Saturday, April 1, 2017

An evening with Dave Pickerell and Hillrock

When I heard about the tasting at Magruder's of DC, I was more interested in Dave Pickerell than Hillrock Estate Distillery. And I have to say he turned out to be more interesting than the whiskeys I tasted.

If you don't know, Dave Pickerell was master distiller at Maker's Mark for fourteen years, and in the last decade he's become the Johnny Appleseed of craft distilleries. He's now master distiller at Hillrock in New York, and more famously (or notoriously) at Whistlepig in Vermont. He mentioned that he's part owner of six (I think it was) distilleries; I don't know whether he was counting the Mount Vernon Distillery, where he's the master distiller for the six weeks a year they make whiskey.

The night's line-up.
The Hillrock angle is terroir. They grow all their grain, have their own malt-house, use their own well water, and if I'm remembering correctly use local wood. Pickerell sees this sort of localization as a feature of American craft distilling, so that all American whiskey doesn't have to taste like Kentucky bourbon made with limestone filtered water and Ozark oak and corn from wherever it is that Kentucky bourbon corn comes from. One thing they've noticed about Hillrock is that all the distillates come with a cinnamon spice note. So cinnamon is part of the Hillrock terroir. (Pickerell assured us that, if different Hillrock fields produce grain that produces distillate with different notes, they'll figure that out pretty soon too.)

We tasted five whiskeys:
  • Solera Aged Bourbon. This was probably my favorite of the night, and has the most interesting story. Pickerell copied the solera setup from a Spanish sherry outfit -- I think it was Spanish sherry, the point is they knew what they were doing. Hillrock has four tiers, with the bottom tier sherry casks, the two middle tiers used (bourbon?) casks, and the top -- because this is bourbon, after all -- new charred American oak barrels. The hard part, the story goes, wasn't getting the solera set up and functioning, it was figuring out how to do it within U.S. regulations for the manufacturing and taxing of bourbon whisky. They can call it "bourbon" because they empty the top level (the "nursery") one barrel at a time, without topping them off (and the other barrels used aren't "barrels," they're small wooden "containers.") They can call it "solera age" because the age of the youngest whiskey doesn't help the customer when the weighted average age is more than four years, as Pickerell assured the TTB it would be, but you can't use the weighted average age on a bottle either. My notes say "spicy and raisiny." The bourbon now being bottled is about 40% rye; what's going into the nursery is about 49% rye, to keep the bourbon moving in the savory direction chefs tell Pickerell the American palate is moving.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Sauternes Casks. The "double cask" part refers to the rye (100% rye mashbill) beginning in smaller casks, then being moved to larger ones. The Sauternes finish is, like all of Pickerell's finishes, somewhere between 2 and 10 weeks. It gives the rye a honey-sweet, floral nose. The house cinnamon was very strong on the finish. For me, this is more of a "hey, have you ever tried something like this?" whiskey than something to reach for when you want a rye.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Port Casks. Same rye, different finish, very different effect. If the Sauternes rye is like a soprano -- which it isn't, of course, it's a whiskey, but stay with me here -- then the port rye is like a bass, low and solid. Maybe some chocolate notes, solid and simple on the palate. The rye spice seems subdued. I'd like to try this in a dry Manhattan, with the vermouth playing off the port.
  • Double Cask Rye. An unbilled special guest, this was the same rye that was otherwise finished in Sauternes or port. It was a late addition to the line-up, and if we had to do it over, this should come before the two finished ryes. As it is, it made no real impression on me. My notes read, "Not sure what to think," which I now think reflects on a lack of rye character. I have a terrible palate, so I may be completely off base, but the impression I came away with is that Hillrock rye whiskeys are more whiskey than rye. Which isn't to say I refused a second taste of this; it's a properly made sippin' whiskey. But, at least at this point in the evening, the lack of distinguishing notes was the only note I could distinguish.
  • Malt Whiskey finished in Olorosso and XO Sherry Casks. This is Hillrock's opening volley in producing a heavily peated "Scotch," which is what the owner likes to drink and wants to make. If I have it right, part of the malt whiskey (100% malted barley mashbill) was finished in olorosso, and the rest was finished in XO, then the two were combined. The whiskey was simply baffling to me. There was a little smoke, but more like a midrange blend than an Islay single malt. I got orange hard candy on the nose... and, um, canned peas. "Canned peas" is not one of those "sounds bad but true connoisseurs find such things add to the experience" notes; it's one of those "whiskey shouldn't smell like canned peas" notes. On top of that, there was the cinnamon on the palate. The whole thing was weird. I didn't seem to be drinking the same whiskey that was being described (well, except maybe for one other attendee who suggested manure on the nose).

The evening ended with the other attendees lining up to get bottles signed. I could have applied the $20 ticket price toward a purchase, but I decided even with the discount I didn't need a bottle of Hillrock. Is the Solera Aged Bourbon worth $63? Maybe, but that night it wasn't worth 63 of my dollars.

As you'd expect given Pickerell's experience, Hillrock is miles ahead of the vodka-n-gin-n-rum-n-whiskey microdistilleries who can't or won't age their whiskeys properly. But he says he doesn't just want to outrun the other guy, he wants to outrun the bear. I think that's the right attitude, but for my taste Hillrock should still be grateful there are slower distilleries in the race.

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