“Despite the efforts of the 19th century [temperance movement] spin doctors, your first president was indeed familiar with spirits … a confirmed social drinker.”
— Robin Naysmith, Scottish Government Counsellor, North America
In the preview for our first hard liquor whiskey column, we promised you delicious whiskey, fascinating history, lovely girls and, well, Scotsmen. After spending three days at Mount Vernon with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and the “modern masters of a traditional craft” — plus a week-long break to sober up — we’re here to deliver.
Three days at what with who? Well, three days with one of the coolest products in the West and some of the coolest folks in the business. That is to say, whiskey and the guys and girls who make it, promote it and — just as importantly — strive to protect it from the grubby hands of government.
So why were we in Mount Vernon — the home of the original gangster Founding Father in that near-driest-of-states, Virginia? Easy answer. To celebrate the 100th birthday of the Scotch Whisky Association, the gang at DISCUS invited three of Scotland’s top distillers to join one of America’s greatest whiskey-makers with the goal of making a new and delicious batch of liquid gold at the first president’s restored distillery. And they planned to make it on site, from scratch, with us. Like a boss. We said okay.
How did it all play out? Delicious, with a hint of drunk.
It all started on a rainy Friday afternoon when David Blackmore, an Englishman and the master brand ambassador for Glenmorangie distillery, was stewing over how to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association. Well, they figured, old George had started his historic distillery on the insistent advice of his farm manager — an experienced whiskey man from Glasgow — James Anderson. “Why not have the Scots back?” Blackmore asked.
Why not indeed! And so this fine group of visionaries put Blackmore in contact with Mount Vernon’s chief archeologist and vice president, Dennis Pogue, and a few tons of Scottish malt later, they were ready to begin the process.
With the help of Glenmorangie Master Distiller Bill Lumsden, Mount Vernon shipped the malt over to their authentic mill, where, using cutting-edge American technology (a really heavy mill stone, a bunch of big, hand-carved, wooden gears and a lot of water power), they prepared the wash. Enter the Scots and their new friends at TheDC.
Day one: The stripping
TheDC arrived on site bright and early, picked up by a Mount Vernon van full of some of the world’s greatest master distillers and a lovely and pithy young public relations manager from Diageo (the world’s largest spirits company), Gillian Cook. The distillers were a whiskey hall of fame: Besides Lumsden, the group included John Campbell of Laphroaig, Andy Cant of Cardhu and, waiting for us on site, Dave Pickerell — a nationally-renowned American whiskey consultant who, before taking the helm at Mount Vernon Distillery, spent 14 years helping lead Maker’s Mark to its current glory.
They put us to work right away, slopping buckets of handmade, fermented wash — basically, a sour-tasting, thick beer that is typically 8 percent alcohol — into the five copper stills while period-attired workmen stoked fires (with wood they had split) in the brick ovens underneath.
We’ll tell you — it’s a good thing we didn’t wear our dancing shoes, because this was a messy process. When it was done, it was time to kick back with Frank Coleman, the senior DISCUS man who invited TheDC, and the rest of the gang, hearing their stories, translating their brogue and getting a sunburn.
This whole day-one process is called beer-stripping. Sounds like a good time in college, right? Well, it’s not quite like that, but it’s still fun. In “The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits,” the authors describe the process and the goal pretty darn well, so we we’ll let them ride on this one: Beer stripping is “used to distill the fermented wash and concentrate the ethanol and all the impurities into a distillate of about 25 percent ethanol, called low wine.”
Now, Washington’s man, Anderson, had first started Mount Vernon’s distilling project in a chicken coop In 1796, but had upgraded to the grounds we stood on in 1797, adding a second story the following year. With the generous help of DISCUS, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association rebuilt the building, which had fallen into disrepair in the decade after the general’s death in 1799. The building stands right where it stood and with the same number of stills, which were built in the fashion of the times. Their hard work and attention to detail showed. Even the nails didn’t come from Home Depot, and when pressed to recall a time when they’d made whiskey this way, the Scots were enthusiastic and clear: never.
“This is a moment in history,” Cook told TheDC, “to have four distillers in one room to make a whiskey that’s never been made before.”
