The American Whiskey Trail is a journey. An American pilgrimage — but instead of Mecca, we were headed to Nashville, where the men drink, the girls dance, and you only get stoned for it if you pay the man $20.
As we boarded the bus, and then the plane, Frank told the nearly 20 writers, bloggers and reporters to drink responsibly. But this is America and we were headed South. And when you’re headed toward that border, I’m told you cross the line.
In five days, we did just that. And here is our story.
When you’re trying to see something, you’ve got to move. Early departures, late nights. And so it is with our story, where we rolled out the door of DISCUS (that’s the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) Tuesday at 8:30, with their senior vice president, Frank Coleman (responsible Frank) leading the way to Mount Vernon.
The office is on the park where the SWAT teams tried to ambush the bad guy in Dan Brown’s last book. He got away, and was able to wreak that much more havoc for it. I thought about that as we boarded the bus: “I’m going to do exactly that.”
And I was with friends, too. Buzzfeed Benny and Chris Moody, to be exact. Benny used to work for The Blaze, and now he teaches senators how to take selfies for Buzzfeed. Any strings of sanity he’d clasped while owning numerous pairs of Glenn Beck jeans had slipped through his fingers at Buzzfeed, replaced by a rapid-moving stream of memes, tweets and pictures of George W. Bush hugging soldiers. Moody, a political reporter from Yahoo! and a Daily Caller veteran, still maintains at least the outward appearances of sanity, respectability and reporterness. But one page of my notebook reads, in all caps, “MOODY GOES HARDEST WHEN LEAST EXPECTED.” And it’s true.
With Buzzfeed Benny and Yahoo!’s Chris Moody, we had a posse, and you can accomplish quite a bit with a posse.
Mount Vernon Distillery
Washington’s home in Northern Virginia may sound like a peculiar place to begin a tour of American whiskey, but it actually makes perfect sense. See, George Washington’s Glaswegian farm manager, James Anderson, started distilling here in a chicken coop in 1796. It was a success, so old George gave him permission to build a distillery, and by 1798, Mount Vernon was home to one of America’s first major distilling operations.
Driving along the blue, winding Potomac, we pulled up to the general’s mansion on a hill. Thanks to the Ladies of Mount Vernon, the house is stunningly preserved.
And so is the farm.
And thanks to a sizeable grant from DISCUS, so too is the distillery, which was rebuilt on its original grounds.
In the 18th century, the distillery was manned by six of the strongest men on the farm. Today, there’s three, and they still make whiskey the same way, including chopping the wood to heat America’s last legal wood-fired still…
… and grinding their ingredients up the hill at the mill.
The lad chopping wood is Pierce. He’s 20, has worked there since he was 16, and is a reservist in the United States Marine Corps. Sixteen may seem a bit young to work a distillery, but when Anderson was running the show, some workers were as young as 14. Which is about the time I had my first sip of whiskey, and I’m just fine, let me tell you.
Somewhere in America, men still chop wood, carry a gun and make their whiskey over a fire, and that’s as fitting a monument to our first commander as any marble tower in a park.
While the master distiller is Dave Pickerell, a living legend of the whiskey world, Steve Bashore runs the day-to-day, and thanks to him, we had our first taste of whitedog whiskey at 10:30. Bout time.
They also make apple and peach brandies, as well as rye and an American whiskey. Nearly all of which our intrepid band eagerly sipped, in a bold attempt to open our stomachs up for lunch. Science, my dear man.
The unaged rye is 86 proof, 55 percent rye, 40 percent corn, 5 percent barley. Clear on account of no aging, it has a sweet, malty nose, and lightly blossoms on the tongue, with a muted boozie sting and a malty finish. And aging the rye actually doesn’t seem to have too much of a difference. Light golden in color, the main change on the nose and tongue seems to be the addition of a smoky smell and flavor. I lost my first notebook over those drinks.
First drinks? First blood. And we were primed to kick off the traveling bit with a trip to President Ronald Reagan’s National Airport, where we bought Elizabeth Warren’s insufferable book, boarded a tiny plane on the tarmac, and hit the skies to Louisville, Kentucky, United States of America, God’s Green Earth.
