On a Mission: Rye Seeks to Reclaim its Throne

Image: Kelly Magyarics

On the tenth anniversary of the historic reconstruction of George Washington’s distillery, producers collaborate on a special rye whiskey.

 

It was 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, and wooden buckets of water were being carried from the boiler to the huge wooden mash tubs one gallon at a time. Becky Harris, distiller for Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, was adding 40 pound bags of rye and corn, while production manager Kyle Henderson of Angel’s Envy and distiller Matt Hofmann of Westland Distillery were rowing the mash with wood rakes to break up the so-called “mash balls” that form when the starchy grains clump together. Afterwards, the mash would be transported by hand to the wood-fired fermentation tanks, then bucketed to the stills, from which clear whiskey would start to emerge.

It was all part of a two-day event celebrating the tenth anniversary of George Washington’s Distillery, which brought together some of the top whiskey distillers from the country to craft a commemorative rye, and celebrate the continued rise of the whiskey category that was ubiquitous during Washington’s era.

“Everyone is here to work – we want all the producers to have a hands-on experience,” said Steven Bashore, director of historic trades at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, including the onsite distilling. “It’s very gritty in here [with all the] bucketing and rowing, there are lots of atmospherics of eighteenth century distilling.” This spot in Alexandria, Virginia, is one of only a few places where you can [find] distilling done this way, he added.

Making rye whiskey - George Washington Distillery
Image: Patrick Gavin / DISCUS

Indeed, the 13 producers who gathered together in the hot and steamy building – which also became thick with dust as those bags of grain were added to the recipe – no doubt quickly learned to appreciate the modern distilling equipment and techniques used in their respective, state-of-the-art facilities in Virginia, Kentucky and beyond.

Washington founded a distillery here in 1797 at the age 65, after his farm manager James Anderson convinced him that producing corn- and rye-based whiskey would be a fitting complement to his milling business. By 1799, it produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, making it one of the country’s largest distillers. (That fall, Washington predicted the growth of rye when he wrote to his nephew that “two hundred gallons of 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.”)

Wait, shouldn’t Washington have been playing golf or making the rounds on the speaking circuit like other former Presidents, joked Robert Shenk, senior vice president of visitor engagement at Mount Vernon? “No, he was here, creating what would become, quickly, one of his most profitable enterprises,” he says. “He didn’t need to be doing this – he wanted to.”

Unfortunately, production ceased in 1814 when the building burned down. However, beginning in 2000 with a $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, Mount Vernon began its excavation and restoration.

“People don’t think of George Washington as an entrepreneur, but this site reflects this,” Bashore noted. “It’s Washington’s industrial farm: [he was] President, general, farmer and businessman.” Since 2008, Mount Vernon has sold more than 23,600 bottles of unaged whiskey (the style Washington would have made), as well as two-year-aged whiskey and brandy, and 8,000 whiskey gift sets, with the $1.5 million in proceeds going to the ongoing preservation of Mount Vernon. The distillery has also laid down larger barrels that will eventually be released as a six-year premium rye.

“My dad [Lincoln Henderson] was here in 2003 with the original distillers, and bringing my son Kyle is really cool,” said Wes Henderson, co-founder of Angel’s Envy. In the 14 years since the country’s best producers met to recreate Washington’s style of whiskey, the rye category has exploded. From 2009 to 2016, volume has grown 778% from 88,000 cases to 775,000, translating to a 900% jump in revenue, from $15 million to $160 million. DISCUS predicts growth to continue in double digits, thanks in part to both large producers like Jim Beam and Bulleit and smaller ones like Catoctin Creek.

Catoctin Creek co-founder Harris, who serves as the distiller at the Purcellville, Virginia, facility that crafts award-winning small-batch spirits, is passionate about rye, constantly experimenting with that tricky balance of grain versus barrel influence. “How do I bring in the wood and find a point where it doesn’t dominate?” she asks. “We are tweaking that point in the middle.” Next year, she’ll be releasing a four-year aged, bottled-in-bond rye whiskey.

American whiskey producers at George Washington Distillery
Image: Kelly Magyarics

Fred Noe, master distiller for Jim Beam, recalls that as a child he saw his father make rye once or twice a season. “Now we are making it once or twice a month,” he notes, adding that he looks forward to tasting the anniversary expression down the road. And Dave Pickerell, former distiller for Maker’s Mark who now makes whiskey for both WhistlePig and Hillrock Estate, cites the ribbon-cutting event in 2001 launching the distillery’s restoration as a particular turning point. “That’s when rye whiskey began its march back to prominence, and the press that was generated helped the growth rate.”

“American rye whiskey is retaking its rightful place among the world’s great distilled spirits, a place that was lost to Prohibition,” declares DISCUS president and CEO Kraig R. Naasz. Since it opened to the public in 2007, the distillery (and adjacent gristmill) have welcomed more than 400,000 guests from around the world, giving visitors a peek into America’s storied distilling history. (George Washington’s Distillery serves as the gateway of the American Whiskey Trail, which includes some of the country’s top producers as well as sites that factor prominently into the U.S.’s whiskey history.)

After the final moonshine had poured from the stills, the producers and other guests convened at the Mount Vernon Inn that evening for dinner. Each brought a bottle of one of their expressions – from Wild Turkey Decades (a blend of their best bourbons aged 10 to 20 years) to a 100% rye from newish producer Woodinville Whiskey Company in Washington State – set out on a table to taste and sample throughout the evening. From the ongoing laughter and banter heard from everyone lingering around that table, it was apparent: collaboration trumps competition, and above all, whiskey is a spirit that brings people together. Noe summed it up best: “it’s a pleasure to be here – we all had an excellent time hanging out and making a little whiskey.”

 

For more information about George Washington’s Distillery, visit http://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/distillery/. Admission is included in the ticket to tour at Mount Vernon, which costs $20 for adults. Entrance to just the distillery and gristmill is $5.

 

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.