Washington's whiskey: strong, and that's no lie

October 29, 2003|By Rob Kasper

MOUNT VERNON, Va. - George Washington was a great president and an extraordinary general, but his whiskey was so strong it would make your neck hair stand up straight and come to attention.

I say this after sampling some of our Founding Father's liquor, a batch made at Washington's homestead by some of the nation's top distillers from a recipe researched by some of the best brains at Mount Vernon.

The whiskey sipping, as well as a smoky re-enactment of the whiskey-making process used by Washington's workers, was part of a joint effort by Mount Vernon and the Distilled Spirits Council of America to raise funds for the restoration of Washington's original distillery.

The distillery, located a couple of miles down the road from the main house at Mount Vernon, at one point had five stills and operated from 1797 to 1815.

Plans call for the restoration to be complete in a few years, meaning that sometime around 2006 visitors should be able to see and smell Washington's whiskey-making process. They won't, however, be able to taste the results on site. Any whiskey made at Mount Vernon is saved for sale at fund-raising galas, such as the one last week that raised $44,000.

Along with other members of the nation's drinking press - a cadre of scribblers and microphone carriers who cover matters bibulous - I attended a sipping session at Mount Vernon last week.

Washington's whiskey was a clear liquid, drawn right from a distiller that had been set up at the Mount Vernon Grist Mill a few yards away from the site of the original whiskey-making operation. Unlike the whiskey sold today, this "white whiskey" had not been aged in barrels. It had not mellowed.

To me it tasted like firewater, with a sharp alcoholic bite. While it did not make me go blind, it did not inspire me to stand up and sing "God Bless America."

Some who sipped the stuff claimed to like it. One of them was Dennis J. Pogue, an associate director of Historic Mount Vernon. He reminded me that not only were we sipping an historically accurate whiskey, it was also rye, the style of whiskey preferred by mid-Atlantic imbibers over bourbon. Or as Pogue, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from American University, put it: "Real men drink rye."

He explained that whether a whiskey is called rye or bourbon is determined by the dominant grain in the recipe, or mash bill. The presiding grain in bourbon is corn; in rye, it is rye.

In Colonial times, farmers in the mid-Atlantic region grew more rye than corn, Pogue said, so when they made whiskey, they used the grain they had in abundance.

Baltimore, Pogue said, was once a stronghold of rye drinkers. But in modern times, rye has faded and bourbon, which has a slightly sweeter taste, has ruled the American market.

The batch that was distilled last week at Mount Vernon was 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malt. This recipe was unearthed by Esther White, a Mount Vernon archaeologist, who came up with the formula after poring over the farm's ledgers.

The recipe was handed over to a dream team of American distillers, a collection of whiskey makers from around the nation who were willing to ply their craft using 18th-century technology. A small copper pot still, modeled after one collected from a Virginia moonshiner, was built by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Ky., and sent to Mount Vernon.

The distilling team, clad in Colonial garb, went to work. The team had a few problems. A vessel carrying scalding water to the mash tub snapped and, according to James Graf, a whiskey maker from McCormick Distilling, the mash-tub crew members reacted the way men facing danger have behaved for centuries: They ran for cover. One experimental batch of whiskey ended up "smelling like burned rye toast," according to Virginia Gentleman's Joseph Dangler.

But eventually, the distillers got it right. The process was like cooking from an old recipe - you had to fill in a lot of blanks, said David Pickerell from Kentucky's Maker's Mark. In lieu of specific instructions on time and temperature, they used their experience, Pickerell said. For example, the crew working the mash tub simply stirred the mixture until the grain stopped sticking to the wooden rake.

Jerry Dalton, Jim Beam's master distiller, said making whiskey the old-fashioned way had given him "a healthy respect for those old distillers." But, he said, the yield from their efforts - only about 20 to 30 gallons of whiskey - would drive modern-day chief financial officers crazy.

Lincoln Henderson, director of whiskey development for Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, said that if the cost of all the highfalutin labor that went into this effort were figured in, a distiller would have to charge about $200 a bottle for Washington's whiskey to break even.

Revisiting the old whiskey-making process reminded me of some lessons of American history. Like many men of his time, Washington preferred rum punch, but he turned to whiskey after the British raised the tax on West Indian molasses, a key rum-making ingredient.

Moreover, the arrival on the American scene of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland pushed the Colonials toward whiskey-making. A Scotsman, James Anderson, was the one who persuaded Washington to make whiskey at Mount Vernon with the surplus grain, and he supervised the operation.

Many of these Scots-Irish settled first in Maryland and Virginia, where they made rye. Some of their descendants moved onto Kentucky, where they made bourbon with corn.

But after tasting Washington's whiskey the way it was served in Colonial times, straight from the still, I am glad I am living in this era when the whiskey is aged in barrels for years.

Some things get better with time, and whiskey is definitely one of them.

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