George Washington's Mt. Vernon Distillery and Gristmill

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.


BourbonGuy.com accepts no advertising. It is solely supported by the sale of the hand-made products I sell at the BourbonGuy Gifts Etsy store. If you'd like to support BourbonGuy.com, visit BourbonGuyGifts.com. Thanks!

A Photo Tour of the Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller

I'm not going to say bad things...I'm not going to say bad things...I'm not going to say bad things...arghhh!

Ahem. Oh, hi. 

I love history. I love bourbon. And on those occasions where the two intersect, I normally get very happy.

Normally.

There are times and places where people have decided to make money off of the historical presence a place has. I have no problem with that. Then there are times where people know what history is in a place and choose to ignore it. It makes me sad, but I can't find my way toward being upset with them. But when you co-opt someone else's history, make up a bunch more and then toss in a heaping helping of deception? Then I get upset.  

I'm not going to go into the details (because Diageo is a big company with probably more lawyers on staff than people I know). Well, except to say that after I heard the tour guide say that the black fungus that grows on all distilleries was just "active alcohol" that had settled on the trees and buildings and that you couldn't take photos near the still or in the rickhouse because it was against the law...well, I decided to watch the time between truths. At one point I made it almost a half hour between accurate statements. And while they didn't explicitly say that all of Bulleit on shelves was distilled with one pot still (that you couldn't photograph), they did strongly infer that it was the case.

But, as a person who loves history and knew which things were right and which were wrong, I still enjoyed being there, wandering around and seeing all the buildings. And so, here are photos from the parts I enjoyed. I'd say read Sally Van Winkle Campbell's book, visit the gift shop and then decide if you can put up with all the BS you'll hear on the tour. If you can, take a tour. If you can't then just enjoy being there. 

Hey look! Actual old history...with a curiously named newer building in front of it. This is the view from outside the gift shop.

The campus as viewed from the first stop on the tour. the gray building is where "their still" is. The warehouse behind it is the one you get to step into. You can see almost the entire tour from here.

If you've heard of Stitzel-Weller and the Old Fitzgerald Distillery, you've heard of this sign. 

Inside the gray building. You can't take photos of the still room, but just outside of that are pieces of the old distilling setup. It's like a small museum where almost everything they tell you has been made up on the spot by tour guides.

I read in "But Always Fine Bourbon" about how all of those windows were open every morning and closed every evening by hand. 

You could take a photo from outside the doorway. For your safety and because it's "against the law" to take one from four inches farther in. Sure it is. I'm sure it has nothing to do with whose name might be on the barrels that you can't see from the doorway...anyone else notice that it looks like these have been sanded on the ends?

The tour to this point. The building on the right is the gift shop. Tour started there. The black buildings in back are more warehouses. That was the first stop where we "learned" what the black fungus...err..."active alcohol?" was. The brick and gray building to the left is where "their still" is.

The cooperage. I wonder how many hours it took a set designer to decide just where to put that barrel. It would have been an "ah HA" moment to behold when the inspiration came to lay it on its side.

The tour ended in the same building it started in. This time you got to walk in through Pappy's...I mean Tom Bulleit's...office. Then the tour guide makes fun of him, says how much she loves him and we do a tasting. It's fine. 


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A Visit to Glenn's Creek Distillery

If you read the last post, You've already seen what the outside of this small distillery looks like. Located in the old bottling and shipping building of the former Old Crow Distillery, Glenn's Creek Distillery is surrounded by history. Outside is the place to be inspired by what came before, but inside is the time to focus on what is yet to come.

Glenn's Creek Distillery is much smaller than the former occupant of the property. In this one shot you can see almost the entire production area. Off to the right is the aging area. Beyond that (in the Lowes wrapping) is the yeast growing and storage area. Grain storage is beyond that. On the right right of the photo you see fermenters with a cooker peaking up behind them. All the way to the back are their four stills. The only thing you don't see is the bottling area. Which is behind us.

Here it is. Four bottles at a time. And their initials underneath.

