Production

Recreating history

What happens to United States Presidents after they leave office? The first one made whiskey. Charles K. Cowdery reports
By Charles K Cowdery
Mount Vernon is George Washington’s estate in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. It is America’s most-visited historic home. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns the estate today, is a private, non-profit organization founded in 1853. It is the oldest national historic preservation organization in the USA.One tradition of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is that board members stay at the estate during their periodic meetings.In the past, this meant they slept in the mansion.By the 1950s, this practice was deemed incompatible with the structure’s preservation and a new building, the Quarters, was erected on the grounds a discrete distance from the historic structures.I am quartered at the Quarters on occasion of the dedication of George Washington’s distillery. It is late evening when I arrive and in the morning I proceed downstairs to the kitchen. There, making coffee for us, is the Father of Our Country, attired as the gentleman farmer he became again in 1797.An historic reenactor so convincing I never thought to ask his real name, the General greets us in character and we are given our informal introduction to George Washington, distiller, by the man himself.It has long been known that George Washington operated a distillery on his estate in the years between his presidency, which ended in 1797, and his death in 1799.This was usual for a large grain farmer who also operated a gristmill. With a distillery, surplus grain and grist could be made into whiskey, a commodity that would not rot nor be eaten by rats, and which usually could be sold for a tidy profit.Exactly 300 years later, the distilled spirits industry began sponsoring a project to excavate, study and reconstruct Washington’s distillery, which had also made rye whiskey as well as brandy, rum and other spirits.In late 2005, the cornerstone of the reconstructed distillery is being dedicated.That is the ceremony I am here to attend.But first there is rum to make. Before most of the press arrives the distillers change into their 18th century garb, but they have already been working hard all morning and for several days before.The still looks like a small brick barbeque pit with a bulbous copper pot where the grill should be. Awood fire is built underneath it.The top of the still leads to a coiled pipe immersed in a barrel full of cool stream water. At the base of the barrel, 130° proof rum dribbles out, drop by drop, into a small ceramic pitcher that takes painfully long to fill.This still would have been tiny even in Washington’s day. He had five with a total capacity of 616 gallons, an average of 123 gallons each. In his last year of production, Washington made 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey and dropped $7,500 to the estate’s bottom line, a princely sum (though I wince to use such a royalist expression).Also on the agenda this day is a ceremonial bottling of whiskey vatted at Mount Vernon a month earlier. This is whiskey donated by the member companies, 11 different American whiskeys in all, so it is a dash of Maker’s Mark and a splash of Jim Beam, with wondeful dollops of Virginia Gentleman, I. W. Harper, George Dickel, Platte Valley, Rebel Yell, Jack Daniels, Very Old Barton, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.Each had aged separately on the Mount Vernon grounds for several years, and now had mingled together in wood for about 30 days.In Washington’s time, whiskey was sold by the barrel and if decanted into smaller containers for resale, the containers likely were supplied by the purchasers and were ceramic or metal, not glass.The glass bottles into which the vatted whiskey is going are based on a 1788 design.Since whiskey wasn’t normally bottled, there aren’t any 18th century bottling lines to refer to, so the hand-bottling performed for the cameras is improvised.A yard of cheesecloth, for filtering, is wadded into the wide end of a copper funnel, which is inserted into the top of a bottle. A copper whiskey thief (think soda straw on a grand scale) is inserted into an open barrel, extracting whiskey which then is released into the funnel, filling the bottle.Two or three trips to the barrel and the bottle is full. Slow and inefficient, but picturesque.George Washington and the distillers aren’t the only ones in costume. There are men portraying Revolutionary War soldiers too, who haul up a cannon for the cornerstone ceremony.Neighbours in the nearby McMansions will be thrilled about that. The many political dignitaries who limoed over from the capital are in costume too, their nearly identical dark blue suits more uniform than the uniforms of the reenactors.Tonight will be their time. Alcohol in America is, after all, heavily taxed and highly regulated, and DISCUS is primarily the industry’s lobbyist. Tonight bottles of the vatted whiskey will sell for $250 each, the proceeds to benefit hurricane relief. Now, in the early afternoon, some of it is overflowing into tin cups, and one of the General’s men may need help getting home.Other lips pronounce it toffee-flavored, with notes of chocolate and caramel, plum and vanilla, and smoky almost to the point of being sooty from long aging.That night, as blue-suited swells swarm across the grounds, praising each other, eating lamb chops and baby vegetables under a big white tent, and drinking from a prodigiously stocked open bar, an eagle-eyed journalist spots Martell Cordon Bleu on said bar. So in gratitude for France’s © ZEFA Top: The improvised hand-filling of bottles; Above: Washington stands beside the small brick rum still; Below: Building the fire beneath the still help defeating the English and securing our Liberty, your poor scriveners switch to Cognac.Archeology is a practical science.Archeologists dig whatever they have money to dig, knowing that everything else will stay safely buried until they get around to it. The distilled spirits producers and marketers who are paying for Washington’s distillery get to bask in his purifying glow, but knowledge benefits too.We are gaining a much better understanding of how a commercial scale distillery operated in the late 18th century and we are learning more about George Washington, the entrepreneur.The distillery at Mount Vernon has obtained all of the necessary licences from the federal and state governments, and should begin making whiskey soon.That leaves one final bit of verisimilitude to add, a hog pen using spent mash as feed.That’s how it would have been in 1797.I wonder if the McMansion dwellers will object?