Road Trip

Touring the Whiskey Trail

Sunday, August 26, 2007

WHERE: From George Washington's Mount Vernon distillery to Culpeper's Belmont Farm Distillery.

WHY: 100-proof booze, lavender fields forever and a park that was full of spies.

HOW FAR: About 100 miles from start to finish, or three hours by car.

On the so-called Whiskey Trail, a 100-mile route from Mount Vernon to Culpeper, Va., the hooch comes straight out of the distillery, and be warned: It'll knock the wind right out of you.

"You gotta watch that stuff," says Chuck Miller, the 62-year-old former pilot who runs Culpeper's Belmont Farm Distillery. "That first sip is rough. It takes your breath away."

In George Washington's day, some folks considered spirits nutritious. And because of the Revolution, many Americans boycotted British West Indies rum, turning whiskey into a patriotic libation. (A quick liquor lesson: The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control defines moonshine as illegal or untaxed whiskey. Belmont Farm uses the term for commercial allure only; its Virginia Lightning moonshine is clear and unaged, similar to Washington's, but its Kopper Kettle whiskey is tawny colored and aged for at least two years.)

Like Mount Vernon, Belmont Farm Distillery doesn't make just booze; it also makes history. Last year, the 20-year-old operation became the first distillery (Virginia has nine in total) to directly sell liquor from its gift shop. Before, only the state's ABC stores could sell the hard stuff. Belmont Farm is also the only legal distillery in the country to churn out the elixir from start to finish. The mom-and-pop business grows the corn, ferments the mash, and distills, ages, bottles and sells the results. Unlike in Virginia's wineries, however, tastings are barred by law.

If all goes well, Mount Vernon will start hawking miniature bottles of its whiskey this fall. Master distillers arrive this week with plans to make a year's worth of whiskey. If you visit to take the theatrical tour, don't call Washington's potion "moonshine." "That has an air of illegality," explained a history intern dressed in a floor-length skirt, straw hat and sober expression.

NEXT: See and Print the Map

-- Barbara J. Saffir

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