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Spirits: George's new/old rye

An actor playing the first president tastes the rye whiskey at George Washington's Distillery at Mount Vernon this week. (Russ Flint)

Limited-edition whiskey releases continue to be the rage. So does an interest in historically accurate tipples. So does rye whiskey. This week, then, marked a confluence of all three trends, as a limited-edition rye whiskey, made from George Washington's original recipe, went on sale at the Mount Vernon Distillery on Thursday. Only 471 small bottles (375 ml) will be sold, each for $85.

Following the original grain recipe of 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley, George Washington's Rye was distilled by Dave Pickerell, who is the former master distiller of Maker's Mark bourbon. For the lucky ones who get their hands on this whiskey, they'll experience something as close to 18th century whiskey as you might find. This rye is an unaged white whiskey and at first seems like it's going to be a brash, spicy monster of a whiskey on the nose. But there's a soft kiss of sweetness on the tongue and the finish is smooth — really a delightful whiskey. I'm guessing that Washington sold his whiskey at higher than the 86 proof of this bottling (and the 18th century drinker would have been more accustomed to those higher proofs).

(Mount Vernon Distillery)

Before the American Revolution, most colonists drank apple brandy, cider, molasses-based rum, and Madeira. But the demand for whiskey grew as shipments of Madeira from across the Atlantic and rum from the British West Indies grew scarce during the war. Washington's foray into the whiskey business is certainly not a chapter you learn in elementary school, but it was very prosperous for our Founding Father. Washington got into the business in 1797, and by 1799, he was churning out 11,000 gallons of whiskey — worth the then-astronomical sum of $7,500. As Washington wrote in a letter to his nephew in 1799: “Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”

The Mount Vernon distillery continued to operate after Washington's death in 1799, but burned to the ground in 1814. In 2001, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America began a $2.1 million effort to reconstruct the historic distillery at Mount Vernon.

Under a new law by Gov. Robert McDonnell, which went into effect on Thursday, it is now legal to host a distilled spirits tasting in the state of Virginia (previously only beer and wine were allowed). The Washington rye whiskey sampling is the first public spirits tasting in Virginia since the repeal of Prohibition.

-- Jason Wilson
(Follow him on Twitter, and look for his book, "Boozehound," coming in September from Ten Speed Press.)

By The Food Section  |  July 2, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, spirits  
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