Video: George Washington’s whiskey lives, and you can drink it
posted at 7:31 pm on February 17, 2014 by Mary Katharine Ham
There was a dark time in this country when the recreation of George Washington’s whiskey would have been illegal, with not even the opportunity to jump through regulatory hoops to get permission. These days, our entrepreneurial forefather’s rye whiskey has been brought forth by a group of historians and distillers intent on doing it just like the old days at Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon. There are a few more regulatory hoops than when Washington was alive—they have to dump the alcohol in a brand-new barrel and slosh it for no other reason than the law requires that to call it “rye whiskey”— but the product, Mt. Vernon claims, is the same.
They’ve been perfecting the process since 2009, producing small batches for which there are long waiting lists. The Washington Post covered their progress in 2013:
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, 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.
The unaged George Washington Rye Whiskey is the most authentic version of Washington’s whiskey available today. Washington was a detailed record keeper – Mount Vernon’s staff were able to determine from these records the recipe and process of creating whiskey during Washington’s lifetime. Distillers used the same grain recipe (60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley), mixed and fermented in 120-gallon oak barrels, and double distilled in copper pot stills, just as it was done 200 years ago. According to master distiller, Dave Pickerell, its nose is, “slightly floral, earthy, and grainy,” with a taste that is “surprisingly sweet and mellow,” but with a bit of a bite, characteristic of unaged rye.
Reason TV visited Mt. Vernon to sit in on a demonstration of Washington’s boozy business:
Some say adhering to historical processes means it might not actually taste good:
Peter Carlson’s essay in the June 2010 edition of American History describes the scene at Washington’s Virginia plantation, where, in 1797, the former president installed a 75-by-30 foot distillery and made “very bad rye whiskey” from his neighboring farm’s excess grain. (Carlson interviewed Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director, who politely described the swill as having “a pretty sharp taste.”) No matter about the harsh flavor, though. Washington was a rock star, so, in 1798, his distillery produced 4,000 gallons of the white lighting and sold it for 50 cents per gallon. One year later, Mount Vernon produced 11,000 gallons for public consumption. Cha-ching!
Dave Pickerell, Master Distiller and former Vice President of Operations for Maker’s Mark, who makes Washington’s whiskey, would beg to differ: “By golly, I’d drink that stuff right off the still all day long.”
You can only buy it in person. Since I’m local, I’ll let you know when I know. (Hashtag journalism)
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