There were critical decisions that had to be made, and not much time to make them. There was guesswork that had to be done by fellows whose livelihoods are founded on precise, fixed measurements and practices; and there was a man in colonial garb tossing hand cut logs into an oven to fuel the fire that heated the stills.
Recently, three distinguished Scottish distillers visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, to conduct an experiment. Even someone with a general disgust for hyperbole and sensationalism, like myself, could call this most groundbreaking. Historic, even. John Campbell, Laphroaig's distillery manager, Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation for Glenmorangie, and Andrew Cant, Cardhu group manager, had come to this bucolic plot in Alexandria, Virginia to make a single malt.
Until it burned down in 1814, Washington’s distillery stood on the very spot where it was replicated with painstaking attention to historical accuracy. The stills are heated with direct flame, wood hand-fed into the brick chamber fuels the fire. Aside from plastic buckets and a rubber hose, there are no anachronistic devices to be found. Also, laptops set up on tables notwithstanding, it’s precisely what George Washington beheld when he walked in each morning to distill rye whiskey, a skill he learned from his land manager James Anderson, a Scottish immigrant.
So the distillers were to make a single malt here at America’s first commercial distillery. The enterprise took place under the stewardship of Dave Pickerell, who spent 14 years as Maker’s Mark’s master distiller.
It was Monday and the distillery smelled like a fireplace. Five copper pot stills, ranging from 70 to 95 gallons, were propped up on brick chambers. Funnels and jugs were scattered on the brick floor. New make was poured into three Rubbermade bins.
"Like any group effort, the project required patience, communication and consideration"
“We’re using trusty technique of open top bucket,” Lumsden quipped as he used a water bubbler jug to transport spirit into the large vessel. “The technique is the same, what’s produced is similar, we’re just getting our shoes and boiler suits dirty.”
“It’s worked for 200 years,” Pickerell noted. He took a reading of the proof: “It’s at 126.9 proof. The question is: what proof do we want to cut it to?”
With that, he posed a challenge the Scots would have to work through taking unfamiliar factors into account: barrel size, dryer weather conditions.
“We’ll aim for 63.5 [ABV]. It’s what we tend to fill at in Scottyland,” Lumsden breezily put forward.
Despite the familiar smell of cooking mash; despite working with barley grown and malted in Scotland and ground in the mill beside the primitive distillery; despite the reflexive act of taking rapid, precise readings off hydrometers, the three masters of their craft were out of their element in these modest quarters.
“We have rules in our head, but what we know got thrown out the window. You just have to react to what comes out of the still. It was energising,” said Campbell. “When we tasted the first distillation, I thought: wow, that’s good! Rules in my head were wrong. I still don’t believe we got a spirit of that quality after one distillation.” That spirit rang with notes of clove; it finished heavy and meaty. Despite its diesel proof, it had a pleasant creaminess.
“It’s identifiable as a Scotch,” Cant remarked. “A small amount of lightly peated malt is very much in the background. I think it has a nice bit of fruit and nuttiness. Hopefully the cask will give it some of that American sweetness.”
The distillers made four mashes, using 280 pounds of malted barley each time. Of the total 1120 pounds, 100 pounds were peat smoked. Contrary to plans, the new make was so “glorious,” in Pickerell’s words, that they made an impulsive decision to barrel it. They filled a 10-gallon barrel, a used Bourbon cask re-coopered in Scotland, with the first distillate and dubbed it the “directors’ cut.” They sent the rest through the still a second time and barrelled it in two five-gallon barrels.
Cant also contemplated the need to abruptly modify routines and recalibrate instincts: “It doesn’t look like any still I’ve ever known,” he marvelled.
“You have in your head how the still runs, but you see it and you have to rethink, you’ve got to play with what’s in front of you. We had to be quick.”
The Mount Vernon Distillery, which opened in 2006, was largely funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s Vice President of Preservation who helped oversee the project, will be the first to tell you he never expected to have a functioning commercial distillery on the site, let alone the command centre for a landmark collaboration between representatives of two distinct but deeply interconnected traditions.
The Scotch distillers’ visit had been in the works for a number of years, but their arrival was well timed with a few other auspicious circumstances.
First, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association. The bottles will be auctioned off for charity when they come of age in three years. Also, just that morning, SWA released its 2011 industry figures. Gavin Hewitt, CEO of the SWA, called 2011 a “record year for Scotch whisky.” Globally Scotch sales increased by 23 per cent during 2010 to $6.7 billion in customs value.
As Hewitt sees it, now is the time to take growth in new directions.
“It’s innovation, to do something so modern, so different in such an historic environment,” he said. “You can’t just sit back on your laurels. Live it!” he said.
One of the biggest challenges for Pickerell was converting gallons to litres, Fahrenheit to Celsius, and pounds to kilograms on the fly. Like any group effort, the project required patience, communication and consideration of others’ perspectives.
“It’s like marriage,” Pickerell says: “It’s not really about one person exercising control. It’s about working together.”