Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: History Lives On In A Glass

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — As white-gloved volunteers carefully doled out the amber liquid into tiny plastic cups, a tall, white-haired man regally strolled the ground, accepting congratulations and handing out compliments to his staff.

It was a special day at Mount Vernon, especially with the presence of the Father of Our Country in the costumed person of actor William Sommerfield, and his distiller James Anderson, played by a very convincing Terry Burgler who had the surreal experience of chatting with "his" own descendants in attendance at the event.

"I can’t believe how tall the family has become over the generations," Burgler remarked with a grin.

"It must be something in the water, or what we do with the water."

This day was the one on which Washington’s rebuilt whiskey distillery was to be opened after years of painstaking work.

Costumed master distillers from whiskeymaking operations in Kentucky and Tennessee were on hand, business rivals who have been working together for several years to get the facility running after a hiatus of 193 years following a devastating fire.

Washington was among the major commercial distillers of his time, his 22,250-square-foot facility huge by the standards of the day.

He and Anderson, a Scot, oversaw an operation that turned out nearly 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year, 16 times the average of other Virginia distilleries.

The facility, which housed five copper pot stills used year-round, began operation in February 1797. Anderson and his son, aided by six slaves, continued work after Washington’s death, but eventually a Washington nephew inherited the distillery and the Andersons moved away.

The last recorded distillations were in 1808.

The rebuilding project was largely underwritten by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) and its member companies to the tune of $2.1 million.

Washington’s whiskey was known as a decent quality spirit –60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, 5 percent malted barley, but it was generally unaged and, therefore, colorless. Not so the modern version made just last year. My tasting notes recorded some pleasant surprises.

"Remarkable color for something only in the wood for a year. … Obviously, the maturation process had been sped up by using small, 10-gallon casks which surround the raw whiskey with very accessible oak. … Fine nose, promising spiciness and herbal nuances. … Much of the expected initial heat from a young whiskey was missing, leaving a warm, palatable taste, along with the expected spice from the rye grain, and a satisfactory finish. … A definitely promising young whiskey I’d love to re-taste a year or two from now."

The Mount Vernon operation also turned out apple, peach and persimmon brandies, vinegar and some specialty whiskies such as a "rectified" style that was filtered to remove impurities, and a cinnamon-flavored style. The common whiskey cost 50 cents a gallon, the rectified and extra-distilled about $1 a gallon, and brandy $1 and up.

Whether the rebuilt distillery will turn out more than the basic rye whiskey will be known as the project matures. It is a completely functioning distillery, probably the only one in the world using an authentic 18th-century process, and housed in a three-story brick, stone and wood structure with one floor holding an embryonic whiskey museum.

While the master distillers have gone back to their real-life jobs, costumed distillers will be working at Mount Vernon each day April through October. Small bottles of Washington’s whiskey will go on sale on premises, probably in mid-summer, the peak tourist time.

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  (c) 2007 Hearst Newspapers

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