Wine & Spirits: Scots Distill Mount Vernon

by Editorial

It was a Tartan invasion as master distillers made their way to George Washington’s Distillery for a barrel-filling ceremony.
By John Arundel

Robin Naysmith (far right), Scotland's representative in Washington, flanked by Gavin Hewitt of the Scottish Whisky Association and Master Distiller Andy Cant at George Washington's Distillery at The Mount Vernon Estate on Wednesday. Photo by John Arundel

It was a Tartan invasion of sorts as master distillers from Scotland’s pre-eminent whiskey houses made their way to George Washington’s Distillery for a barrel-filling ceremony, stepping three centuries back in time to produce the first-ever Scottish style single malt whiskey the General’s way…slow and deliberative.

In raising a glass to toast the Scottish connection Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon, three of Scotland’s top distillers joined with representatives of the Scottish Government, the Mount Vernon Estate, the Distilled Spirits Council, and the Scotch Whisky Association in celebrating US-Scotland ties and the first ever single malt produced here.

After three years of aging according to the Scotch style, a limited edition of 100 of the special bottles – marking the 100th anniversary of the Scotch Whisky Association- will be auctioned for charities around the world to further celebrate George Washington’s history as a whiskey producer and the one of the Colonial Era’s most esteemed appreciators of fine whiskey….err, make that whisky” if re-spelled correctly for readers in our Sister City and scholars of our earliest spirits.

Using imported Scottish barley, the distillers worked three days straight using pure Scottish barley and specially constructed oak barrels to produce the first 100 bottles of authentic single malt whiskey ever to come out of the Mount Vernon Estate.

“Given that the man who operated George Washington’s distillery, James Anderson, was a Scot, Mount Vernon is pleased to help celebrate that historic connection by hosting this first-ever production of malt whiskey at Washington’s reconstructed distillery,” said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon Estate’s vice president for preservation, who spearheaded the distillery reconstruction project for Mount Vernon.

The three participants – attired of course in Tartan kilts as if they might be walking in Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk later in the day – were Bill Lumsden, master distiller of The Glenmorangie Co.; Andy Cant, master distiller of Cardhu Single Malt Distillery (the home of Johnnie Walker), and John Campbell, the distillery manager of Laphroaig Distillery.

“Modern day distilling is all carefully controlled, measured, analyzed, and automated, so I am truly thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this project and actually roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty,” said Lumsden. “As a Master Distiller, you genuinely learn something new every single day, so I can’t wait to supplement my knowledge of making Glenmorangie with something a little bit more ‘old fashioned’.”

Cant said that over the past three decades he’s worked at several of Diageo’s Scotch Whisky Distilleries: Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and now Cardhu, but this week’s experience was special. “It is a privilege to craft a single malt that is as highly sought after by malt enthusiasts as it is by blenders,” he said. “I am honored to be a part of this barrel-filling ceremony, surrounded by such remarkable industry talent.”

Campbell described the experience as “momentous”, and said he looked forward to working together with his fellow Scotch Whisky Distillers to craft a “truly historic whisky.”

The three were joined by George Washington Distillery Master Distiller David Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, and also the overseer of Vermont’s WhistlePig Farm craft distillery, who said the experience was not without its own special set of challenges.

“This was a particularly challenging opportunity in that we had to invent and build a relatively efficient means of hand separating the grain solids from the liquid between the mashing and fermenting operations, using items that would have been generally available in the late 1700’s,” he said. “That is a major difference between the whiskey production process in the US and Scotland. In the US, we generally tend to leave the grain in during fermentation and distillation.”

The event’s sponsor, the ever jovial Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), welcomed about a dozen reporters from around the world who sipped a few for good measure, their more sober editors back in the newsroom be damned.

The event’s most high-profile guest, North America’s Scottish Government Counsellor Robin Naysmith, needed no roadmap to Alexandria, as his government two years ago became the saving angel of Alexandria’s beloved Scottish Christmas Walk, which kicks off the Holiday Season in Alexandria each December with a whiskey tasting and parade through Old Town’s streets. (“The decision was really a no-brainer for us,” he told me. “It’s a grand institution that deserved to be saved.”)

Naysmith called the single malt “a fitting tribute” to the enduring friendship between Scotland and the United States. “More than 200 years after George Washington embraced our national drink, Mount Vernon is once again looking to Scotland and our finest whisky makers to produce this unique single malt,” he said. “I hope the funds raised for charity and educational purposes from the auction of this unique product will further strengthen the relationship between our two great nations.”

The Scottish connection to George Washington’s Distillery is a thing of lore. In 1797, George Washington’s Farm Manager, a Scot named James Anderson, convinced his employer that producing whiskey made from corn and rye grown on the plantation would be a natural complement to his milling business.

Washington was initially skeptical but soon granted permission to build the 2,250 square foot distillery, making it among the largest whiskey distilleries in early America. By 1799, Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, worth the then-substantial sum of $7,500. The distillery ceased operating in 1814 when the building burned.

Beginning in 2000, with a $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Industry, Mount Vernon began the excavation and restoration of the distillery. In the Fall of 2006, the distillery was officially dedicated at a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by Britain’s Prince Andrew and then-Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell.

In 2005, master distillers recreated George Washington’s rye recipe, with the first two bottles selling for $100,000 a year later. Since then, small batches of limited edition rye have been produced periodically and sold to the public.

Other specialty distilling projects have produced Rum, Peach Brandy and Apple Brandy. All were spirits either made by Washington at the distillery, or consumed at the mansion table.

“This exciting project brings together three modern masters of Scotch Whisky making to produce what will be a unique Single Malt,” said Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, “It is a fitting way to celebrate Scotch Whisky’s continued success in the United States and the association’s centenary year.”

We’ll sip to that.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate is located at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway Mount Vernon, VA 22309.

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