Toledo native finds success at New York distilleryWritten by Stefanie Neuman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dave Kubacki, Toledo Free Press Staff Writer
In 2006, Toledo native Tim Welly graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University after studying economics and management. Roughly seven years later, Welly spends his day creating spirits, not analyzing numbers or staring at a computer screen.
What began as a passion became a career at Hillrock Estates Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley. Welly is now head of operations and a distiller at Hillrock Estates. The new distillery is garnering rave reviews from experts including Whisky Advocate and Wine Enthusiast magazines.
Welly’s interests in wine and spirits blossomed in Toledo while working at La Scola Italian Grill and Monnettes Market. He moved to New York in early 2007 and capitalized on available opportunities at Millbrook Winery. After establishing himself at Millbrook, he served as a tour guide and intern, overseeing the “crush” and the production with the winemaker. After about a year and a half, Welly moved to Colorado and worked with a French and German wine distributor before deciding to return to Millbrook Winery as cellar master and assistant winemaker. Welly said it was about this time when he decided to undertake some formal training.
“I began taking classes in New York City at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, which gave me an objective and systematic approach to tasting wine and spirits,” Welly said. “I took the intermediate classes and then got an advanced certificate and spirits certificate. I am now in the diploma program which is kind of like a master’s in booze.”
After two years as cellar master at Millbrook, Welly was in the process of helping open Number 9, a restaurant in Millerton, N.Y., when he met Jeff Baker. Baker was an executive managing director/partner of a New York City real estate investment-banking firm. With Baker, Welly found a colleague with a background in business and a passion for spirits. Welly said Baker invited him to Hillrock Estates to see its proposed operation. He was surprised when his visit was more like an interview.
“He had me stop by the distillery and it turned out to be more of a roundtable discussion,” Welly said. “There were about seven people at the table including Baker, [Baker’s] wife and Dave Pickerell (former master distiller at Maker’s Mark) and they started firing questions at me. I was kind of blown away. I thought I was just coming over to see what they were doing. When Baker approached me a couple of weeks later and offered me a position at Hillrock, I was shocked.”
Though he had put in nearly two and a half years at Millbrook Winery and had begun to fully understand the winemaking process, Welly decided to accept Baker’s offer to join the Hillrock Estate family. From there, Welly began to learn the distilling craft from Pickerell, who is one of the nation’s most renowned distillers.
“I began training with Pickerell at George Washington’s distillery in Mount Vernon,” Welly said. “It is a historically rebuilt distillery that sits in the same foundation as it did before. We wore traditional garb, did everything by bucket and open flames, making rye whiskey and apple brandy.”
After returning to Hillrock Estates, Welly oversaw the distillery installation and began doing research and learning the mash production, with a focus on site-specific whiskey. Welly said this was a novel idea that Baker believed would separate them from other distillers in the country.
“The site-specific concept revolves around the idea of where things grow, how things grow and when they grow, has a lot to do with the flavors that are extracted,” Welly said. “For instance, you can’t call something Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region. Baker felt the same principles could be applied to the spirits world and no other distillery in the United States was going for that market.”
Hillrock Estates is one of the only distilleries operating on a “field-to-glass” model, meaning everything that goes into their spirits is produced internally. For example, workers harvest all the grains right off the fields surrounding the distillery. Another personal touch Hillrock Estates has added is the historic method of floor malting. While most distilleries utilize a pneumatic malting device, Hillrock Estates uses a method dating back to Egyptian times, according to Welly.
“We physically malt our own grain on the floor, which is the way they do it in Scotland,” Welly said. “There is a room where we steep grain for three days and lay it on the floor. By floor malting, it gives our whiskey a unique characteristic. There is a human element associated with it, unlike pneumatic malting.”
Hillrock Estates’ first and only product currently on the market is its Solera-Aged Bourbon Whiskey. Welly said the solera-aged process is unique to Hillrock Estates. The process involves creating a stacked pyramid of barrels where a small portion of whiskey is removed periodically and new whiskey is added. No barrel is ever fully emptied and age and complexity gradually increase over time. Welly said this process adds very unique characteristics to their bourbon.
“This process allows for a blending of younger and older whiskeys and a cascading of inventories that creates a much more complex product over time,” Welly said. “We draw out of a 100-barrel solera and then finish it in sherry barrels from Spain. Our age statement is actually the term solera because there is such a blending of so many different ages.”
The distillery sold out of its first 2,000 bottles very quickly and is already onto its third barrel. Welly said there are a lot of reasons for the distillery’s success.
“We are the only distillery growing and producing everything for production,” Welly said. “We are one of the only distilleries that are floor malting. We are also the only malt house that has been built since pre-Prohibition.”
Hillrock Estates will expand its offerings this coming year with a rye whiskey and a single malt whiskey. The distiller’s solera-aged bourbon will continue to be offered, mostly found in the northeastern United States and through online retailers.