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Drinking George Washington's Whiskey
The biggest question on my mind before a recent trip to the Mt. Vernon distillery: "Did George Washington's wooden teeth add a little bit of extra aging to whatever whiskey he drank?" I quickly learned that the wooden teeth thing is a myth. One set of his false teeth was composed of a cow's tooth, one of Washington's own teeth, and hippopotamus ivory, making his mouth a Noah's Ark of dental wizardry. As far as the whiskey he drank, it was an unaged rye.
The distillery at Mt. Vernon was rebuilt in 2009 and has begun to produce whiskey in much the same way it was made in Washington's time. The only thing that reminded me that I wasn't actually in the eighteenth century was the pair of sneakers worn by a worker otherwise wearing period dress and the fact that I wasn't dying from quinsy. The equipment in the gristmill where the distillery's grains were ground was made of stone, wood, and held together by leather straps and rope. The stillhouse smelled of wood smoke and wooden paddles were used to stir the mash.
The whiskey is based on a recipe used by Washington and his farm manager, James Anderson, and is distilled primarily from rye. David Pickerell, former Master Distiller at Maker's Mark, who now consults with numerous distilling upstarts, helped determine the recipe and process by delving into historical records and old distilling manuals. Pickerell holds multiple degrees in chemistry, and no doubt brought his legendary knowledge of current distilling methods to bear.
The distillery is only 75x30 feet, small by today's standards but one of the largest of its kind in the eighteenth century, holding five stills that produced over 11,000 gallons per year at the distillery's peak. Whiskey was one of Mt. Vernon's most important business ventures and demand for it was brisk from the beginning, according to Steven Bashore, who currently manages the distillery and gristmill.
History books rarely mention distilling's contribution to Mt. Vernon's finances in the final years of Washington's life, perhaps because of historically unfavorable opinions of alcohol, but Mt. Vernon is now attempting to highlight its distillery as part of the nation's heritage, perhaps because attitudes toward whiskey are now more positive. During the tour, Bashore told me the historic site is promoting the idea of Washington as a businessman as much as he was a military and political leader, and hoped the distillery would help modern historians interpret him as such.
If there were ever any misconceptions about Washington's business acumen, the distillery's current operators leave no doubt about their own marketing savvy. The distillery sells an unaged version of the rye for $95/pint and a version aged for two years for $185/pint. The price is astronomical for something that hasn't been aged, but bottles fly off the shelves within minutes when available, no doubt due to the novelty of purchasing Washington's whiskey.
The brisk sales are also probably due in part to booming sales of American whiskey in recent years, particularly those of "craft" brands. A unique combination of old and new trends, Mt. Vernon's whiskey is perfectly placed—nothing screams craft more than guys in period costumes squinting through the haze of wood smoke as they make whiskey without electricity.
Of course, this also made me wonder how the whiskey would taste. The truth is that much of the whiskey produced during Washington's time probably wasn't very good. Keeping equipment clean was difficult, and problems with consistency plagued the early whiskey market. Aging also would have presented a problem—time in a barrel is a crucial part of making the world's best whiskies, teasing out sophistication and nuance from raw spirit, but a lot of early whiskey was sold as a brandless bulk commodity, giving producers little incentive to spend the time and money to age their product.
Fortunately, a tasting was part of my tour. I was excited, but braced myself for disappointment. I'm typically not a fan of unaged whiskies, and remain suspicious that many on the market today are largely marketing ploys to give distilleries quick revenue without accruing extra expense by aging their product, especially when I see some of the prices they are charging. Just as we manipulate our conversations of history to account for changing values or tastes, some modern distilleries have also shifted the context framing our conversations about "white whiskey", arguing that it's somehow more honest and authentic because that's what they drank on the frontier. I don't always buy that nostalgic argument, and I want the eighteenth century's whiskey about as much as I want George Washington's dental plan.
So I was surprised when it actually tasted good, better than most other white whiskey I've tried. I generally find that unaged spirits distilled mainly from rye are more agreeable than those distilled primarily from other grains, and that was the case here. Regardless of what grain comprises a whiskey's base, the barrel has a transformative effect, and I find that raw rye distillate begins that journey from a better place than base spirits that become bourbon or Scotch, even though those other whiskies usually make up the distance by the end of their trip.
It also helps that Mt. Vernon filters its unaged rye to remove some of the harsher flavors, a modern twist on tradition that some other unaged whiskies on today's market also employ. Many modern distillers hold degrees in chemical engineering and are well-schooled to know how to tweak tradition when needed, a case very much in point with Washington's whiskey. It might not be exactly what Washington drank, but where past meets present, it's probably a lot better.
About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.