The Seelbach Hotel was built at the kickoff of the 20th century to mirror the grandeur of Parisian architecture, and we’re glad to announce great success: The hotel is stunning, outside…
…and in. And so was the historic guest list — with nine presidents, Al Capone and Elvis among them.
The evening kicked off at 7, with cocktails at the mezzanine bar, which is pretty damn fly. When that painting in the wall opened up to reveal, and a mustached man in a leather apron handed me a perfect Manhattan, I was in a good place.
Not perfect Manhattan in the way you might think, though. Perfect in that this bourbon staple was flavored with an equal-parts blend of sweet and dry vermouth. These guys are cool in that they’re novel, but they simply aren’t as good as the classic.
I had three in half an hour.
And speaking of classics, Dale DeGroff was guest bartending.
That’s The Dale DeGroff. The man perhaps most responsible for America’s cocktail renaissance, which he worked to launch in the 1980s from behind the bar at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. Smooth and white-haired, he cut a stark contrast with the younger hipster behind the bar, and I doubt his Goodfellas attitude could have stood in starker contrast to the young men and women he inspired to craft classic, gourmet beverages.
A quick pregame, and it was time for the basement, where the old Krauts who’d built the joint had made a Rathskeller.
Sort of a tacky-as-all-hell, 100-year-old Medieval Times, the Rathskeller is dark, solid, and pelicanned (for good luck), because Germans are most comfortable drinking in dark, solid, pelicanned (for good luck) rooms under the earth. Though I guess it encourages good times: F. Scott Fitzgerald was once thrown out, the drunk. He still gave the hotel a shout out in “The Great Gatsby,” though. A good sport, that one.
The marble in the Rathskeller is from Spain, Italy and Germany, with the floor from Vermont, and the Classic Seelbach cocktail (bourbon, Peychauds bitters, Angostura bitters, Champagne and Cointreau) was a good drink to explore our tomb and gossip about present drinks we love absent reporters we hate.
If I’m going to impart any wisdom from this room, it’s skip the food, stay for the drinks – they work better that way, anyhow. Dale’s twist on the Boulevardier and Kentucky Coffee — which he revived from famed barman Jerry Thomas’s 1887 cocktail guide — stood out in particular:
Dale DeGroff’s Boulevardier:
Six parts Bulliet Bourbon
Three parts 10-year Taylor Fladgate Tawny
One part Apperall
1 ounce Cognac (or brandy)
1 ounce ruby port
1 small egg
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg, for dusting
Our favorite part about the Kentucky Coffee is that is doesn’t have any coffee in it.
With dinner in the rear view, it was time to go to bed. Tomorrow was a big day, and we needed to be up early! So we went to the hotel bar and crushed delicious bottle after bottle of Bluegrass Brewing Company Pale Ale, Bulliet Rye and 10-year (research, you know), and then jogged to the Makers Mark bar, which let us smoke cigars while we researched Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (also delicious) and Templeton Rye (allegedly a favorite of local haunt Capone, distilled in faraway Iowa).
Buzzfeed Benny and Yahoo! Moody were waist-deep in Chinese Twitter by the time I got there. Weibo seems to be a tool for communicating your thoughts to the Chinese government, along with millions of other Chinese “micro bloggers.” A whole new social media world. For Benny and Moody, it was too good to be true. The reporter from the People’s Daily, Leo, hooked it up. Leo is the greatest Communist I’ve ever met. But suspicious of innovations I don’t understand, I stuck to drinking and alienating my colleagues, particularly Emily, who is an architect, blogger and modernist. (Backstory: Drinking Bedford cannot abide the Hirshorn).
Emily was working on the architecture for the new African American Smithsonian. While we agreed that the American Indian Smithsonian building was ugly as all hell, that’s about all we agreed on. See, I opined, quite wisely I thought, that it’s amazing how we’ve come so far in race relations that separate-but-equal is once again in vogue (at least in our national museums). Australian Nick said all his friends are Aussie socialists. He took Emily’s side. He’s a good lad.
“i dont think emily likes me.” is the last day-one scribble in my notebook.
Sure, Makers Mark turned their lights on way too early, but the Seelbach didn’t. I didn’t go to bed until I’d bought their last BBC Pale. Really, do try this beer.
A damn fine day.