1806 was a time when rye and barley were originally grown in the Hudson Valley. Today Jeff is in residence with his wife Cathy Franklin (and from time to time their three children) as they commute between urban and rural life. Someone should send over a talking pig!


With an entrepreneurial mind, affinity and interest in farming, and plenty of spirit, Jeff has accomplished a lot of firsts — but not all as successful as Hillrock is sure to be.


In the early 1990s, Baker started the first grass-fed dairy farm in the region where he sold raw milk for a nickel. His next venture was free range pasture raised cattle — also not widely understood at the time — he survived in the business by selling meat to a restaurant he owned to educate local folk about the benefits and feed responsibly. With a bucolic farm and a passion for business — there is finally a viable livelihood in agriculture for Baker — the result of hard work and dedication to sustainability. Why wouldn’t you ask who makes your bourbon too?


With an experienced team, Hillrock is sure to become the most popular bourbon in the Hudson Valley. The “family affair” is collaboration in the craft distilling industry. There are only 400 craft distillers in the country and no one is offering this much honesty in the process.


The tour made me an instant customer for life. Dave Pickerell is the Master Distiller hailing from well-known Maker’s Mark with 14 years of experience. Timothy Welly is the director of operations and distiller with a palate that is extraordinary at his very young age. Danielle Eddy feels like an old friend the minute she invites you in — and she’s tasted the best liquor in the world! Cathy Franklin is warm and hospitable.


“Their spirit is indicative of Hillrock’s ideals,” reads their postcard. I can only agree. And with field views from every angle of the house and distillery — you fall in love with farming!


Visiting Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram you will experience a lot of firsts. Taste the new Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey or the Single Malt Whiskey. You will applaud their new venture too!


Hillrock is the first “Field to Glass” operation distilling from the ingredients they only grow and source locally. It’s sustainable, NON-GMO + organic. Hillrock has the first “ground up malt house” built at a distillery prior to prohibition.  Hillrock has the first small batch “floor malting room” in the country. Using grains grown from the field on site, the grain is hand germinated for flavor and smoked in a convection type kiln. illrock crafts the first Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey in the world. “Solera” is a stack of barrels where a small portion of the whiskey is removed periodically and new whiskey is added, there is never more than 40 percent removed. Since no barrel is ever fully emptied — the average age and complexity increase over time — it is rumored some bourbon cells may date back to the 1400s!


By controlling every aspect of production from planting to harvesting organically grown grains, traditionally floor malting on site, crafting whiskies in the handmade 250-gallon copper pot still, aging in small oak barrels and hand bottling, the flavor is uniquely bourbon reflective of the local terroir with notes of clove and cinnamon.


Indeed a “thief” (like a glass straw for a extraction) was needed to taste directly from the barrel — and trust me — you won’t be disappointed when you have a chance to buy a barrel. Despite the high alcohol content (92.6 percent), the flavor was abundant— spice from the rye, sweet from the corn (sourced locally and organically from farmers down the road) with aromas of fruits like fig, orange and highlights of caramel — it was autumn at its best.


Driving the winding roads through open farmland in Ancram surrounded by glorious autumnal colors made me love where I live and bourbon even more near and dear to my heart. I am a bourbon lover. Since we must drink responsibly — why not consider what it means to drink honestly made beverages as well?


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