Cooking up a historic stew in Mount Vernon

Dave Pickerell (left) and Bill Lumsden proofing the distillate.
MOUNT VERNON, VA -- It was a scene that would drive a credentialed chef mad. Four proud master distillers working elbow-to-elbow in the same hands-on operation, seeking to create one historic concoction. It turned out to be anything but too many "cooks" spoiling the stew.

The occasion was a one-off project to make a Scottish-style single malt whiskey in George Washington's re-created distillery on the grounds of his Mount Vernon plantation this week.

"This is surprisingly nuanced so early in the run." ...  "Is it running too hot now?" ... "This would be nice over a cube of ice." ... "Some time in the wood and I think we've got a real winner." ... "Speaking of ice, do we have any? This really needs to be cooled down." ...

The comments tended to overlap one another as the distillers and the regular distillery staff went from one still to another in the line of five that dominates the 1790s-style building that was recreated and opened in the fall of 2006.

Hands briefly grasping the copper still column to check the heat of the evaporated distillate, fingers darting in and out of the stream of clear distillate emerging from a small tube aimed at a collection vessel, tasting, testing, tasting again, suggesting modest changes in the process that would bring out the nuttiness and inherent sweetness and heat of the malted barley used to make the mash.

From left: John Campbell, Bill Lumsden, Andy Cant, Dave Pickerell.
Except for the presence of the Scottish contingent, it was a typical distilling day at Mount Vernon -- well, except for one other thing. The aforementioned barley wasn't local. It had been shipped from Scotland, ground in the ingenious gristmill adjacent to the distillery, and used to start off the process.

This was a first-ever, and it closed a circle at the distillery, where a Scotsman named James Anderson expanded his role of George Washington's farm manager to master distiller after convincing the great statesman to turn his surplus grain into what he referred to as "liquid gold."

The enterprise went on to become the largest distillery in the young nation, and operated even after Washington's death in 1799 -- until it burned to the ground in 1814, becoming forgotten for two centuries, until its foundation was uncovered in a 2000 archaeological dig.

To modern distillers used to working in highly automated, state-of-the-art facilities with their huge, towering stills, this was quite a departure -- a tightly constructed domain of wood and stone and brick and copper, the only such distillery in North America, and perhaps beyond, that is a working model of how it was done in the 18th Century.

"Modern day distilling is all carefully controlled, measured, analyzed and automated," said Dr. Bill Lumsden, master distiller and head of whiskey creation for The Glenmorangie Co. "I am truly thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this project and actually roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty," an enthusiasm illustrated by the baggy blue coveralls he was sporting.

"As a master distiller, you genuinely learn something new every single day, so I can't wait to supplement my knowledge of making Glenmorangie with something a little bit more old fashioned."

The other Scottish experts were Andy Cant, master distiller and Cardhu Group manager who oversees a number of different distillation products including those that are the heart of the Johnnie Walker blends, and John Campbell, distillery manager at Laphroaig on the island of Islay, a post he got at the tender age of 34 as the first island native to run the distillery since it was built in 1815.

Actor portraying James Anderson peers through the steam.
This was the first visit for any of them to Mount Vernon. They were hosted by the local master distiller, Dave Pickerell, former master distiller for Maker's Mark and now an industry consultant who spends eight months of the year flying around the country to work with his 20 or so client distilleries.  

As Pickerell explained, "This was a particularly challenging opportunity in that we had to invent and build a relatively efficient means of hand-separating the grain solids from the liquid between the mashing and fermenting operations, using items that would have been generally available in the late 1700s. That is a major difference between the whiskey production process in the U.S. and Scotland. In the U.S., we generally tend to leave the grain in during fermentation and distillation."

As I reported after witnessing the first work session of the three-day project, the venture was so successful it produced an especially fine first run from which a 15-gallon cask was filled with the heads of the distillation, to be aged separately from the general run and named the "Director's Cut."

Overall, the goal was to produce 100 bottles of the single malt, to be aged three years as is the Scottish way, in specially constructed casks, then sold around the world to support various charities. The number also is in recognition of the centennial year of the Scotch Whisky Association which supported this project along with the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS).

DISCUS, not so incidentally, spearheaded $2.1 million in distilling industry financial support for the distillery reconstruction and has an ongoing relationship with the Mount Vernon complex.

A distillery worker stokes the still firebox.
To Dowd's Wine Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Brews Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
Back to Dowd's Guides home page.

No comments: