I’m a New Yorker. My parents were both born in the Bronx, I grew up on Long Island, and to this day I know most of the lyrics to any Billy Joel song you put in front of me. I’m proud to be from the Empire State, and despite living in DC for just under 12 years, still warmly consider it home. In short, I have a fondness for my erstwhile stomping ground that makes me seek out vestiges of New York here in the District.
Historically, that’s manifested itself in a few different ways, but mainly in my vices. I once had an S&S Cheesecake overnighted because a friend had never tried one. For a while, my cigar preferences revolved around Nat Sherman. I was ecstatic when Sixpoint Craft Ales and Bluepoint Brewing Company made it to DC, because those were some of the first beers I ever drank for flavor and not inebriation.
Unfortunately for my liver, the nostalgia-by-vice trend doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. A friend recently got me a bottle of Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon as a gift, and I’ve been steadily pouring my way through the bottle.
Hillrock’s distillery is located in Ancram, New York, about 20 miles west of the NY/CT/MA border. Nestled in the Hudson Valley lies the Hillrock Estate, where they not only mash and distill their spirits, but grow the barley and rye they use to fill out their mash bill. Hillrock refers to this on their website as being a “field-to-glass” distillery.
The distillery’s only current offering is the Solera Aged Bourbon, but the website says to expect single malt whiskey and estate rye in the next few months. One of the unfortunate challenges in starting a new distillery is time. Given provenance laws in the U.S., you can’t produce “straight” bourbon without meeting some minimum aging requirements (amongst a few other legal hurdles). Hillrock avoids this by distilling simply “bourbon,” which doesn’t require a minimum aging length.
The unique thing about Hillrock’s Solera Aged Bourbon is right there in the name, the fact that it’s solera-aged. A solera is basically a stack of barrels through which distillers engage in fractional blending. Soleras have their roots in sherry production, where young, immature sherry is left to age in barrels with older versions of the wine. Solera barrels are never fully emptied as blending occurs, so certain soleras have spirits or wine in them that’s many years old, which causes the flavor to mature over time. Hillrock uses what they call a “seed bourbon” to mix with their younger in-house whiskey. These bourbons are mixed in a 20-year-old Oloroso sherry solera, and the average age of the whiskey is six years (according to the website).
(Note: I’m not entirely sure how Hillrock is legally allowed to call this spirit Bourbon, given that their spirits don’t appear to be aged in charred new oak barrels. This is a requirement for all bourbon, not just the straight stuff, so as I said, it’s a mystery.)
On to the important stuff though — taste:
Proof: Hillrock’s bourbon clocks in at a proofy 92.6 ABV, which definitely means you’ll get some heat off of it when drinking it neat. That astringency goes away with a little water or an ice cube or two, but buyers beware, you will feel this sooner than you might expect.
Nose: Served neat, I get lots of honey and dark notes, like root beer and vanilla. Water opened it up a little to where I got a little more sweetness and something that reminded me of pipe tobacco.
Taste: On the whole, the whiskey is very mild, with a lot of vanilla and honey flavor. This whiskey absolutely benefits from water. Once I added a little, the rye’s spiciness and flavor came out, adding depth to the spirit (there’s a decent amount of rye in the mash bill, about 38 percent).
Finish: The finish with water far outshines the finish without. Flavors from the middle of the drink continue through to the end, and these are only strengthened by water. There’s a mild astringency towards the end, but the finish is brief enough you don’t notice.
Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon is perfect for someone like me who misses home and wants something to drink when they crank “Piano Man” and pine for the days of All American Burger. The bottle is pricey at $75–90 for a 750ml, but the whiskey is solid. For the money, there are better bourbons you can buy, but none of those will assuage a Yankee living below the Mason Dixon Line quite like this. Who knows, maybe next time I pour myself a glass I’ll light up a Nat Sherman, too.
Alex Hecht is the Editor of Molotov Cocktail. He works as a security analyst in Washington, DC. Before working for the man, he managed the Gibson, a cocktail bar in DC’s U Street corridor. Alex’s life is admittedly mellower now, but his liver probably thanks him for that.