Randolph Bragg was banking the fire. He was crouched over on the cement floor, leaning into the hearth and poking at the coals, just like the settlers used to do in the 18th century. “When it was burned enough, there were no flames but it was hot enough that it would give off heat and then in the morning they’d add heat and they were back in business. They could keep the fire going without having to add more fuel to it,” he explained.
Bragg is what’s referred to as an ‘interpreter’, Mount Vernon-speak for tour guide, and he was stoking the fire to fuel the still for an historic undertaking, of sorts, an attempt to distill peach brandy at George Washington’s reconstructed distillery on the premises on a bright day this past autumn. Wait a second...brandy?? Didn’t we just establish that Washington was a rye whiskey maker? Indeed, the ledgers show that the plucky entrepreneur dabbled in eau de vie, too. He certainly didn’t turn it out in the volumes that he made of whiskey, but he ran about 60 gallons of peach brandy, a popular spirit of the day, through his stills each year for consumption in the house. His records show that only eight gallons were sold in 1798. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to about 11,000 gallons of rye that was snatched up annually by thirsty patriots.
The players in this historical reenactment, per se, had traveled to this lush Virginia plot from far and wide and brought a broad range of expertise. The Distilled Spirits Council of the US corralled a few members of its “affiliate” arm of craft distillers,(members produce less than 40,000 nine-litre cases annually). And they were: Lance Winters, distiller, president and owner of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, who also holds a nuclear engineering degree; Thomas and Brian McKenzie (no relation), distiller and owner, respectively, of Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, New York; Ted Huber, sixth generation distiller and owner of Huber Starlight Distillery in Indiana; Joe Dangler of A. Smith Bowman Distillery, Scott Bush of Templeton Rye in Templeton, Iowa, and spearheading the operation was Dave Pickerell, former Maker’s Mark Whisky master distiller whose most high profile project among the many he’s working on is WhistlePig Rye.
The set: the still house, which glowed with a sepia tint even during the day, thanks to the flames’ subtle shadows dancing off the brick. The ‘hard work’ had largely been done, as Huber and McKenzie had each distilled the low wines at their respective facilities and brought them to Mount Vernon. Neither are strangers to working with fruit, which is entirely distinct from working with grains. Starlight, in fact, sits on 500 acres of farms and orchards, (Huber used his own peaches) and Huber’s apple brandy is one of his objects d’arte.
At Finger Lakes, Thomas, an Alabama native with a penchant for overalls, produces several eaux de vie, including an unaged peach. Interestingly, Brian observes, guests gravitate more toward the liqueurs than the eaux de vie in the tasting room. The latter are dryer and the former have sugar added after maceration and taste like a false impersonation of the real fruit. It’s a preference the modern American palate has been conditioned to presumably because of the over-saccharine-isation of the collective diet. That easily explains why products like peach schnapps fell into favour over the last few decades.
Washington’s endeavour to diversify his distilling portfolio was a savvy business move
The day’s task was a team effort, to be sure, as there was no recipe to adhere to, nor manual to follow. There was discussion of distilling proof, which ranged from 80 to 120, and barreling options, a trickier balancing act when dealing with fruit distillate than grain because the barrel can more easily overpower the fruit character. The options were to not barrel, to store for a year and fill a barrel with airspace, or to fill the barrel brim-full to slow oxidation and bottlethe liquid in two years or more. They opted for taking the 48 gallons they produced and filling the lightly toasted barrels brim-full.
Washington’s endeavor to diversify his distilling portfolio was, in a sense, a savvy business move that was prescient of a circumstance microdistillers confront today (even if his whiskey wasn’t aged). Small distilleries are cropping up everywhere, but anyone making whiskey has to wait a few years before they can even dream of seeing a return trickle in on their tremendous investment. To have some kind of cash flow, many distillers are cutting their mettle and getting their name out by releasing unaged products, and Pickerell, who has a consulting company that has contact with many microdistillers, says that fewer and fewer of them are opting for vodka as their cash flow business like they did in the late 1990s, simply because the market is oversaturated. Brandies could be something on the horizon.
