Scotch whisky marks new chapter in Virginia
When a couple of barrels of Scotch whisky made on American soil were uncorked and then bottled in October, it marked a new chapter in the history of George Washington’s Distillery.
The reason is simple. Scotch whisky had never been made in America before. And for good reason. According to the powers that be, in this case the Scotch Whisky Association, or SWA, scotch, true scotch, is made only in Scotland.
But there are always anomalies, of course. The idea to make scotch in the United States sprang forth from David Blackmore, the master brand ambassador for Glenmorangie. Blackmore’s idea of a celebratory event was to have a few Scottish whisky-makers come to the rolling, verdant hills of Washington’s Distillery in Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C., to make whisky.
While the idea at the time may have indeed seemed farfetched, it took a few Scottish lads and a whole lot of ingenuity to bring it to fruition. That’s when the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or the DISCUS, and the SWA brought three Scots across the Pond to the distillery. Their names may not mean anything to the typical scotch drinker, but in Scotland they are among the most revered in the industry. Among them are Dr. Bill Lumsden, who is director of distilling for Glenmorangie in the Scottish Highlands; Andy Cant, who is distillery manager for Cardhu Single Malt Distillery in Speyside; and John Campbell, the distillery manager for Laphroaig on tiny Islay in the Inner Hebrides on Scotland’s west coast. The trio was joined in the States by Dave Pickerell, a big barrel of a man from Oak View Spirits and former master distiller with Maker’s Mark, and Steve Bashore, director of historic trades at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and who, in costume, looks as if he just stepped from the 18th century.
George Washington’s Distillery, just a few miles from the first president’s home at Mount Vernon, seemed the perfect place to fire up the pots to make the scotch.
“It’s a very, very old-fashioned distillery,” says Lumsden. “Everything really is done by hand here.” Like most Virginians of the late 1700s, George Washington loved the land. Even before he became a general, a Founding Father and the first president, he was foremost a farmer.
A team set out to the task of making Scotch whisky the old-fashioned way. Using only the three basic building blocks of scotch — barley, water and yeast.
For the first time ever, the vanilla-sweet vapors of scotch arose from a land some 3,500 miles from Scotland and was declared by Lumsden as “bloody good” whisky. Ten gallons labeled Distiller’ Reserve were barreled immediately, while another 10 gallons were then twice-distilled, barreled, and christened Limited Edition.
This particular whisky was then put to slumber in bourbon casks somewhere on the grounds of Mount Vernon for three years — the minimum it must be aged before it can be called scotch — before it was uncorked and bottled on a cool autumn day in 2015.
“We were a bit nervous as to how it would turn out after three years,” Cant said of the Scottish-American collaboration of the quite lovely and rich scotch. “It’s not a Cardhu, not a Glenmorangie, not a Laphroaig. But we came to the conclusion that what we were making wasn’t half-bad.”
While it seems a great deal of work and expense for just 60 bottles of whisky — 30 to each cask — the first set of the Distillers’ Reserve and Limited Edition bottles of George Washington Single Malt Whisky sold for $26,000, with the proceeds benefiting Mount Vernon’s educational programs.
In the end, whether it’s spelled whisky or whiskey, the making of it simply adds yet another dimension to the already impressive legacy of George Washington.
If you go
■George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Va. (703) 780-2000, MountVernon.org
■American Whiskey Trail, AmericanWhiskeyTrail.com, (202) 682-8840