The aging portion of the distillery was interesting. On these racks are barrels of two kinds of Bourbon, Rye, and Rum. Two distilled on site and two sourced from MGP in Indiana, but aged on site. The racks themselves are made from reclaimed wood from the Old Crow warehouses outside. If they get big enough there is hope to use one of those to put their own barrels in one day.

They are small-time and hands on. In this case the agitation on the cooker comes from a person holding a drill with a long paddle on the end. The man stirring was our tour guide for the day. Dane is the Lead Distiller at Glenn's Creek.

This is Tiny Tim, the 12 gallon experimental still. It was the first still they had made and they survived using it as the only one for a while. Now it is kept around to run experimental batches.

This is Double D. Named so because it has two doublers, not for any other reason you might think of. It is a 34 gallon still.

This still is Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is where the rum is distilled. It is a 600 gallon still. They currently run it at 450 gallons but this gives them some room to expand as needed. 

This is Dr. Crow. Named for the man who lent his name to the former occupants of the property, Dr. Crow is where the whiskey is made. The still was originally set up to be heated by a steam boiler, but that portion was too expensive to buy so they converted it to direct heat with the use of the burners from some heaters found around the old distillery.

And this is the current Glenn's Creek Distillery product line-up. From left to right, the Ryskey Rye and the Stave + Barrel bourbon are purchased from MGP and delivered in the barrel to be aged on site. Skipping one, Prohibition Kentucky Rum is the rum distilled in Rumsfeld and aged in barrels that formerly held bourbon.

OCD #5 is an interesting one. It is a bourbon fermented using yeast that was recovered from the sealed Old Crow fermenter number 5 (a photo of it is shown in the Old Crow post). The story goes that since the fermenters were mostly sealed, one day they had the idea to see if there was anything living in there. Yeast can survive a long time in spore form, but 20-30 years is a bit past it's best by date. Most of the fermenters didn't do anything and the mash was spoiled. All but fermenter #5. That one was happily fermenting away when they checked on it. So they pulled it out in buckets, grew it up some and used it to create OCD #5. Did they really catch a yeast that had been previously used by Old Crow? No idea, it may have just been a wild yeast that they caught. Either way, no one else has it and it is a pretty interesting story.

Before I left, I had the chance to take a taste of each of these. As we weren't tasting in the ideal conditions, these aren't real tasting notes, only impressions.

Ryskey Rye Whiskey

Details: 59% ABV. 95% Rye whiskey sourced from MGP in Indiana. Aged on site in full-size barrels with toasted staves added to each barrel. This is a single barrel product.

Thoughts: Spicy with a nice finish.

Prohibition Kentucky Rum

Details: 58.5% ABV. Distilled on site. Made from fermented molasses. 

Thoughts: Hot, molasses, maple syrup, rock candy. Has a rum funk to it. It was quite tasty in a Rum-mosa cocktail (Rum, OJ and cinnamon sticks).

OCD #5

Details: 53.8% ABV. Fermented using yeast caught on site. Aged in full-size barrels with added staves. Staves were smoked.

Thoughts: Slight smoke, herbal. Some corn flake notes. There is a cinnamon note at the tip of the tongue and a slight rum funk. He asked how old we thought this was, we knew it was young, so we guessed 2-3 years. It turns out that it was only six months old. Pretty tasty for that.

Stave + Barrel

Details: 59.4% ABV. Bourbon whiskey sourced from MGP in Indiana. Aged on site in full-size barrels with toasted staves added to each barrel. This is a single barrel product. Six months old.

Thoughts: This is a high-rye recipe MGP bourbon. It's tasty, though young. The added staves make it taste older than the six months it is.

UPDATE: Since I initially wrote this I've noticed that Glenn's Creek Distillery have started a GoFundMe project to help fund the restoration of the Old Crow distillery ruins. If you have the means, think about helping save a piece of history.


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A Photo Tour of the Former Old Crow Distillery

During my September visit to Kentucky, I had the pleasure of being shown around the former Old Crow Distillery by the current occupants. My thanks to Dane, Glenn's Creek Distilling's Lead Distiller for showing us around. I'll talk about Glenn's Creek's current operation in another post, but first let's take a trip through the ruins of what is left when a whiskey distillery is abandoned and left to crumble for 30 years. 