“The next thing that’s going to happen is white whiskey, but we’re seeing more and more diversification, like rhum agricole-style rum,” he said. “There’s going to be a number of other things people diversify into while waiting for their whiskey. We could see other brandies, and genever, but that’s probably still a few years out. It’s a difficult position for brandy folks, with the issue of the American palate preferring sweeter things. If you’re gonna make the brandy, why not go ahead and make it into liqueur?”
But diversification is not a simple matter of rotating what’s in the mash bill as if it’s the soup of the day in a restaurant. It involves not only modifying techniques, but philosophies toward raw materials. Winters, who produces a stunning single malt whiskey, also makes cherry, pear and raspberry eaux de vie.
“With regard to distilling fruit, I’m not looking for anything beyond character of the fruit. A wine maker is never lauded for a wine that tastes ‘grapey.’ When I make spirit from fruit, I want the spirit to taste distinctly like the fruit. I want people to say, ‘this tastes like pear,’” he said.
“But I want grain to have a broader spectrum. When distilling with grain, I’m looking for complexities beyond what grain has to offer on its own. Every yeast has its own signature it can put out, and I want to find interesting characters a yeast can put out. If I’m working with something beyond a single malt, I’m looking for complexity beyond a single grain type.” He further explained that corn is a fine foundation for a bourbon mash because of the massive amount of starch it supplies, but it becomes more interesting when wheat and malted barley are layered on top.
Yeast strains are also given careful consideration in brandy distillation, as they’re “selected to enhance the fruit that’s there,” explained Winters. “I use yeast that’s been cultured for pinot noir to accentuate berry characteristic. When working with pear, I use Champagne yeast. Grapes themselves don’t taste like pear, yet yeast contributes that cut green apple aroma and because that’s in the spectrum, it doesn’t fight the green apple element of the pear.”
A critical element when making eaux de vie, though, is the fruit itself and catching it at its peak ripeness, something that whisky makers need not consider when selecting, buying or processing a commodity like grain. Winters needs pounds and pounds of juicy, aromatic peaches, the kind that aren’t grown for supermarket sale, because fruit for mass market is cultivated for shelf stability and appearance, not aromatics. He’d need to go to specialty farms, which could make it prohibitively costly, which could explain why peach brandy might not be appearing on trendy bars’ cocktail lists any time soon.
As far as Frank Coleman, vice president of public affairs for DISCUS, sees it, as the spirit of the founding father loomed large, the distillers “brought back history.”
When George Washington completed with his term as president of the then nascent nation, it was little wonder he wanted a drink. He had, after all, charged the American soldiers that won independence from Great Britain and went on to lead the nation that rose to become a global power. The end of his presidency, however, didn’t mean the end of his visionary instinct. Kicking back on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, he took up the art of distilling and built a distillery in 1797. His distillery burned in 1814, but his records were preserved. Thanks to the efforts of the Mount Vernon Historical Society and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, George Washington’s spirit rises again. Literally.
On July 1, just as Independence Day weekend was fast approaching, hundreds gathered at Mount Vernon, where George Washington’s Distillery had been reconstructed and opened to much fanfare in 2006. DISCUS was a main funder for the $2.1 million distillery project. The occasion this time was the unveiling of the new batch of a very old rye whiskey, which was available for the public to taste, thanks to a law that went into effect in Virginia that day, permitting distilled spirits to be offered at public tastings. “This was one of the largest, most profitable distilleries in 18th century America,” said Jim Rees, executive director of Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, during a short ceremony. “Who knows this about our founding father? He was a cultural innovator! He was looking down the way to the day when the U.S. would become the breadbasket of the world.” Indeed, the general plunged into his distilling endeavor with zeal, and when the spirit was ready in 1799, he penned a letter to his nephew urging, “Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.” Flash forward two centuries and, suffice it to say, the demand still brisk. Only 471 375-mililitre bottles were available for sale that Thursday in July. Taking a lead role in producing the historic spirit was David Pickerell, former master distiller of Maker’s Mark. GW’s original recipe, found in his papers, called for 60 per cent rye, 35 per cent corn and 5 per cent malted barley. Everything was done on site to hew as close to historical accuracy as they could. That was not easy feat.
“It was quite an adventure,” Pickerell said. “We had tools from the period we didn’t know what they were. There was no manual.”