President George Washington entertained a few hundred of his friends on the lawn of Mount Vernon Wednesday evening, hosting cocktails on the piazza of his white-columned home, inviting guests inside for tours by candlelight, and offering the thrill of fireworks over the Potomac and a steak and potatoes dinner under a tent. Washington also welcomed the evening’s other host, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, to auction off rare rye whiskey and peach brandy from his own distillery. The whiskey went for $27,000 to a phone bidder in Aberdeen, Scotland, and the pair of peach brandies for $17,000 to a phone bidder in Zagreb, Croatia.
Washington was portrayed by Dean Malissa, who gave a solid and amusing performance—especially his remarks from the stage—while done up in a well-fitted colonial general’s uniform. “You have the opportunity to bid on a bottle of whiskey that will stand you well,” he said of the rye that was distilled in 2003, the first batch of whiskey made at Mount Vernon in 200 years. As for the peach brandy, he had a warning, recalling the time he drank some of it in Fish House Punch at Philadelphia’s Schuykill Fishing Company, which “had nothing to do with fish,” he noted. “As you know, I keep a diary every day of my life,” he said, “but after drinking the Fish House Punch, there was no entry for three days.”
In addition to the thousands of dollars earned by bidding on Washington’s spirits, tens of thousands more came in through donations at the dinner and a silent auction, which included items as diverse as more rare booze, a football signed by Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and an electric guitar signed by Chris Daughtry—the last time we checked, the high bid for that was $1,000. In total, the event raised $350,000 for Mount Vernon’s National Library for the Study of George Washington and the Wounded Warriors Family Support Program. Another part of the evening was the formal induction of new members into the George Washington Spirits Society, whose mandate is to celebrate both “spiritous liquors” and the founding father. Also honored was James C. Rees IV, the former president and CEO of Historic Mount Vernon, who retired recently due to an illness.
The evening was called the Spirit of Mount Vernon, and it had much to offer guests, not the least of which were multiple bars stocked with multitudes of conventional, unconventional, and rare bottles of booze. Back to back were two bars offering single-pour “tastes” of well-known commercial brands and small-batch craft labels, including three kinds of moonshine from Ole Smokey, a Vermont maple liqueur called Sapling, Catoctin Creek Round Street rye, and Michter’s small-batch bourbon with “pre-Revolutionary War quality.” Among the more commercial brands, the big deals were a Jameson Gold Reserve Irish whiskey and a Gran Patron Burdeos tequila. The drinks were matched by delicious canapés passed by Design Cuisine, including salmon bites and a particularly tasty pork belly bite. There were also tables of interesting cheeses imported from all over the world. A bite of cheese, a sip of whiskey, a bite of cheese, a sip of whiskey—that’s how it went.
Ger Buckley, a fifth-generation master cooper, came over from Jameson’s Midleton distillery in Cork, Ireland, to demonstrate the art of barrel making. He showed off his rare tools, including an 80-year-old broad ax and an azde, which he said is “a word that goes so far back in history nobody knows the origin.” He explained that barrel he worked on was made in Kentucky in 2005, shipped to Ireland, and then shipped back to the US for this party.
At dinner the talk was, of course, about alcohol. One of my dinner partners was David Fleming, the executive editor of Market Watch magazine at Shanken Communications, the company that also publishes Wine Spectator and Whisky Advocate. His business is knowing the trends of alcohol consumption. What he’s seeing right now is a movement toward artisanal and craft beers and spirits. “That’s the big trend, and sometimes it’s just five guys from the Ozarks with a story.” Fleming said the trend is fueled by the new-era bartenders who call themselves mixologists. “They are a big deal. They are independent souls who want to find their own spirits, and people are listening to what they have to say.”
Fleming also talked about trends in what and how we drink and noted something quite interesting. “Women changed everything,” he said. “They have driven the growth of spirits over the past ten years.” He traces it to the popularity of Sex and the City and Mad Men. SATC started women “on a romance with vodka” which is now moving into a fascination with brown liquors, such as bourbon and Scotch. “Men drive brown liquor, but women are beginning to get interested,” he said.
With that, I picked up my small glass of Maker’s 46 on ice, took a sip, and turned my attention to President Washington as he moved around the tent, artfully making everyone feel at home.