This is the 200th post on bourbonveach.com!
Rosemary and I spent a day with Steve Bashore, the Distiller at Mount Vernon while we were visiting Washington D.C. It was Rosemary’s birthday and we wanted to do a special distillery trip again this year. Last year it was spent at her favorite distillery, Michter’s, so I had a hard act to follow this year. It turned out to be a great day and we were both very pleased with the trip.
We arrived in front of the visitor’s center and Steve met us there with a piper in full costume serenading her with “Happy Birthday”. From there we visited the George Washington Library and had a tour of the book and manuscript collection. The library is a very secure place and has restricted access mostly to visiting scholars, so appointments are necessary to enter the building. However if you have a reason to research in the library they have lodging for scholars who need to spend long periods of time researching their subjects. We were lucky enough to meet a scholar from Scotland who is working on the history of Washington’s distiller, James Anderson. Anderson came to the United States because of bankruptcy in Scotland due to the laws imposed there that drove many small distillers out of business.
In the manuscript room we were shown some letters to and from Washington. The first was to his plantation manager stating that he would be delayed coming home because of “trouble in the West”, the whiskey rebellion. The other two letters were between Washington and Anderson as Anderson worked to get a job as a distiller at Mt. Vernon. Washington was a bit of a hard sell on the project and writes that he needed to know more about Anderson and Anderson writes that a distillery would be a very profitable addition to the plantation and then tells of his qualifications. The books in the collection were of varied subjects and since Washington was a very innovative farmer, he collected many books on agriculture.
After the library we visited the museum where many artifacts are used to tell the story of George and Martha. There is a whole section on the distillery with artifacts and a ledger on display showing the grains used and spirits produced. The featured exhibit while we were there focused on his slaves and how they played an important role at Mt. Vernon. It was a very complicated story with some enslaved people owned by Washington while others belonging to Martha’s family. Washington is the only founding father who became President of the United States and was a slave owner, who freed his slaves in his will. Unfortunately because of the multiple ownership of some slaves, he was not able to free them all, just those of whom he had clear legal ownership.
After we left the museum we ate lunch at the restaurant before proceeding on to the Mansion. Steve arranged for our tour to be given by a very experienced and talented tour guide. We learned of how the house was in disrepair before it was purchased by The Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1858. This organization still owns the estate and it is a privately funded historic site with no money from the government. We started in the servant’s building and moved into the main house. The rooms appear very similar to when George and Martha lived there but I was surprised to hear just how many artifacts are not just period, but Washington family owned. In the early 19th century many things were sold to maintain the estate but many of them have come back through donations and purchase by the Ladies Association. We were allowed to go to the third floor and to see the room that Martha lived in after George passed. Steve even ventured up a ladder to look out of the cupola. We ended the tour of the house with a trip to the cellar where they are doing an archeological dig in preparation for some drainage work.
Leaving the house we then visited the tomb of George and Martha. We were surprised to be invited to take place in a wreath ceremony in the tomb. I was asked to read a prayer penned by George Washington and then they removed the chain, opened the gate and Rosemary and I took an evergreen wreath into the tomb and placed it between the marble sarcophagi. It was a very special experience and a privilege for both of us.
We then traveled to the Mill and Distillery which is some miles down the road from the mansion. Steve was excited to show us the mill since his background is in milling. It is a very impressive building with 18th century technology grinding the grain not only for the distillery, but also for sale in the gift shop and I hope to local restaurants and stores. The distillery is also 18th century technology with five wood fire heated copper pot stills. They are making, rye whiskey, apple and peach brandy and rum with these stills and the bottles can be purchased in the gift shop. We tasted the rye whiskey as a new make, as a two years old and as a four years old from bottles Steve had on hand and then Steve pulled a sample of almost four years old from a barrel. All were very good with the four years old tasting of stewed peaches, rye grass, caramel and baking spice. We then tasted some aged peach and new make apple brandies. Both were very good with the peach tasting of peach cobbler with peaches rye bread and baking spices while the apple tasted of a crisp, green apple.
We ended our day at the distillery. Not everyone gets this private tour experience and Rosemary and I are grateful to Steve for arranging this tour on her birthday. Even without a back door tour like this, Mount Vernon is an excellent way to spend the day and don’t forget to purchase some corn meal, grits and whiskey from the gift shop to take home with you.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl