Master Distiller Dave Pickerell On Making George Washington’s Original Whiskey

Blair Pfander

washingtonwhiskey Master Distiller Dave Pickerell On Making George Washingtons Original WhiskeyThe White House has a long, proud history of presidential libation. John Adams took a glass of hard cider upon rising every morning. Taft had a taste for “Bronx” cocktails (a stylish, citrus-y martini). The White House even began brewing its own beer under President Obama.
The nation’s first prez, George Washington, was also known to enjoy a stiff drink—so much so, in fact, that he had his own distillery built on his estate in Mount Vernon in Alexandria Virginia.
Now, under the direction of former Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell, you can sample Washington’s original mash recipe at Mount Vernon—which is being produced via the same simple, old-fashioned, and massively time consuming methods that were used in the 18th century. Here, Pickerell discusses schlepping wood, grinding grain, and, of course, sipping good whiskey.
The Vivant: What first piqued your interest in whiskey distilling?
Dave Pickerell: I’d wanted to be a chemical engineer since I was five years old, and it took me a long time to get there, but when I did, as I was getting my master’s in chemical engineering. [My interest] kind of showed up when I was taking the distillation systems test. I scored like a 99 and the next highest score was a 35. And my mentor didn’t forget that, and when I was getting ready to go out and become a chemical engineer, he found this little consulting firm that specialized in beverage and alcohol production and hooked me up with them. So I  started consulting and then Maker’s Mark asked me to be their master distiller, so I did that for fourteen years. And then the craft business started booming and a lot of people were looking for help, so I started my own consulting firm to help them do it.
I also have a love of history, so Mount Vernon was the perfect mix of distilling and history rolled into one.
It must be pretty different from what you’re used to.

Yes, and the process is so manual. I joke around that it’s my bi-annual workout. You literally go down there and you’re stirring things by hand, and bucketing by hand, and carting wood around. Everything is manual to an extent that we’ve really forgotten about today. It’s hard work, but it’s also rewarding work because we’ve proved you can make really good products with old fashioned techniques.
Walk me through the whole manual process step by step.
We grind all the grains on the old gristmill, then we bag it up, and haul it over to the distillery in fifty pound bags. We boil water and literally bucket water in little one and a half gallon wood buckets from the boiler into the cooker, and then stir in about two hundred and fifty pounds of grain by hand. Then we bucket it out of the fermenter when it’s done and pour it into the stills, and we chop the wood, fire the stills up with built fires, and tend to the fires all day long. Every step of the way is old-fashioned and totally by hand.
I’ve heard the facility doesn’t even have electricity?
There are a couple of mood lights, but if it’s a dark day you can’t really see. It would be disingenuous to say there’s no electricity in there though—there’s a plug for our coffee maker.
How is Washington’s whiskey different from something we’re used to drinking today? What’s in the recipe itself?
It’s actually surprisingly similar. It’s a Maryland style rye, and the mash bill was discovered in historical documents at Mount Vernon. It wasn’t specifically written, ‘here’s the mash bill,’ but you can take the grain purchase history and figure out what the mash bill was. It should be spicy because it’s rye, but it’s a surprisingly smooth whiskey for a white whiskey.
Was Washington known to be a big whiskey drinker?
He certainly wasn’t a teetotaler. He had a particular taste for Madeira, and they had a lot of Madeira at the house. They served apple and peach brandy that they made at the distillery, and the rye whiskey as well. He gave people spirits from time to time as a thank you. So it’s clear that he drank in moderation. He didn’t have any room at all for somebody that was an irresponsible drinker.
How do you recommend enjoying a glass of Washington’s whiskey?
The same way I’d recommend enjoying anything else: neat, with a little ice, and water on the side. You take the first sip neat and then doctor it as necessary, but just a little ice and a little water is all you need. I like it straight, too, just right out of the bottle.
Washington’s Whiskey will be available beginning April 4 at the Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill.