The Tasting Panel magazine

March 2018

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march 2018  /  the tasting panel  /  89 G eorge Washington's Distillery at Mount Vernon—the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail—marked the tenth anniversary of its reopening in a major way last October. At its Distill with the Masters event, 13 of the big- gest names in the whiskey world gathered at the spot where Washington founded the distillery in 1797 to supplement his onsite milling business. Though it wasn't established until he was 65, the venture now stands among the Founding Father's most lasting achievements. The master distillers—among them Dave Pickerell of WhistlePig and Hillrock Estate Distillery, Wes Henderson of Angel's Envy, Fred Noe of Jim Beam, and Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek—descended on Mount Vernon to create an anniversary spirit that'll be laid down in barrel and eventu- ally released. In order to adhere to the whiskey-making traditions of the 18th century, these top distillers, typically accustomed to state-of-the-art equipment and technology, instead had to rely on far more primitive methods. True Grit in the Gristmill Before plunging straight into production, the group acquainted themselves with the facility by visiting the gristmill; built in 1770, it's still used to grind the grains used in the distilled spirits. Ever the meticulous business owner, Washington had ordered that freshwater be shipped all the way from France's Marne river. He upgraded the mill in 1791, installing elevators linking every machine in the facility for increased efficiency, and by 1799, Washington was producing almost 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey annually—vaulting the distillery into the ranks of the country's largest at the time. After a brief tour, the true work began. Inside a dark building thick with steam and dust, the volunteers carried wooden gallon buckets of water from the boiler to the unwieldy mash tubs. After manually adding hefty bags of corn and rye, the crew agitated the grains to incorporate them before using wooden rakes to break up the "mash balls" that result from starch clumping together. The mash was then poured into fermentation tanks heated by wood—for the record, it takes 110 trips to fill the fermen- ter—before the wort was transported by buckets to the stills, where crystal-clear moonshine whiskey that will age six years in barrel eventually started to flow. (By comparison, Washington's two offerings were an unaged whiskey and another aged just two years.) Steven Bashore, who serves as Director of Historic Trades at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, said that immersing the producers in a distilling process true to Washington's time period helps ensure they all "have a hands-on experience." "It's very gritty in here with all the bucketing and rowing," he added. "There are lots of atmo- spherics of 18th-century distilling." A Toast to Entrepreneurship In fact, Mount Vernon is one of the only spots in the coun- try where distillation is still done this way—by staff dressed in period attire, no less—and the operation has seen enough growth to warrant a bigger warehouse for aging. The impetus for restoring the distillery arose nearly two decades ago, after archivists discovered documentation showing exactly how the facility was built and initially oper- ated. It was reconstructed through a joint venture by Mount Vernon and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and reopened its doors in March 2007. When the tenth anniversary celebration rolled around, Bashore said it made sense to bring in not only prestigious master distillers, but those already acquainted with the facility, as well. "My dad [Lincoln Henderson] was here in 2003 with the original distillers, and bringing my son Kyle now is really cool," said Henderson, Co-Founder of Angel's Envy. After the batches of whiskey were put into barrels, Rob Shenk, Mount Vernon's Senior Vice President of Visitor Engagement, explained during a press conference that while most Americans immediately recognize Washington as a victorious general and the first U.S. president, they don't typically associate him with the spirits industry and are unaware he went on to become a successful businessman after leaving office. "That's a story we're still introducing to many of our guests," Shenk said, joking that instead of playing golf or frequenting the speaking circuit, Washington invested everything he could to make Mount Vernon a profitable enterprise. "He didn't need to be doing this—he wanted to." After signing a barrel filled with the anniversary expres- sion, the producers rose their glasses with a boisterous exclamation of "huzzah": a common toast in the Colonial era. On that particular day, it served as an homage to Washington, to his unfettered entrepreneurship, and to the classic American spirit that continues to thrive today. PHOTO: PATRICK GAVIN Fred Noe of Jim Beam was one of the master distillers invited to the distillery to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its reopening. Steven Bashore, Director of Historic Trades at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, with a sampling of George Washington Straight Rye Whiskey. PHOTO: PATRICK GAVIN

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