First off, I'd like to thank Steve Bashore, Director of Historic Trades at Mt Vernon for taking time out of his schedule to show us around while also trying to complete a distilling run, something that is normally not available to the public.
One of the things I like best about going to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is meeting people. There are so many people from so many places that visit. If you talk to the folks around you, you are almost guaranteed to find someone interesting. 2017 was no exception for me. This time I met friend-of-a-friend, Steve Bashore. Steve is the Director of Historic Trades at George Washington's Mt Vernon and, among other things, is in charge of the rebuilt distillery and gristmill there.
Steve is passionate about his work and I am a big fan of history so we hit it off almost immediately. In fact, I think they closed down the first event we attended around us while we were having our conversation. If my wife hadn't interrupted we might have been there for as long as they were polite enough to let us stay.
One of the topics of conversation was, obviously, where he works. I told him about the failed attempt to visit the last time I was at Mt Vernon (it was closed for the season) and he extended an invitation to show me around personally the next time I was in the area. It turns out the next time I was in the area was two weeks ago, which was perfect timing as it was when they were doing one of the two distilling runs they do per year.
This is the reproduction of George Washington's Distillery. If you've been on big whiskey tours, this doesn't look like much. It's a historic-looking building in an area full of them. But before the original burned down in the early 1810s, the modest building on this spot was counted among the largest and most profitable distilleries in the young country. This reproduction is fully functioning and twice a year fires up to produce a run of rye whiskey using grain ground on the premises.
Upon entering the recreated distillery, I was struck by how dark it was. Even with modern lighting in use. The original (and some of the tours) used lanterns and candles to light the interior. I can only imagine how much darker it was in the original building. Above you can see a couple of the historically accurate tools of the trade: a paddle and a rake to stir the mash as it cooks.
The process that Steve and Mt Vernon use is historically accurate. The grain is ground on site, cooking and fermentation happen in barrels, and the water and mash are moved by hand in buckets. The first step is, of course, to grind the grain. Mount Vernon uses a mash bill of 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malt. While, the records of Washington's exact recipe have been lost to time, the historians on site have determined by looking at the ledgers that this ratio makes sense with the amounts of various grains that were coming in and out of the facility. The next step is to heat the water. It is heated in an electric boiler (obviously, this isn't historically accurate, but the insurance people objected to one more wood fire on-premise...and since the original distillery burned down, maybe they have a point). The heated water is transferred to the cooking barrels (shown above) using large buckets on long wooden handles to cook the corn and rye. The temperature is then stepped down and the malt is added and is then stepped down again so the yeast can be added.
Above you can see the yeast working its magic on the mash to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is happening in a 53-gallon barrel. Empty ones are stored behind.
As small as the building looked on the outside, it feels even smaller on the inside. The cooking and fermenting area take up less than one-quarter of the building, the five stills run all along the opposite side and storage and proofing take up the remainder. It is an extremely efficient use of space and it is hard to believe that this was typical of the beginnings of the American Whiskey industry considering how far they have come and how big some of them have gotten.
Speaking of the still layout, here we see one of the Mt Vernon distillery workers stoking the fires that run the still. There are five wood-fired stills, each with their own condenser, that run the length of this side of the distillery. Directly to my right are the fermentation barrels seen above.
This is one still setup. The copper bulb comes off and fermented mash is fed into the still with buckets. Then the fires are lit and the whiskey vapors travel down the neck and into the condenser barrel. This barrel contains a copper worm that is cooled by water from the distilleries closed water system. It is the same system that runs the mill, so occasionally they need to supplement the water coming down the trough with a hose of water so there is enough to get the job done. The liquid you see coming out the front is warmed cooling water that is being fed back into the system.
Here is another view of the cooling water and condenser system. You can see hints of the copper worm in the barrel and the water coming out of the trough (you can also see the supplemental hose as well...hey you gotta get the job done too).
Out the back of the barrel comes the distillate. Like any pot distiller, they need to make cuts into heads, hearts, and tails. These are run through a simple coffee filter to catch anything else that might come out along with, gathered in pots, and brought to the proofing station.
Heads, hearts, and tails are all proofed using the hydrometer and tracked in a log book to keep the federal government happy. They are stored in separately by batch and by the still they came off of. After this the distillate will be bottled or placed in 25- and 53-gallon barrels to be aged for two to six years.
We close our tour of the distillery with a fitting image. The piece of wood across the handle state that this still is done for the day, no more wood needs to be added, and the fires will be allowed to burn out.
If you were trying to follow along where each image was taken this should help. Above is the archeological site of the original distillery before they rebuilt. Everything is in the same spot. Proofing happens in the unlabeled upper left corner.
The next part of the tour took us to the gristmill this mill is another historic recreation. As with the distillery, this is also fully functioning. They currently mill all the grain used in the distillery and on the rest of Mt. Vernon, including the restaurant and gift shop.
This is one of two sets of millstones used to grind all of the grain. 10,700 pounds for the most recent distilling run, plus all the food grade flour that goes up to the main estate. Seems easy enough right? Just run some grain between these two things and out comes flour...
Well, yes, but there is a little more to it than that, as Steve was kind enough to show me. There is the water wheel, the wooden gears, the hopper and more. It is all very interesting and very pretty as the late evening light comes in the windows.
I'm going to paraphrase the expert explanation that I was given down to the following: water turns the big wheel, which turns a bunch of other gears until it transfers that power up to the millstones. That same movement drives the hopper which separated the flour from the husks. It's all very cool and complicated.
This is just another view of the mill gears. It's all wooden. And it is also very cool.
Of course, no distillery tour would be complete without a tasting. We sampled the complete lineup. There is a white unaged rye, a straight rye whiskey, an apple brandy, and a peach brandy eau de vie. I didn't do complete tasting notes, but here are my impressions of each.
White unaged Rye (86 proof): Spicy and smooth. Very tasty.
Straight Rye Whiskey (86 proof): spicy, but almost too much barrel influence. It tasted like it was aged in a small barrel (which it was). I prefer the unaged version but can't wait to try one that has sat in a full-sized barrel for 4-6 years.
Apple Brandy: lots of dried apple flavor. More so than many craft apple brandies I've had in the past. I like that about this.
Peach Brandy Eau de Vie (90 proof): sweet, light, dried peach candy. Apparently, around the holidays, this is available in the gift shop as a small bottle and glass set for a lower price than the entire bottle should you be looking to try it.
I really had a lot of fun on this tour. It was an amazingly informative time and all of my guests learned a lot, even those who had been to Mt Vernon before and those who knew almost nothing about distilling. But before I go, I need to share an image of Steve's keys. I'm really glad that key technology has come as far as it has...I don't think I could fit those in my pocket if I need those to start my car.
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