Where the Rye Was Caught

Where the Rye Was Caught

Reconstructed distillery offers glimpse at spiritual history of region.

Napoleon once said, “An army travels on its stomach.” General George Washington, while not disputing the French leader’s theory, also believed that, “The benefits arising from moderate use of Liquor, have been experienced in All Armies, and are not to be disputed.”

His appreciation for not only the taste and enjoyment of spirits but also its economic benefits were acknowledged and honored last Wednesday during the dedication ceremony for his reconstructed distillery adjacent to The Grist Mill. Proving there’s nothing like good spirits, particularly of a liquid nature, to bring about rapprochement, the ceremonial ribbon was cut by Great Britain’s Prince Andrew, Duke of York.

“This is a very important occasion. The core of our relationship [between the United States and United Kingdom] is based on the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. We invest significantly in each other’s economy,” said Prince Andrew.

“Today one million Britons went to work for U.S. companies in the United Kingdom while at the same time another million Americans went to work for British companies here. It is my hope and wish that even more innovation and entrepreneurship will be developed between our two nations,” he said.

Financed primarily through a $ 1.5 million gift from the Distilled Spirits Council of The United States, the $2.1 million reconstruction took nine years to complete after discovery of the building’s footprint by Mount Vernon Estate archaeologists in 1997, according to Melissa Wood, Mount Vernon media relations. Detailed excavation was led by Mount Vernon archaeologist Esther White.

Wednesday evening, the spirits industry raised an additional $350,000 in support of Mount Vernon’s educational programs during their fifth annual dinner and “auction of commemorative spirits bottles tapped from barrels being aged at Mount Vernon,” according to Council spokespersons.

“Six years ago Mount Vernon approached the Council and wanted to know if we would be interested in sponsoring the reconstruction of the distillery. Without hesitation we jumped at the opportunity,” said Peter Cressy, president, Distilled Spirits Council.

IN RECOGNIZING the support of the council, James C. Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, related to the assembled audience the history behind Washington’s venture into distilling rye whiskey, even though “no one was more tired of public life than he was upon completion of his two terms as President.”

But Washington remained an entrepreneur and total believer in the free enterprise system, according to Rees. “He was pitched the idea of building and operating a distillery by James Anderson, a Scotsman who had operated a distillery in Scotland,” Rees explained. Anderson succeeded William Pearce as manager of Mount Vernon in 1797.

“The demand for liquor was 10 times more than the supply. Males of 15-years and older consumed an estimated 30 gallons a year at that time,” Rees said.

“The distillery produced 10,500 gallons of whiskey and brought in $7,600 plus per year. That was at a time when annual salaries were approximately $200,” he said. Those details of Washington’s whiskey enterprise were contained in an original ledger purchased at auction by the Estate, according to Rees.

“This distillery reflects the true entrepreneurial spirit of Washington. We plan to shine a bright spotlight on Washington as an entrepreneur and distiller,” Rees said.

Among those joining Prince Andrew, Rees and Cressy for the dedication ceremony were Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell; Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerald Connolly; Director of Preservation at Mount Vernon Dennis Pogue; and a host of representatives from various distilleries.

Prior to the formal ribbon cutting, Prince Andrew was presented with a boxed bottle of rye whiskey distilled earlier at the newly reconstructed site, which will open to the public next April. Distiller re-enactors also turned out newly distilled whiskey from a wood-fired still on the lawn prior to and following the formal ceremony. Rees told Council officials that Mount Vernon had no intention of going into competition with them. “Our products will be strictly for occasional presentations,” he assured.

Washington’s rye whiskey was distilled from 60 percent rye, 35 percent Indian corn, and five percent malted barley plus water needed for the mash. His five potted stills had a combined production capacity of 616 gallons yielding nearly 11,000 gallon annually.

“The fact that Washington’s recipe was 60-percent rye makes it a powerful counterpoint to the soft scotch whisky grain profile. The rye gives the spirit a fruity, spicy character,” according to Chris Morris, master distiller, Brown-Forman Corporation.

Rounding out the hour long ceremony, dignitaries tossed previously distilled spirits onto the sandstone walls of the newly reconstructed building as a christening. However, no one sang the lyrical tribute to George’s preferred spirits — “Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry. If I don’t get my whiskey, I surely will die.”