Distillery revives George Washington’s whiskey

In the fall of 1799, George Washington wrote to his nephew: “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”

The whiskey Washington spoke of was produced in his own distillery, at Mount Vernon, Va., and the popularity of the spirit (in these parts) remains. Mount Vernon historians-turned-distillers have been busy making Washington’s unaged rye whiskey, following his recipe and manual methods, since early this month and will put 1,100 bottles up for sale in April.

The team, led by former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell, has perfected the craft since they began distilling at the old mill twice a year beginning in 2009. (A $2.1 million grant from the distilled spirits industry helped fund the project.) And the demand for their product has grown: The waiting list is more than 4,000 for this year’s batch.

Without electricity, the seven distillers — mostly historians and tour guides at the Mount Vernon estate — chop their own wood to burn and heat the boilers, which are filled with water brought in by a water mill from the adjacent pond. They also grind about 4,400 pounds of locally grown grain and manually churn vats of prefermented grains, known as mash. The process takes three weeks, and they do it twice a year. But guides at Mount Vernon are used to getting their hands dirty. Distillery manager Steve Bashore also runs the blacksmith shop there.

Also rising in popularity are tours of Washington’s gristmill and distillery, three miles west of the main estate, which are included in the price of general admission and run from today to Oct. 31. Although distillation ends before tour season begins, visitors can expect to see the inside of the distillery and a demonstration of how the mixture is mashed and boiled.

Bashore said being part of the distillation process has allowed him to give tours with greater depth. “Now, it’s very rare that we get stumped” by a question, he said. “From working with Dave and doing the process, we can explain: What is a heads cut? What happens when the stills first kick off? What are you looking for in proofs? What about the yeast?”

Pickerell, who became a consultant to craft distilleries since leaving his post in Kentucky with Maker’s Mark, said making whiskey manually at Mount Vernon has brought him to another level. He can now guess the proof of a batch within a tenth of a percent. And, after a comedic accident that left the floor of the distillery covered in two feet of foam, he has learned how to control temperatures to keep whiskey from foaming — a method he had to turn to 18th-century books to learn. (If it nevertheless starts to foam, adding lard will keep it from overflowing.) He has also grown to appreciate the hard work and sweat our forefathers put into making alcohol.

“I think of this as my spring workout,” he said. “The level of manual labor is strenuous. At Maker’s Mark, everything is done by pumps and pipes. People don’t have buckets to run.”

Washington began producing rye whiskey and brandy in 1798, the year before his death, as a business. With only eight men — two paid, six enslaved — Mount Vernon produced 11,000 gallons of alcohol a year in 1798 and 1799, more than any other distillery on the East Coast at that time, say historians at Mount Vernon. The distillery fell into disrepair soon after Washington’s death and burned down in 1814.

The Commonwealth of Virginia bought and restored the gristmill next to the distillery in 1932 but, because of Prohibition, left the distillery untouched. It was not until 2007 that the distillery was excavated and reopened.

“People are fascinated to learn that George Washington was the original craft distiller,” said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. She praised the project for preserving “America’s distilling heritage” and reminding people of Washington’s side act as an entrepreneur — a successful one, at that.

At $95 a bottle, the whiskey will be sold to those on the waiting list, but a portion will be reserved for Mount Vernon’s gift shop, where bottles usually fly off the shelf on the first day. The bottles will go on sale at 10 a.m. next Thursday. Unlike today, Americans of Washington’s era drank their rye unaged, so first-time tasters might be surprised by its grainy flavor.

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