At Mount Vernon, a Shot of History

By Laura Yao
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The gift shop at Mount Vernon is stuffed full of goodies -- a shelf of jams and jellies, a table topped with Lady Washington cookbooks, a wall lined with plastic muskets. Yesterday, though, it started offering something a little more potent: patriotism in a bottle.

George Washington, after his presidency, built one of the largest distilleries in the country -- "a little known piece of American history," says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Now, for the first time in the 209 years since Washington's death, whiskey will be sold at the distillery to the general public.

There's only a thin veneer of historical authenticity: What you'll get isn't Washington's old recipe. And the stuff isn't even made in the reconstructed distillery. This "vatted American whiskey" is a hybrid of 11 brands of modern-day whiskey -- Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Rebel Yell, Wild Turkey, and on and on. (The folks at Mount Vernon prefer to call it a "marriage" of flavors.)

The mixing prevents a lot of perfectly good whiskey from going to waste. At the groundbreaking of the Mount Vernon distillery renovation project in 2001, 11 whiskey distributors each donated 50 gallons of their product. Over the years, the companies bottled their own "Mount Vernon" whiskies out of these barrels, until there was a little left of each brand here and there.

"We had these 11 barrels sloshing around, and we made the decision that we might as well vat it all together," said Coleman.

Is it any good?

"It doesn't taste like any one of them; it tastes like one of a kind," said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director. "It's hard to say whether it's better or worse. It's definitely striking."

Coleman said the blend made for a "phenomenally good product."

Regardless, it's only available in 50ml airplane-size containers. It comes with a Mount Vernon shot glass in a box lined with blue felt, to make you feel better about paying $25 for a mere sip of brown liquid.

"I thought it was going to be bigger," said Wayne Holland, 66, of Mount Vernon, as he peered at the teeny bottle in the gift shop. He didn't buy any.

It's not the cheapest whiskey there is, Coleman admitted. About 10,000 bottles were prepared, with the goal of making Mount Vernon "a good sum of money." Pogue said any profits would fund Mount Vernon's educational programs.

Washington, an astute entrepreneur, made a pretty penny from his whiskey business. He typically charged 60 cents a gallon. (Blue felt not included.)

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