A Taste of Old-Fashioned Whiskey

What the Scots Discovered at George Washington's Distillery

By Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for OpinionApril 12, 2013
By Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for OpinionApril 12, 2013, at 10:54 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

A Taste of Old-Fashioned Whiskey

It was a distillery scene straight out of the late 18th century: A line of workers, many in breeches and cravats, carried buckets full of a murky liquid from 55 gallon, oaken, "hogshead" casks to brick oven copper stills. The stills lined up five in a row along one long wall of a two story, stone building; the hogsheads, a copper lined boiler, and other distillery equipment sat in front of the other wall.

With the exception of a few notes of modernity—"Can you photoshop out the orange buckets?" master distiller Dave Pickerell, wearing blue jeans and a fedora, asked no one in particular as he filled one of the stills—this is how whiskey was distilled back in George Washington's day, which is appropriate as this is Washington's distillery, or at least a pretty close facsimile thereof. Located a couple of miles west of Mount Vernon, Washington's home, and just outside the nation's capital, the distillery was rebuilt on the exact spot as Washington's own distillery and opened to the public in 2006.

"It's amazing isn't it? It's like going back in time," says John Campbell, the distillery manager at Laphroaig, located on the small island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. He also looked out of place in blue jeans and a black polo shirt with the logo of the Laphroaig distillery on it. "It is stepping back in time." 

The father of our country always appreciated the positive qualities of spirits. "The benefits arising from moderate use of Liquor, have been experienced in All Armies, and are not to be disputed!" he wrote to the congress in 1777. Nevertheless, Washington came to distilling late in life. As he was preparing to the leave the presidency in early 1797, his farm manager, a Scot named James Anderson, convinced him to try distilling. While Washington was a skeptic, he quickly warmed to the idea. In an age where distilling tended to be a seasonal activity, with stills established and taken down on a session-by-session basis, Washington's distillery was unusual for its permanency. And it was one of the biggest whiskey distilleries in the country, producing 11,000 gallons in 1799, the year of Washington's death.

The original structure burned down in 1814, but starting in 2000, the site was excavated, restored, and rebuilt by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, with $2.1 million of help from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the industry’s trade association. The Ladies were careful to replicate the old structure down to the details, including the type of wood-fired stills used back when Washington was alive. The distillery reopened to the public and also started producing small batch runs of rye whiskey from Washington's original recipe (65 percent rye, 30 percent corn, five percent malt).

On this March day, however, Pickerell, a former master distiller at Maker's Mark, and his crew were trying something different. Working with Laphroaig's Campbell and a pair of other chief distillers from Scotland—Bill Lumsden from the Glenmorangie distillery and Andy Cant from the Cardhu distillery (home of the Johnny Walker line of scotches)—they cooked up a Scotch-style malt whisky (how the Scots spell it) rather than their traditional rye. (The project was arranged by the Distilled Spirits Council, which arranged for a dozen reporters to watch and participate.)

There are several differences between how Scotch and American whiskey are produced. The basic ingredient of Scottish whisky is malted barley, which is mashed with warm water and then strained off; in the States, a mix of grains are cooked at a higher temperature (usually boiling), and are not filtered off but go into the still. "Straight" whiskey in the United States must be aged a minimum of two years in a new, charred barrel; malt scotch has to be aged at least three years, and usually in bourbon barrels imported from the States (though sometimes in European oak casks).

It is in the barrel that whiskey gets its color and also some of its flavor. The bourbon casks, for example, "impart a light vanilla note to the whisky," says Cant. And because of climate, U.S. whiskey gains proof in the barrel, "sweating the water out," Lumsden explains, while scotch loses proof while aging as "water ingresses into the barrel."

But there is of course a basic process of distillation common to all whiskey. After the grains are cooked and then fermented, with the addition of yeast, the resulting mixture—called "beer" by Americans and "wash" by Scots—is transferred into the stills. (In keeping with the fidelity to history, the grains used in the Washington distillery are ground at Washington's grist mill, which has been rebuilt just up the hill.)

Each of the five stills in the Washington distillery has a name: There's Elizabeth, named for the queen of England (whose grandson was present for the official reopening of the distillery); Sandra, named for Sandra Bullock ("a little bit off the main line, but everything she does is quality," explains Pickerell); Maggie (for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pickerell says, because she just gets it done); Sarah (named for a friend of Pickerell's); and Pam (originally called Paris because like Paris Hilton, she was "tall and pretty" but didn't accomplish much; after a part was replaced, she was rechristened after the Beatles' song "Polyurethane Pam").

The sound of running water, pumped in from the nearby stream, and the faint crackle of wood burning fill the background of the working still. The stills vaporize the beer, sending it through a copper tube which is run through cold water, condensing the distilled liquid, which is collected in a pot. Most whiskies are distilled twice or even three times before being casked for aging.

This process has been automated in modern distilleries, but at Washington's, everything is still done by hand. Hence the bucket brigade to get the beer into the still. When the distillery is producing its twice annual commercial runs of Mount Vernon rye, one worker can spend all day chopping wood to feed the stills. The old-style process leaves the Scotsmen grinning like kids in a candy factory. "Nowadays we do it on a much larger scale and a lot of it is automated," says Lumsden. "It's quite a thrill to do it by hand."

Indeed, its scale makes the Mount Vernon distillery—which, along with the gristmill next door, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., April through October—a great place to learn about the process. While no actual distillation takes place when the building is open to the public, Pickerell makes a point of employing the museum guides when he makes the whiskey so they can speak from experience when telling visitors about the process. The building's second floor houses a small museum that traces the distillery's history and Washington's views on alcohol. The site also serves as the official gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which stretches from New York City into Tennessee and consists of museums and other historical attractions illustrating the role which whiskey has played in U.S. culture.

The malt whiskey produced by Pickerell and the Scotch distillers is going to be aged for three years (per Scottish tradition) and 100 bottles of it will be auctioned around the world for charity, marking the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association.

But if you don't want to wait until 2015, you can slake your thirst before then: The next batch of Washington rye goes on sale on April 14 (the unaged rye goes for $95 for a 375-milliliter bottle, while the aged stuff is $185 for a 375-milliliter bottle). Is it that good? "You're buying a piece of history," Pickerell says, "but the whiskey's pretty good too." You'd better hurry, though, as the stock typically sells out in a matter of hours.

Robert Schlesinger is the Managing Editor of U.S. News & World Report's Opinion section. Follow him on Twitter at @rschles.

Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion

Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News & World Report. He is the ...  Read more


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