Drinking Washington’s Whiskey (and Beer)

As promised, here is my long-overdue post on the “Gentleman Distiller: Whiskey Tasting & Dinner,” held at Mount Vernon on September 12 of this year. My apologies for the delay, but I am here to research (not simply drink), and the past few months have been busier than I anticipated. I was lucky enough to receive a ticket to this event as a birthday present (many thanks again to my future mother-in-law!), and it was certainly a treat. To anyone who has an opportunity to attend a dinner event at Mount Vernon – be it whiskey, beer, wine, etc. – I cannot encourage you enough to go. The people who work here pull out all the stops, without question.

First, it is important for me to state that this was not a usual dining and tasting event. While I have been to a number of beer and wine dinners, this was my first go at a whiskey dinner, and I was intrigued as to how it would work. Before the attendees sat at a table, however, we began our evening at the Gristmill and Distillery, located roughly three miles away from the main Mount Vernon estate.

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The reconstructed Distillery at Mount Vernon.
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The Gristmill, which sits adjacent to the Distillery.

We first received a wonderful cocktail made of honey whiskey and lemonade. I won’t lie – I am not a fan of flavored whiskeys (concerns about questionable ingredients aside), but this proved to me a perfect summer-time drink (one to keep in mind for the future). This refreshing starter preceded a tour and demonstration of the Gristmill, where the distillers, now and in the past, milled the grain used to make Washington’s whiskey.

The Gristmill is an amazing display of pre-industrial machinery. While I was primarily interested in visiting the Distillery, I found myself blown away by the mechanics of the Gristmill. With three stories of moving parts, the Gristmill features the milling system patented by Oliver Evans in 1791 (the third patent issued in the United States). This absolutely fascinating system makes use of hidden elevators that move the milled grain to a cooling system, and from there to a sorting system that separates the different qualities of flour by its overall fineness.

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The 16′ waterwheel that powers the mill.
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The mill stones that grind the grain.
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The rake system that cools the flour to prevent clumping.
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The shifter system that separates the different flours according to quality of fineness. (Apologies for the poor panorama attempt.)

I was surprised at how much I adored the Gristmill. If the evening had stopped there, it would have been a true delight, but it only got better from there. For, after seeing the Gristmill in operation, we made our way over to the reconstructed whiskey Distillery.

IMG_6036 The Distillery holds five copper stills and primarily produces an unaged rye whiskey. The Distillery is not in operation while open for public tours, but we received an entertaining demonstration of how the distilling process works, and the differences between distilling at Mount Vernon and distilling elsewhere today (the main point: everything done here is carried out – literally – by hand).

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It was a bit crowded in the Distillery at this point, so this is the best shot I could get of the still setup.

Following the demonstration, we moved to the exhibit area upstairs for the whiskey tasting. This may have been the most polarizing point of the night for the people who attended. For, we received two small samplings of the whiskey made at the Distillery – the unaged rye and the same rye whiskey aged two years.

IMG_6041Aging whiskey was not a common practice at the time Washington’s Distillery operated. Aging any kind of liquor two, four, or more years is a huge investment – and it can be a huge risk. While the practice of aging rum made in the Caribbean or in the North American colonies did occur in the eighteenth century, rum was an established commodity, while whiskey was still (primarily) a beverage of the frontier. Washington invested large sums of money constructing what was one of the largest operating whiskey distilleries of his day; that made a return on investment a top priority. Therefore, once the whiskey was distilled and ready to sell, it was sold. That makes the whiskey produced at Mount Vernon one of the closest examples of eighteenth century whiskey available today. The practice of aging whiskey would not take hold on a large scale until the nineteenth century.

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Straight from the still – Mount Vernon’s unaged rye whiskey.

This is where the evening became polarizing. The reactions I witnessed to those tasting this unaged rye whiskey is best described as mixed. Many took a sip, and within seconds, their faces grew pinched with the universal signs of disgust. Others sipped, seemed to brace themselves for a few seconds, and then played off their impressions as, “That’s… interesting.”

Then there were people like me who tasted it and enjoyed it. I typed down a few tasting notes on my phone while the aromas and flavors were still fresh. There is no getting around it – this whiskey isn’t what you are going to buy at the liquor store. I have a soft spot for bourbons, and I have enjoyed rye whiskeys from time to time, but this was a beast unto itself. The first taste is a bit like a punch in the mouth. The sweetness that whiskey drinkers are used to (thanks to the aging process) was completely absent. The rye  gives the whiskey spicy, smoky qualities that come off strong. I was surprised at the lack of burn with the unaged whiskey. I found it to be quite smooth – once you get past the initial wallop to the palette.

The two-year whiskey came next, and we were instructed to hold off on drinking until the same moment. This tasting was preceded by one of the most eloquent toasts I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. It was delivered by one of the distillers and tour guides on site named Sam Murphy, and I think back on it with great regret that I did not record the moment.

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Rye whiskey, aged two years.

Reactions to the two-year whiskey seemed much more favorable, which makes sense, given that it is more familiar in flavor to what retailers offer today. The initial punch of spice was gone. In its place was a milder, smoother, and sweeter whiskey. A distinct fruity aroma was present, and the flavors of vanilla replaced the smoky grassy flavors of the unaged rye. The opportunity to taste these two whiskeys side-by-side was a nice treat, and following the tasting, we relocated to Mount Vernon Inn for the whiskey dinner itself.

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The food was exquisite. There is no other way to describe it. It is at moments like that I often find myself reflecting on the extravagance of the meal. It always brings to mind the medieval and early modern banquets that I have read about over the years. From this point on, the evening followed closely to other beer/wine dinners I’ve attended in the past. Each course and each drink was made in such a way that everyone sitting at my table seemed to be in a state of sheer bliss. It was a beautiful evening.

Now, since I took so long to type of my account of the whiskey dinner (though, focused much more on the tasting and demonstration), I wanted to include a few words on a recent beer dinner I attended here as well. This occurred October 24, and much like the whiskey dinner, each course of the meal made my taste buds dance. However, also like the whiskey dinner, some additional fun took place beforehand. In this instance, the folks who run the Distillery provided us with a demonstration of eighteenth-century beer brewing out on the green across from the estate Mansion as the sun set in the background.

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I’m not trying to wax poetic, that’s really what happened.
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Brewing demonstration.

Following the demonstration, we received a lovely evening tour of the Mansion. That was my first chance to see the interior of the building (though, unfortunately, no pictures  were allowed). After the tour, we returned to Mount Vernon Inn, again, for the dinner (menu listed here). The food, as before, was remarkable, and the overall evening was wonderful. My deepest thanks to those who made my attendance at the event possible.

The beers were provided by DC Brau Brewing Company, and the Master Brewer attended to give us all an introduction and background for each beer served. This was my first time trying DC Brau’s beers, but I am now a serious fan. The Stone of Arbroath (a wee heavy), in particular, is a new favorite. I hope to get my hands on it again before I head back south to Texas. Overall, between these two evenings, I don’t think I have ever felt so spoiled. Still, it goes to show that there is a great deal of history behind these beverages, and they offer more than a means of befuddling the brain. Whiskey and beer, like wine, are sophisticated creations that require knowledge of science, as well as an artful touch, to produce. Though distillers and brewers alike didn’t carry the knowledge their modern counterparts work with today, the tradition of making, pouring, and raising a glass full of these fermented refreshments continues to be a point of continuity throughout history.

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Cheers.

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