MOUNT VERNON, Va. —Even by today's standards, George Washington's resume is pretty impressive. At one time or another he was a farmer, writer, surveyor, statesman, war hero and a mule breeder, not to mention the first president of the United States. And to top off the list, he could make a mean batch of whiskey.
Distill, baby, distill!
On July 1, hundreds of thirsty and curious guests lined up at Mount Vernon, the plantation on which Washington was born and lived and which was once the site of his successful whiskey-producing operation, to be hosted to the first public sale and tasting of George Washington Rye Whiskey.
President Washington himself — actually, an actor decked in full colonial regalia — was on hand to lead the first toast.
The event was a recreation of 18th century distilling from field to glass with plenty of costumed colonists and local dignitaries, including Virginia State Sen. Linda "Toddy" Puller and Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
DISCUS, along with the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, led the funding for the $2.1 million reconstruction of the distillery.
"We learned everything about making the whiskey from Washington's papers," said Dennis Pogue, vice-president of restoration at Mount Vernon. "They are very well preserved. It's been a good project all along. We're just telling the story of George Washington."
All 471 of the 375-milliliter bottles available of the extremely limited whiskey sold out by day's end. This particular batch, authentically recreated from Washington's personal recipe, is the first that has been made and sold at the site in more than 200 years. It was brewed by Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Whistle Pig Distillery and formerly of Maker's Mark. Pickerell was chosen for the honor for his knowledge and passion for rye whiskey.
After Washington built the distillery in 1797, it became one of the most successful of its day, topping out at a production of 11,000 gallons of sprits in 1799, the same year the nation's first president passed on to the Big White House in the Sky. The distillery then fell into disrepair and burned in 1814. It reopened in 2006 when Britain's Prince Andrew joined public officials in cutting the ribbon at the official dedication of the restored distillery.
"This is a very happy day," said Pogue. "The behind-the scenes story is a remarkable one. The entire project wouldn't have been possible except for two men, George Washington and Dr. Peter Cressy."
The clear whiskey — it's not aged, so it has no color — is twice distilled in copper pots just as it was in Washington's time, and then it's bottled at 43 percent alcohol. The taste is of grain and florals and is mellow for an unaged rye.
"Whoo-hoo! Wow! That burns, but it's good," laughed one guest as he sampled the firewater, then turning to one of the volunteer hostesses who poured him the shot. "You should have warned me."
The whiskey was made last winter. Only 97 gallons were made, 47 of which were bottled for sale on Thursday. "The other half is secretly aging away," said Pickerell with a hint of mystery in his voice. That means they are in charred oak barrels, soaking up flavor and color to be made available at a later date.
"We made it as much like Washington's whiskey as possible so that people can party like it's 1799," laughed Pogue.
There have been few changes in whiskey-making since Washington's day, said James C. Rees, president of Historic Mount Vernon. "The only significant change isn't making the liquor but selling it," he says, adding that laws and regulations have become much more complex since the 1700s, when virtually none existed.
All of the proceeds from the sale of the whiskey will benefit Mount Vernon's educational and school programs.
Lee A. Boynton's painting "George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill in 1799," a historic recreation of the site, also was unveiled on Thursday following the tasting and is on display in the distillery museum at Mount Vernon.
"The distillery will be a focal point for tourism in Virginia," said Cressy, who called Washington "our greatest president."
Those fortunate enough to stand in long lines to snag one of the 471 bottles have instant collector's items. "I'm never going to open or sell mine," said Will Johnston, who drove from Maryland for the event and who held on to his bottle tightly. "It's such a unique part of George Washington's history that so few people know, and I didn't want to miss it for anything."