4:59am

Sat October 22, 2011
The Salt

Drinking Whiskey In The Spirit Of George Washington

Originally published on Sun October 23, 2011 3:31 am

Virginians have always enjoyed their liquor, and for much of the 18th century, their preferred drink was rum. But when war and tariffs made imported rum hard to come by, George Washington saw an opportunity. Why not make liquor out of grains he was growing on his farms?

"He was a businessman and he was a very, very successful one," says Dennis Pogue, the director of preservation programs at Mount Vernon.

By 1799, Washington's distillery was the single most profitable part of his plantation. He couldn't make enough whiskey to meet demand, Pogue says. Now the distillery has been restored, and I got a chance to see what Washington's rye whiskey probably tasted like.

"This is the first bottle that we've opened for tasting. So, yeah, this is an important day," Pogue says.

Pogue has invited me and a few dozen other guests to the distillery for a preview of the first aged rye whiskey to come out of Mount Vernon since the distillery was rebuilt and reopened.

It's like being in a dark, cavernous barn. And there are the distinctive smells of smoke and fermentation. The distillers are hard at work, and the grain they're using to make whiskey is cooking or steaming in a boiler the size of a bathtub.

"You're essentially cooking the grain, and so you're turning the starches in the grain to sugar," Pogue says.

"And so the idea ... [is] to take that and put it into the still," he says. "And then after it's distilled down, the alcohol increases considerably [and] the water content is reduced."

When you distill down to 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol, it doesn't take many sips to start feeling a little woozy. And for a crowd like this one — made up of journalists, whiskey devotees and history buffs — the opportunity to taste whiskey straight from George Washington's distillery, well, you would have thought they were channeling the man himself.

"Standing exactly where he stood — being able to see the old books, see the old ledgers and come here and see the stills as though they may have been here the exact same way — it's beyond something special," says Tim Welly, who's overseeing the creation of a grain-to-glass distillery in the Hudson Valley. "It's recreating history."

"A true mark of a distiller is how easily drinkable this liquid is," he says. "Two years in the barrel softens its harsh edges and really showcases how beautiful of a product you can make."

But there is some uncomfortable history here. In Washington's day, the hard work of making whiskey fell to six slaves.

It's a fact of history that Pogue says he would never paper over. Washington was a man of his time, and the whiskey we're drinking is made to his exact recipe.

"It's 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley," he says. "I think that Washington was probably a neat guy, so I think he's drinking this neat."

If you'd like to try the whiskey, you've got to make a trip to Mount Vernon. There are only 300 bottles available — at $185 a pop.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President George Washington had business interests. He invested in the C&O Canal; he operated a plantation and merchant mill that exported flour to the West Indies and Europe. He even owned his own ocean-going merchant vessels. None of these businesses survived today, but one of his plantation enterprises is making a commercial comeback. NPR's Allison Aubrey took us to the distillery at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate in Virginia where she found bottles of aged rye whiskey that come with a price tag George Washington himself might find hard to swallow.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Virginians have always enjoyed their liquor. And for much of the 18th century, their preferred drink was rum. But when war and tariffs made imported rum nearly impossible to come by, George Washington saw an opportunity. Why not make liquor out of grains he was growing on his farm?

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

DENNIS POGUE: He was a businessman and he was a very, very successful one.

AUBREY: Dennis Pogue directs Preservation Programs at Mount Vernon. He says, by 1799, Washington's distillery was the single most profitable part of his plantation. He couldn't make enough whiskey to meet demand. Now the distillery has been restored, and I'm about to get a chance to see what Washington's rye whiskey probably tasted like.

POGUE: This is the first bottle we've opened for tasting. So yeah, this is an important day.

AUBREY: Pogue has invited me and a few dozen other guests for a preview of the first aged rye whiskey to come out of the reconstructed distillery.

It's like a steam bath standing here.

POGUE: It really is.

AUBREY: It's like being in a dark, cavernous barn. And there are the distinctive smells of smoke and fermentation. The distillers are hard at work and the grain they're using to make whiskey is cooking or steaming in a boiler the size of a bathtub.

POGUE: You're essentially cooking the grain. And so you're turning the starches in the grain to sugar. And so that's the whole point of it all.

AUBREY: Got it. Can we stick our finger in here and take a little sample?

POGUE: Yes. And this is about...

AUBREY: Oh, it's bitter.

POGUE: It is bitter. It's about five or six percent alcohol. And so the idea then will be to take that and put it in the still. And then after it's distilled down, the alcohol increases considerably, the water content is reduced.

AUBREY: Now, when you distill down to 140 proof or 70 percent alcohol, it doesn't take too many sips to start feeling a little woozy. And for a crowd like this one, made up of journalists, whiskey devotees and history buffs, the opportunity to taste whiskey straight from George Washington's distillery, well, you would have thought we were channeling the man himself.

TIM WELLY: Standing exactly where he stood, being able to be - see the old books, see the old ledgers, come here and see the stills as though they may have been here the exact same way, it's beyond something special. It's recreating history.

AUBREY: That's Tim Welly. He was visiting from the Hudson Valley, where he's trying to make a go of it as a distiller at a small distillery.

So you got a little taste there. Take a little sip for me. What comes to mind?

WELLY: I'm tasting the two-year-old rye whiskey that they created here. This is sharp. It is delicious. It is in everything that rye is. It's very perfumed and almost sweet to the taste.

AUBREY: That's what shocked me as is that I wasn't - I was expecting that sort of get you in the back of the throat. But this is a lot easier to swallow.

WELLY: A true mark of a distiller is how easily drinkable this liquid is. Two years in the barrel softens its harsh edges and really showcases how beautiful of a product you can make.

AUBREY: But there is some uncomfortable history here. Back in Washington's day, the hard work of making whiskey fell to six slaves, a fact of history that Mount Vernon's Dennis Pogue says he would never paper over. Washington was, after all, a man of his time and the whiskey we're drinking is made to his exact recipe.

POGUE: So its 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and five percent malted barley. So I think you're tasting all of that.

AUBREY: Now, would Washington have had it straight like this? Or do we know that he liked a mixer?

POGUE: Ah, yes. We don't really know how he's drinking it. I think that Washington was probably a neat guy, so I think he's drinking this neat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Straight.

POGUE: Straight.

AUBREY: If you'd like to try the whiskey, you've got to make a trip to Mount Vernon in Virginia. There are only 300 bottles available at a $185 a pop.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Bottoms up, you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.