William M. Dowd photoMOUNT VERNON, VA -- As the white-gloved volunteers carefully doled out tiny pours of the surprisingly golden liquid into tiny plastic cups, the tall, white-haired man regally strolled the ground accepting congratulations and handing out compliments to his staff.
Not just another spring afternoon at Mount Vernon, especially not with the presence of the Father of Our Country, in the costumed person of William Sommerfield, and his distiller James Anderson, played by a very convincing Terry Burgler who had the surreal experience of chatting with "his" own great-great-great-great-great nephew who was paying a visit.
"I can't believe how tall the family has become over the generations," Burgler remarked to me with a grin. "It must be something in the water -- or in what we do with the water."
This particular day was the one on which George Washington's rebuilt whiskey distillery was to be opened, receive its special sales license from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and receive visitors of all sorts, from media to politicians to volunteers and neighbors.
Perhaps most important were the costumed master distillers from whiskeymaking operations throughout Kentucky and Tennessee who have been working together for several years to get the historic operation up and running after an absence of 193 years following a fire that burned it to the ground.
Washington is commonly known as "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Most people don't know he also was among the first successful commercial distillers in the colonies and then the new nation.
Washington's 22,250-square-foot facility located next to his four-story stone gristmill, which itself opened to the public in 2002, three miles from the main mansion house was huge by the standards of his day. He and Anderson, a Scottish immigrant, oversaw a distilling operation that turned out nearly 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year compared to the average output of 650 gallons from other Virginia distilleries.
The distillery, which housed five copper pot stills that were used year-round, began operation in February 1797 and Anderson and his son, aided by six slaves, continued its work after Washington's death in December 1799 and Martha Washington's death in 1802. Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis, inherited the distillery and the Andersons moved away. The last recorded distillations were in 1808.
The project was largely underwritten by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) and its member companies, with the support of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, to the tune of $2.1 million.
Some whiskey had been produced before the distillery reconstruction was completed, and that was what was being doled out that day. My tasting notes on the small samples showed some pleasant surprises.
"Remarkable color for something only in the wood for a year. ... Obviously, the maturation process had been sped up by using small, 10-gallon casks which surround the raw whiskey with very accessible oak. ... Fine nose, promising spiciness and herbal nuances. ... Much of the expected initial heat usually present in young whiskey was missing, leaving a warm yet palatable initial taste, along with the expected spice from the rye grain, and a satisfactory finish. ... All in all, a definitely promising young whiskey that I'd love to re-taste a year or two from now."
Virginia usually allows only stores operated by its Alcohol Beverage Control to sell distilled spirits. State Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, original sponsor of the bill that had to be passed to license Mount Vernon to sell its whiskey, was among the guests at the grand opening.
"I'm pleased to play a role in revitalizing a piece of Washington's legacy. We recognize the importance of keeping Washington's spirit alive -- in all respects," she said.
Washington's neighbors in nearby Alexandria, now a suburb of Washington, DC, were interested in his spirit and spirits as well. Much of what he and Anderson distilled was sold in Alexandria stores, particularly George Gilpin's general store. What was peddled in those days wasn't moonshine because it was a decent quality spirit -- 60% rye, 35% corn, 5% malted barley, but it was generally unaged and, therefore, colorless.
The Mount Vernon operation also turned out apple, peach and persimmon brandies, vinegar and some specialty whiskies such as a "rectified" style that was filtered to remove impurities, and a cinnamon-flavored style. The common whiskey cost 50 cents a gallon, the rectified and extra-distilled about $1 a gallon, and brandy $1 and up.
Whether the rebuilt distillery will turn out more than the basic rye whiskey will be known as the project matures. It is a completely functioning distillery, probably the only one in the world using an authentic 18th-century process, housed in a three-story brick, stone and wood structure with one floor devoted to an embryonic whiskey museum.
Everything has gotten off to a flying start on the manufacturing end, thanks to the efforts of master distillers and blenders Jerry Dalton (Jim Beam), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Chris Morris (Woodford Reserve), John Lunn (George Dickel), Gerald Webb (Diageo North America), David Pickerell (Maker's Mark), Ken Pierce (Barton Brands) and Joe Dangler (Virginia Gentleman).
While they've gone back to their real-life jobs, costumed distillers will be working at Mount Vernon each day April through October. Small bottles of Washington's whiskey will go on sale on premises, probably in mid-summer.
(ABOVE: Clear whiskey distillate runs from a collector barrel to a wooden chute leading to storage casks in the basement of the distillery.)
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