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Drinking Whiskey In The Spirit Of George Washington

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
October 22, 2011

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.

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“This is the first bottle we’ve opened for tasting. So, yes, this is an important day,” he 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 for 200 years.

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 bath tub.

“You’re essentially cooking the grain, and so you’re turning the starch in grain to sugar,” Pogue says.

“And so the idea is to take it, put it in the still,” he says. “After it’s distilled, the alcohol increases considerably and the water 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 … see old books, ledgers and the stills — as they would have been here the exact same say,” says Tim Welly, who’s overseeing the creation of a grain-to-glass distillery in the Hudson Valley. “It’s beyond something special; it’s recreating history.”

“[Taste] is a true mark of a distiller,” he says. “Two years in the barrel takes off rough edges and showcases how beautiful 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, 30 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley,” he says. “I think he was a neat guy, so I think he’s drinking it neat. Straight? Straight!”

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 a $185 a pop.

Preservationists at Mount Vernon, with the help of the Distilled Sprits Council, have restored George Washington’s rye whiskey distillery. Aged rye whiskey made to The Founding Father’s specifications is now available — for a price.

Preservationists at Mount Vernon, with the help of the Distilled Sprits Council, have restored George Washington’s rye whiskey distillery. Aged rye whiskey made to The Founding Father’s specifications is now available — for a price. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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