At the turn of the 21st century, archeological work at Mount Vernon, the home of our first President, George Washington, uncovered evidence of his distillery. With funding and help from DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), the distilling industry’s group in Washington D.C., they started working on a plan to rebuild the distillery and start making whiskey to support the historical site. They started small by having Vendome make a replica 18th century pot still and using it to make some whiskey. These photographs are from that first run on the small still. Please note that this was not a historical re-enactment, despite the costumes, just an homage to Washington. A re-enactment would have included the six enslaved African-Americans that made the whiskey in Washington’s day.
This project was a group effort by many of the distilleries of the time. I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to that first day of distillation and these photographs were taken that day by my friend Howie Stoops.
The first photograph shows the pot still in operation. The still is set into a brick fire box with a wood fire heating the beer. Distillers from just about every distillery in the United States were present to make this whiskey. It was a rye whiskey made from a mash bill that was determined by reading the historical records of the distillery.
The still itself is very small compared to what was used at the original distillery and the day’s production only filled one small barrel with rye whiskey. The image shows not only the still, but also the worm where the spirit is condensed and collected in a jug. After the heads were cut, the spirit was collected in another jug and transported to the barrel.
The second image shows some of the distillers in period costume filling the barrel. Lincoln Henderson, from Brown-Forman at the time, is pouring the new make into a small barrel. To Lincoln’s left is Jerry Dalton, who was with Beam at the time, and with his back to the camera is Jimmy Russell, who, of course, represented Wild Turkey. George Washington looks on with a smile on his face. Chris Morris, also from Brown-Forman is in both photographs, as well. I am not sure who all the other people are in the photographs because most of them have their backs to the camera.
The whiskey was entered into the barrel at a fairly low proof of around 100 proof and was destined to be aged and sold to raise money for the distillery project. This was the beginning of a very successful project. The foundations of the distillery were uncovered at this event, and those same foundations became the foundations for the new, replica distillery built.
This new distillery is very much making whiskey as they did at the end of the 18th century, when George Washington was alive.
The new distillery is making very good rye whiskey, but they are also making other products. They have made a rum, some apple brandy, some malt whiskey and even some Bourbon. Steve Bashore, the distiller and miller at the site, hosts distillers who come to help him make spirits. These are not only American distillers as he hosted a couple of distillers from Scotland when he made malt whiskey. It is always a learning experience for Steve, but I think I am safe to say that those who come to help him make whiskey, rum or brandy, learn something from the experience about distilling with wood fire copper pot stills.
The result is that there has been some fine spirits made on these stills. They can be purchased in the gift shop at Mount Vernon and you can order it on-line if you live in Virginia or D.C.
The cost of these spirits are not cheap. The 375ml bottles can cost a couple hundred dollars, but what you get is worth it. The aged rye whiskey is very good. It cost a lot to make this whiskey so that is part of the reason for the high price, but it should be considered that the sales of these bottles also support not only the distillery, but also the historic home and grounds. I look at it as a donation to Mount Vernon where I also get a bottle of some of the finest rye whiskey I have ever tasted. And it all started with this event of making whiskey with a small pot still over open fire.
Photos Courtesy of Howie Stoops from the archives of Michael Veach