The Former Old Crow Distillery

When Beam bought National Distillers, they closed down the Old Crow Distillery. They maintained use of a majority of the aging warehouses, but abandoned the rest. They still own and use those warehouses. Above is the main campus of the former Old Crow Distillery. The remaining non-Beam owned aging warehouses are out of frame off to the right. The majority of the upcoming photos were taken as we walked through this portion.

Aging Warehouses. 

But first, we visited the remaining aging warehouses. There are currently three aging warehouses remaining on the Glenn's Creek property. One was deemed no longer safe and is in the process of being removed by reclaimers. I think all the bricks have been spoken for so I don't think you can use Old Crow bricks in your upcoming project. The wood is being used to build the aging racks to store Glenn's Creek barrels.

Overgrown Barrel Track

The brick aging warehouses are overgrown with ivy and trees. This are has been cleaned up recently, but you still need to watch your step.

Old Fuses on the Aging Warehouse

Old fuses in a fuse box on the side of a warehouse.

The Main Distillery Buildings

Across the way is the main part of the distillery. We made our way over there next. 

The Bottling and Shipping building

The building in the distance is the former bottling and shipping building. It currently houses the entire Glenn's Creek Distilling operation.

Flooded Sub Level

Old Crow once suffered a fire. After that, it suffered flooding. The lower level of this building still house some of that flood water. This is in the basement of the grain handling building.

Boiler area

This is what we visited of the boiler area. Before being abandoned, it looks to have been upgraded. There are shiny bits of metal back behind the wall and a primitive computer control board down at the end. the interesting thing is that it seems to have been actually abandoned and not mothballed. Under the dust, there are still March Madness brackets that the employees were in the process of filling out.

Mold on a window

Thirty years of distillery mold.

Pealing Paint

Thirty years of dust and pealing paint.

Between two buildings

Outside again. This is a peak between two buildings.

No Idea. But maybe try not to lick this.

Neither our host, or us, could figure out what this used to be. Mold, fungus, insulation? No idea. Probably best not to lick it though.

Fermenters

In fact don't lick anything. I'm going to guess that lead paint and asbestos are pretty much everywhere. This is fermenter number five. The fermenter was sealed until fairly recently. It is notable because there were yeast spores (Old Crow or wild) inside that were recoverable by the current occupants and which are used to ferment one of their products.

Fermentation Room Valves

Old valves and pipes in the fermentation room.

The Spring that fed Old Crow Distillery

The spring that supplied Old Crow Distillery with water. This water is still used by the current occupant for uses that don't need potable water.

Beer Well, now flooded.

This is a look inside the beer well. It held 62,745 gallons. Sometime in the last 30 years, it flooded and the flood waters that ran into it brought something else along for the ride. There are currently fish living in there. They seem quite happy.

Broken Window

A window just barely hanging on. This is a ruin after all.

Abandoned Materials

A large stash of abandoned material. They really just locked the doors and walked away. They allowed scrappers to come in for the still. But most of the stuff just sits there waiting to finish moldering away. In the distance are the loading docks.

Smoke stack

The grain building from behind. 

Finally we snagged just a couple more outdoor shots. We also wandered past Glenn's Creek, the creek that the distillery was named for. We saw the small diversion dam that Old Crow Distillery used to help gather creek water for themselves. We saw the back of the shipping docks where trucks that must have been much shorter than semis nowadays were loaded up to carry away bottled product. There are vague plans to convert it to a stage, but there is a lot of clean up to be done first. 

It was a strange feeling walking through the ruins of the old factory. Seeing the damage that time can wreck and yet finding tiny pieces here and there that showed that real people worked there and had fun doing it. This was once a big part of people's lives. Its nice to see that it is now in the hands of people who respect that history and hope to one day get it cleaned back up so others can see it as well. I hope they can figure out a way to make that happen.

