Recreating the past at Mount Vernon distillery

Master distiller Dave Pickerell checks alcohol level.


MOUNT VERNON, VA -- The air was a thick stew of humidity, dust motes, cool water, fruit flies and the occasional spark from kindling wood being stoked in the brick ovens below the copper pot stills.

At a makeshift table, master distiller Dave Pickerell was busy checking the alcohol content of a stream of samples of what was cooking that day: apple brandy.

To be totally accurate, apple eau de vie, the new brandy that can't be called by the "B" word until it has aged at least two years in wood.

This was one of the three distilling sessions that are held each year at the re-creation of George Washington's original distillery on the grounds of his Mount Vernon estate. It was rebuilt in 2007, using the outline of the original foundation discovered during an archaeological dig as well as notes from Washington's era, of stone and wood, thus resurrecting a facility that was the nation's leading distillery until it was gutted by fire in 1814, some 15 years after Washington's death.

With Pickerell, the former master distiller for Maker's Mark and now owner of a bustling micro-distillery consulting business, leading all the work sessions since day one, Washington's distilled products have steadily been gaining in collector appeal. From unaged white spirit, such as Washington sold, to peach and now apple eau de vie as made by Washington, and the two-year-old aged rye whiskey that will be released on October 22, sellouts have been the order of the day.

[Go here for my tasting notes on the rye.]

The revival of the historic operation is a success story for the major sponsor, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), for Mount Vernon and for the distilling industry as a whole.

Maryland-grown heirloom apples.
The heirloom apples used in this year's specialty distillation are of the sort known to have been grown at Mount Vernon in Washington's era.

These particular styles -- Roxbury Russet, Hews Crab and Newtown Pippin (also known as Albemarle Pippin) -- were trucked in from a farm in Western Maryland that specializes in heirloom crops. They have similar tastes, something a distilling assistant referred to as "Granny Smith light." I couldn't avoid sampling one -- slightly tart, crisp, nearly overflowing with juice.

Over the course of three days, Pickerell and a crew of period-costumed workers would create the mash using the fruit, yeast and hot water, run the mixture through a line of five stills to extract the alcohol from the mix through the use of fire, water and a touch of alchemy.

Here at Mount Vernon, the crew works with equipment that is virtually identical to that used by James Anderson, Washington's master distiller, who toiled from sunup to sundown with an assistant distiller and six slaves, turning out up to 11,000 gallons of spirit in one year.

Part of the five-still lineup.
It is an orderly line of fairly simple copper pot stills set into brick chimneys that have a fire box at the bottom. The distilling process is very straightforward, be it with old-style equipment such as this, or the huge, computer-controlled stills at major distilleries around the globe. It goes like this:

Put the mash into the still. Crank up the heat. Because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, the two separate and the alcohol in vapor form goes through a copper tube from the top (the "onion") of the still into a cooling tank that contains a coil of tubes, know as the worm. Here, the tank is a wooden barrel;  the cooling water that keeps the worm covered and thus returns the cooled alcohol to liquid form is pumped in from both hoses and wooden troughs connected to a sluiceway bringing water from the nearby creek.

The new whiskey dribbles from the still.
That cooled alcohol dribbles through the worm and out an opening at the bottom of the barrel. A good stream is about the size of a No. 2 pencil, and passes into a funnel lined with a modern coffee filter. What goes through the funnel and into a catch bucket is whiskey. The initial distillate, known as the head, is tossed back into the still for further distillation to get rid of any unwanted material that made it into the start of the run.

I dipped my fingers into a small stream of distillate and tasted, expecting a lot of heat on the palate because of the 150 proof alcohol level (that's 75% alcohol by volume). I was pleasantly surprised by the richness of taste and absence of excessive alcohol bite in this early run, one that would be distilled several more times until it reached a level of quality Pickerell deemed good enough to be barreled in toasted wood for a two-year nap.

Here are some other images from the distilling session:

The distillery on a misty afternoon. The wood trough is the sluiceway.

Member of Mount Vernon's Historic Trades group split kindling to fire the stills.

A savory rough mix of apple squeezings ready to be distilled.

Dave Pickerell is intent on watching his team carry out their tasks.

Dennis Pogue (left), VP for Preservation, chats with Steve Bashore, manager of Historic Trades, in costume.

A Historic Trades worker takes time out for a bit of New Age yoga.

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