The 100th birthday, she continued, “gave us a reason to bring together the history of Scotch whisky and America’s whiskey at one of the most historic distilleries in the country.” And for the occasion, our job was to fill 100 bottles for charitable auction.
With Pickerell carefully monitoring, the first of the low wine (the product of the first distillation) began to slowly drip from the stills into waiting buckets, and we all got to the business of the day: Sampling whiskey for breakfast.
This first batch blew us — and the experts — away. Because it was yet-unaged, the product of our work poured forth clear, like a white dog or a moonshine. The taste, which changed quickly and consistently throughout the day, began clean and minty, with a touch of that sweet, spring water taste TheDC had only experienced before with authentic (read: illegal) moonshine.
“We’re nowhere near these flavors after first distill [of Laphroaig],” Campbell told TheDC. Keeping in mind that Laphroaig is one of the best Scotch whiskys in the world, it was clear that we had hit the jackpot, and the decision to separately barrel a directors’ cut from the first distillation was quickly made. After bottling the remainder of the whiskey, it was back to Mount Vernon, where we spent the night — and a few hours into the morning — dining at the inn, exploring the grounds, smoking cigars and sampling some of the greatest Scotches and American ryes we had ever had, but more on that in a later Hard Copy.
Day two: The rectifying
Having spent the previous day beer stripping and the evening enjoying fantastic food and drink at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, it was back to the distillery for part two: rectifying.
This term refers to the second distillation of the low wine the gang didn’t save for the directors’ cut, and it’s designed to sift out the impurities and, basically, make the whiskey more delicious.
The product was worth the wait: A white dog whiskey with a sweet, corn-like nose. On the palate, hints of nuts with the pleasant burn of a strong spirit in the middle of the tongue. “Definitely clovey,” Campbell added. “Creamy finish.”
The whiskey is, “Way, way better than we could ever have imagined,” Lumsden told TheDC. “I originally thought the sprit would be rough and heavy,” he said, “but it’s beautifully refined.”
Satisfied with the product, our master distillers were ready to barrel, with the whole crew gathering around to join in the occasion. The barrels were the classic barrels used for Scotch — that is to say, bourbon barrels. The way this goes down is the U.S. requires that bourbon makers use brand-spanking-new, charred, white oak barrels to age their product, but Scotch distillers have no such requirement. As such, our Scottish cousins simply buy the barrels from the ever-willing bourbon men, send them to a cooperage — for our purposes, Speyside — and, in this case, ship it right back to the colonies for a fusion of the two traditions.
Following the barreling, washing up, and a fantastic dinner at the Alexandria home of DISCUS Senior Vice President Mark Gorman, TheDC, Cook and Pickerell headed down into D.C. to tag along with Campbell, who was scheduled to celebrate Whiskey Day at Jack Rose — the United States’ top spot for lovers of Scotch. Treated to wonderful food and drink by Jack Rose’s proprietor, Bill Thomas, it was time to call it a night (at 4:30 a.m.) and prepare for the great unveiling.
Day three: The great unveiling
Heart of the matter time. Which is, of course, also kilt time. And although TheDC did not have a kilt of its own, we think that is for the best.
“Looking back five years,” Pogue told the assembled distillers, whiskey lovers and press, “we never really thought that we’d be a commercial distillery, but here we are and it’s in response to the interest people have expressed.”
And what an interest that has been. The first bottle made available for sale from the first batch of whiskey after the Mount Vernon Distillery was re-opened sold for a whopping $100,000.
As the crowd gathered outside the distillery and in the shadow of the great old mill, the Scotch Whisky Association’s chief executive and former ambassador for the crown, Gavin Hewitt, could barely contain his excitement. Noting that in the time between when the distillery had ceased to function and 2007, when it had reopened to the public, the United States had not only gone through, and emerged from, prohibition, but we and the United Kingdom had formed a strong alliance, fighting alongside each other in two world wars. “Mt. Vernon,” he concluded, “is the perfect place for a birthday party.” Sitting in the Virginia sun that Wednesday morning, we couldn’t agree more.
Open seven months out of the year, the Mount Vernon distillery opened its doors on March 31, and is a pretty nice trip for either the family or the whiskey connoisseur.
“There’s no question,” Lumsden said, “We’ll be back here.”