UPDATE: Since I initially wrote this I've noticed that Glenn's Creek Distillery have started a GoFundMe project to help fund the restoration of the Old Crow distillery ruins. If you have the means, think about helping save a piece of history.


BourbonGuy.com accepts no advertising. It is solely supported by the sale of the hand-made products I sell at the BourbonGuy Gifts Etsy store. If you'd like to support BourbonGuy.com, visit BourbonGuyGifts.com. Thanks!

My trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival 2016

Kentucky Bourbon Festival sign.

Every September, I hop in the car and head to Kentucky. It's my yearly trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. It lasts a week, and I go for a week but, our paths don't usually cross until Wednesday night. Sure, the ticketed events can be fun, but there are plenty of other things to do in Kentucky, BourbonFest is just the excuse. Here was my week. 

KOA cabin in Shepardsville, KY.

I "camped."

It's a small trailer with a fridge, shower and a nice bed. But it had a firepit and you smelled of campfire every night when you went to bed. I say that counts. And the KOA is about halfway between Bardstown and Louisville. Which makes it easy to get to either of them. 

a cart full of bourbon I can't get at home.

I Shopped

This photo is at the Party Source, near Cincinatti, I was meeting an Internet friend In Real Life for the first time. But I did plenty more of this in both Louisville and Bardstown.

 A Bourbon on the bar at the Silver Dollar

I Had a Drink

The Silver Dollar is by far my favorite place to grab a drink in Louisville. Tons of good bourbon—great house picks—and a little brisket and mac 'n cheese to go with it.

Jim Beam Distillery.

I Visited Distilleries. Distilleries Big...

Glenn's Creek Distillery at Old Crow.

...And Distilleries Little.

Barton 1792 Distillery

I visited Distilleries real,...

The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel Weller Distillery

...Distilleries fanciful,...

The ruins of Old Crow Distillery at Glenn's Creek Distillery

...And Distilleries Abandoned

All of these distilleries brought an opportunity to have fun that I wouldn't have given up. Maybe it was wandering through the ruins of an abandoned whiskey factory after getting geeky with the guys that ended up capturing it's yeast, seeing a historic distillery that's been wrapped in Disneyland-style make-believe or just running into Fred Noe at Jim Beam. 

The bar at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace

I had a drink.

Because, seriously, did you expect me to spend the entire week there and only stop once? This one was at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace. A store with a bar attached to it. They won the contest for the official Festival Cocktail this year. It was quite tasty.

The Woodford Reserve table at the All-Star Sampler

I did still go to the All-Star Sampler.

Why do I keep going to this. Firstly, I almost always meet friends there. It's gotten a little expensive at $75 per person this year, but there aren't that many events where I know I'll see a good chunk of my Kentucky friends in one place and maybe even meet one or two more while I'm there. I also broadcast live from the event on Periscope.

Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style

Plus you might get to try something new...

The new Packaging for Elijah Craig Small Batch

...or just something that looks new.

A breakfast cocktail at Four Roses

I had Breakfast at Four Roses during Let's Talk Bourbon

There was actual food too. Eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, gravy, cheese grits, pastries, fruit, coffee, water, juice, and more. Plus you got to listen to question and answer sessions with Al Young and Master Distiller, Brent Elliott.

The Master Distiller's Auction to raise money for the Getz Museum

I didn't buy anything at the Master Distiller's Auction.

But I still had a lot of fun watching people pay multiple thousands of dollars for whiskey. We bid a few times, but only helped drive the price higher. I bought very little out on the lawn outside the museum either, but I did broadcast a taste of it on Periscope as well.

Friends and I gathered in Bardstown

I spent time with friends, old and new. 

There were very few days when I didn't spend at least a little time with friends while I was there. Dinner, drinks, cake, talks over lunch or into the night. These were my favorite times during the trip. They are the reason I keep going back.

Well, that and the Bourbon.


BourbonGuy.com accepts no advertising. It is solely supported by the sale of the hand-made products I sell at the BourbonGuy Gifts Etsy store. If you'd like to support BourbonGuy.com, visit BourbonGuyGifts.com. Thanks!