George Washington’s estate on the Potomac River hasn’t been home to a working distillery for about two centuries, but that changed Tuesday as whiskey makers toiled on the founding father’s popular recipe.
“FOR ME, it’s like standing on hallowed ground,” Jim Beam master distiller Jerry Dalton said as he took a break from re-creating the 18th-century recipe to survey the scene, three miles from the main house where Washington lived from 1754 until he died in 1799.
Washington started his whiskey business in 1797, after leaving politics. It was a thriving enterprise that yielded 11,000 gallons of whiskey and a profit of $7,500 — or about $105,000 in today’s dollars — in one year.
Today’s top whiskey makers spent hours Tuesday mixing, heating and cooling Washington’s “mash bill,” or recipe, of rye, corn and malted barley. They then ran their creation through a copper still atop an open fire.
Dalton looked relieved after sipping the creation, which he called spicy and aromatic.
“I had concerns about it. I mean, this is so primitive,” Dalton said eyeing the outdoor flame and ancient-looking pots. “I thought it would be a little murky, but that’s not the case at all.”
They’re planning to age the whiskey in two barrels for a couple years, and when they think it’s ready, they will auction off an estimated 96 bottles of it to benefit the Mount Vernon estate.
MANY A SLIP
The distillers did hit a couple of snags with their brew.
A special yeast that was shipped to Virginia from the Woodford Reserve distillery in central Kentucky died en route, so the whiskey makers had to pick up ordinary yeast at a suburban Washington grocery store.
Also, the team apparently used too much heat during a test and produced a sample that “tasted like burnt toast, burnt rye bread toast,” said Joseph Dangler, who makes Virginia Gentleman bourbon.
Just adjacent to the outdoor area where the distillers re-created Washington’s whiskey are the rocks and bricks that make up the foundation of the first president’s distillery. The Distilled Spirits Council, the industry’s trade group, is spending more than $1 million to excavate the site and rebuild the distillery. The project is expected to be completed in two years.
Mount Vernon Associate Director Dennis Pogue said officials would not distill liquor at the site but would explain to visitors how Washington did it back in the late 1700s.
As schoolchildren ran around on a class trip, Pogue talked about the careful “balancing act” of explaining Washington’s life to visitors without promoting alcohol.
The association has been helpful to the industry, said Phil Lynch, vice president of Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Forman, which makes top whiskey seller Jack Daniels.
“George Washington, he was the one that won the Revolutionary War. He was the first president,” Lynch said. “It helps put into perspective that there’s nothing wrong with the distilling process.”
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