News & Politics

A Day of "Whiskey Camp" at Mount Vernon

A lesson in brewing spirits at George Washington’s 18th-century distillery.

A bottle of highly prized white rye made at Mount Vernon. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

It was 9:30 in the morning and I had arrived for “whiskey camp.” The location was George Washington’s old gristmill and distillery three miles west of Mount Vernon. The hour may have been a bit atypical for drinking, but it was ideal for making white and brown rye whiskey, a process begun the day before. A group of distinguished master distillers had come over from Scotland to work with the group of American distillers who routinely operate the still built by Washington in 1797. Interestingly, while George Washington was a whiskey drinker–he preferred it to wine –he built the distillery not only for his own pleasure but to also help pay the bills at Mount Vernon. For him it was a business, and he was guided by his Scottish farm manager, who had distilling experience.

The “campers” were a small group of invited guests offered a first class and up-close education about the distilling process, from the grinding of the barley to the barreling of the spirits.

The camp spanned three days, during which the Scottish distillers and most of the guests stayed overnight at accommodations on the Mount Vernon grounds. I joined them for the second day, and heard tales of the dinner the night before at the Mount Vernon Inn, which featured generous samplings from the participating distilleries–Glenmorangie, Cardhu, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig–that fueled merriment into the wee hours. There were mumblings about hangovers, and the fresh brewed coffee was welcomed, but no one looked the worse for wear and the chilly but beautiful spring weather was uplifting.

“This is good weather for kilning,” said Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie as he stood outside the restored stone distillery, his Brigadoon accent rich with lilt and charm. “If the weather’s too hot, the malted barley can bolt, or get away from you. Because of the low humidity, this is also a good drying day.”

The distillers shipped more than 4,400 pounds of barley from Scotland in advance of the camp. A third of that barley was milled to the consistency of powder in the also-ancient grist mill adjacent to the still. Last week the ground barley was mixed into a bath of hot water to “gelatinize,” or ferment, creating the “mash” that would go into one of the stills. The distillery has several stills, each of which has its own name. The one used on the second day of camp was called “Maggie.”

“Why Maggie?” I asked David Pickerell, who is Mount Vernon’s resident master distiller. “We named it after Margaret Thatcher because it just gets it done,” he explained.

While the campers watched, the distillers and their assistants poured the mash into the kiln. When it was sufficiently filled, the fire beneath it was lit, stoked, and carefully tended. And then we waited–and waited–for the boiling process to begin. Boiling creates a gas that courses through a copper pipe that snakes into a barrel filled with cool mill water, a process that transforms the gas into liquid, which comes out a smaller pipe as–voilà–whiskey. The whole thing took more than an hour, and produced an enticing sweet aroma. As the little drops of whiskey fell onto a paper towel inside a funnel and then into a bucket, each of the distillers poked a finger into the stream for a taste. Lumsden licked his finger and described the flavor as “fierce, edgy, harsh,” but encouraging. This prompted another lesson.

Whisky is made in steps known as “heads” “heart,” and “tails.” The “head” or “top,” is the first liquid to come out of the still. It’s checked constantly for its proof (in this case 82.5) and its flavor. At a certain point, when the proof started to level off and the flavor became smoother, Lumsden said it was time to “cut off the head,” which indicated they would switch out the first batch of whiskey and set it aside and then move ahead with the “heart.” The heart is the prime part–and usually only 20 percent of the full batch–that ends up aging in the barrel. The head and tail will often be blended into the next batch made.

Lumsden and his fellow master distillers– Andy Cant of Cardhu, David Blackmore of Ardbeg, and John Campbell of Laphroaig–were quite pleased with the heart of this batch of white rye. They called it “refined” and said it had “good aromatics,” which develop in the fermenting stage, and also commented on its “nuttiness.” As with the batch made on the first day of camp, it would be barreled and stored at Mount Vernon for at least a few years before being bottled.

Unfortunately there’s no “whiskey camp” for the public. For a lot of reasons, especially safety, Mount Vernon does not allow the touring public to view the distilling process. The distillery is open for tours only from April 1 to October 31. The whiskey made at the distillery is sold only at the Mount Vernon and gristmill gift shops, and according to David Pickerell, the white whiskey sells out in three hours every year.

The rye made during this year’s whiskey camp, after being aged for three years, will be sold at auction around the world in a limited edition of 100 bottles to mark the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association. There’s no estimate of what each bottle will fetch, but in 2006 a group of master distillers re-created George Washington’s rye recipe, and the first two bottles sold collectively for $100,000. The buyer was Marvin Shanken, publisher of Wine Spectator, who gave one of the two bottles back to Mount Vernon to be displayed at the distillery. No surprise, President Washington’s image is on the label.