An Oct. 21 Metro article on making whiskey at Mount Vernon gave an incorrect location for the Jack Daniel's distillery. It is in Lynchburg, Tenn. (Published 10/23/03)
Dave Pickerell tucked the porcelain pitcher under the tiny spigot, then touched the copper tube coming off the top of the still: "We're hot," he said. "We're moments away."
He was right. As the greatest whiskeymakers in the United States watched, a single drop of clear liquid formed at the tip of the spigot and dropped into the pitcher. A trickle followed, and then a steady stream.
Within a minute, Pickerell had drawn off the first liter of George Washington American Whiskey, a special batch of spirit made to order yesterday from the rye recipe used by Washington himself in the distillery he built in 1797.
Making whiskey the 18th-century way is a promotional stunt undertaken by Mount Vernon and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. A special event is scheduled today to raise money and garner publicity for the archaeological restoration of Washington's distillery, about 2 1/2 miles from the main house at Mount Vernon.
To produce 20 gallons of ultra-strong "white dog" -- the raw, un-aged spirit that comes straight from the still -- the promoters enlisted an all-star team of experts to donate time and wisdom in a unique historical and scientific undertaking: making whiskey from scratch using only the technology of a bygone age.
"Oh, that's really nice," said Pickerell, master distiller of Maker's Mark bourbon in Loretto, Ky., sampling a tiny glass of fresh whiskey and handing it to Joe Dangler, his counterpart from Fredericksburg's Virginia Gentleman distillery.
"Ooh, man, isn't that neat," Dangler said, sipping and pursing his lips. "It's going to be real high proof."
In a trial run in Kentucky and a first distillation Sunday, Pickerell, Dangler and their associates had trouble controlling the heat from the wood fire so it would cook just so -- flashing off enough steam to get the high alcohol ratio needed for a whiskey that will drop in proof as it mellows in the cask.
But yesterday, they hit it exactly right. The rye coming out of the spigot -- very spicy with a hint of corn sweetness -- reached 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol. It is destined for aging in two 10-gallon kegs made from a port wine barrel and will eventually be auctioned.
"Here's to freedom!" toasted Jerry Dalton, the tall, mustachioed master distiller of Jim Beam bourbon in Clermont, Ky. "This has been an awful lot of fun."
The whiskey project began in 1999 when Mount Vernon started excavating the distillery with financial help from the Spirits Council. "We thought that if we could find out enough about how to do it, wouldn't it be way cool to operate it?" said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director in charge of preservation. "There's no surviving 18th-century whiskey still in this country."
Whiskey became the drink of choice in the United States soon after the American Revolution, Pogue explained. Blockades had limited Colonists' access to rum, the prewar favorite, and postwar Americans found that they had to pay an import tax on the West Indian molasses they used to get duty-free.
Add to that an influx of whiskey-making Scots and widespread grain surpluses, and a new palate was born. "Washington sets up the distillery just as the industry's about to take off," Pogue said. "He's land-rich, but he wants a new revenue stream so he can shed some property."
Working on the advice of a Scottish plantation manager, Washington built a small distillery in 1797, then bought three more stills. He made 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1798, the year before his death; he made a $7,500 profit (in 1798 dollars).
By scanning Washington's plantation accounts, Pogue found that Washington's whiskey recipe, known today as a "mash bill," called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley.
Pogue found an 18th-century copper still at the Smithsonian Institution, where it came to rest after Treasury agents confiscated it from a Fairfax County moonshiner in 1940. "I only believe about half the story," Pogue said. "Supposedly, it came from Washington's distillery, but it was much too small. Still, it was stamped with the date '1787.' "
And it was a pot still -- a Snuffy Smith-style copper pot -- like those used by Washington and everyone else in the United States until Prohibition. Modern pot stills are still used to make scotch, heavy rums and some bourbons.
This year, stillmaker Mike Sherman, vice president of Louisville's Vendome Copper & Brass Works, measured and photographed the Smithsonian artifact. "I was surprised that it was in such good shape for being 200 years old," Sherman recalled. "It looked like you could charge it up and run it."
Vendome built an exact copy and sent it to Mount Vernon.
Meanwhile, in Versailles, Ky., Brown-Forman master distillers Lincoln Henderson (Woodford Reserve) and Chris Morris (from Jack Daniel's in Alabama) had taken Washington's mash bill and mixed up several barrels of "beer," the raw material of whiskey, made by boiling the grain and fermenting it with yeast.
Last month, they trucked the beer to Jim Beam's distilleries, where Dalton and Sherman set up a practice run using a pot-bellied stove. There, laboring under the hot sun for hours, they discovered the key to making old-fashioned whiskey: "You've got to get the heat along the sides of the still; otherwise it takes forever," Dalton said. "I developed a great respect for the old manuals, which all went to great pains to tell us about that."
Dalton called Pogue at Mount Vernon, where he and Dangler built a brick firebox to contain the still and surrounded the sides with a four-inch flue to let the heat travel upward. The result, built on level ground beside a creek next to the distillery excavation, looks like a barbecue pit with a still sunk into the top.
On Sunday, the distillers fed the still a load of the Brown-Forman mash, which cooked until the vapor flashed off the surface, running upward and then downward through a copper pipe until it reached a coil sunk in a barrel of cold water. There the vapor condensed and delivered 67-proof first distillate from the spigot.
Yesterday, Pickerell and Dangler, with assists from all the others, fed this "low wine" back into the still for a second distillation, and the result caused smiles all around: "We've shed all our modern conveniences," said Pickerell, who, along with his associates, had donned an 18th-century costume for the occasion. "I feel like I'm becoming a monk."