George Washington was good manager and smart investor. He diversified his crops and always looked for profitable enterprise. Among them was a grist mill and – partially based on the – a distillery.
Washington: A Man Who Appreciated Good Spirits
Washington was fond of wine and spirits. He also favored porter beer. He opened the grist mill and distillery later in his life. It soon became a big profit center. We did not learn much about Washington’s booze making enterprise when I was in grade school. There was some effort to keep the whole story obscure, as temperance movements, & even prohibition came to prominence. It wouldn’t do to have the father of our country a prominent boozer and booze maker.
Washington was an extraordinary person. We know Washington the general, Washington the president, even Washington the explorer & surveyor. Washington the builder and practical businessman seems way too much for one man, but this is also a very impressive part of this life, and it was the source of most of his joy. In a less revolutionary time, he would have been content to work his farm and industries. Even as president, he got regular, detailed reports from his plantations (plural) and industries.
We know a lot about how Washington ran the place by these reports and Washington’s replies. He never stopped running the show and it was clearly his passion.
The Distillery Reopened
The distillery was reopened in 2007. They asked for donations from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and within a few hours had millions of dollars in donations. Good PR. The distillers were able to figure out recipes for Washington’s whiskey by looking at records of the types of grains that went into it. The first batches of whiskey were not good; they are learning and improving.
Whiskey Flavor is Mostly Oak and Char
Newly distilled whiskey is clear and not very good. Whiskey takes years to age to get its flavor. MOST of the flavor (60%+) and all its color comes from the wood in the barrels. At temperatures rise and fall, the whiskey is absorbed by the wood and released. Whiskey barrels are always made of white oak and for American whiskey they can be used only once. There is a brisk after market for barrels. Some of them are used by Scotch makers, who do not have the new barrel requirement, and lately some are sold to craft beer brewers. The need to age whiskey is one of the barriers to entry to new distillers, since they have to wait some years to sell product. In Virginia, you can get decent, but not good, whiskey in two years. The minimum for reasonable smoothness is four years. Standard is seven and you can go to about ten years to get the best. It takes longer in places like Scotland because of the cooler weather. Scotch is not much good until it is at least 12-years-old and gets it best at around 18. After that it becomes more expensive but not much better.
Setting the Mash
We got to watch the distiller “setting the mash.” They mix the grains with nearly boiling water and stir it all together. Then they let it cook, i.e. start to ferment. Sweet mash relies on new yeast to make the product. Sour mash, which is more common, takes some of the mash from earlier batches. Sour mash can have a more consistent quality.
More details about the distillery are at this link.
What is art?
Setting the mash is a form of performance art and the act of making whiskey in the traditional way is an art in itself. Consider what it means to create art. We can appreciate paintings and sculpture for the finished product that we can see. But more of the art is related to its production. That is the “act of art” and the act of creation is often more meaningful than the creation itself. Creation of something like whiskey is meaningful to the creators and those around them.
Part of finding meaning in life, as search we should all be making, is working toward excellence and a state of flow, where things just fall into place. We have all experienced this but find it hard to express. What we are doing is less important than the rigor we put into it. A craftsman finds this meaning in making his furniture, pottery, beer or whiskey and seeking excellence in the production. You may seek intellectual excellence. I find great meaning in my forestry. Whatever it is, it is important that it be challenging and NOT all under our control. That is the art. We are responding to changing conditions to create the end we have in mind. The people working at the distillery are artists.
My first picture is me in front of the wheels that work the grist mill. Next are from the distillery. the techniques and tools are like those of Washington’s time.