Friday, February 27, 2009

Elvis Has Left The Building

With all of our product proofed and safely stored in oak or plastic, and with mash tubs emptied and equipment stowed away, on Tuesday morning Dave Pickerell boarded his plane to return home to Kentucky. Thanks again, Dave, for your hard work and leadership -- we certainly couldn't have done it without you!

Next steps for us include completing the clean up -- steam cleaning the mash tubs, mopping floors, and the rest, to get ready for reopening to visitors on April 1 -- and then making plans for bottling the unaged spirit. If we can get our labels approved in a timely manner, we hope to have these bottles available for sale by June 1.

Please check back in a few weeks to keep abreast of our progress!

Tasting Notes

After all this work, how does our young whiskey taste?

Dave P. has supplied some tasting notes.

Nose: Slightly floral, earthy, and grainy -- reminiscent of freshly distilled Tequila.

Taste: Surprisingly sweet, but not overly so. Initial taste is primarily front palate. As the taste develops, it moves to the sides of the tongue -- revealing the unaged grainy sourness. But again, not too sour. Finally, the corn and rye grain tastes develop.

Finish: Fairly long and dry with the grain being most evident.

Overall: The taste is not nearly as aggressive as expected, surprisingly mellow and sweet.

Steve B. adds: "I'll have another!"

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Visiting Day

As word spread that we were distilling, a number of folks came by to observe the action. These included members of the media and the public, a number of Mount Vernon staff, and even several ladies on our board of directors. Pictured here learning from Dave P. how to gauge the proof of our whiskey are: Dennis (Blogger) Pogue, Boyce Ansley (Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), and Adrienne Mars (Vice Regent of the MVLA).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

As of Day 15 (Monday), we have filled both oak barrels with spirit, and we have another 25 gallons set aside in plastic containers. That means 25 gallons to go and we will be finished.
It seems a shame that we are coming to the end of this, as things are really running smoothly now. Daily production of first-run spirit is well over 50 gallons, as opposed to the 25 gallons that we achieved on the first day of distilling, the balancing act with the water exchange in the worm tubs has been mastered, and the team is operating like a well oiled machine. As predicted, it has been a steep but very gratifying learning curve.
The barrel is marked with all of the official information required by the Feds. Our distillery designation -- DSP-VA-1797 -- commemorates the year when George Washington first established his distillery.

Monday, February 23, 2009


After two more days of distilling, we are closing in on our goal of producing 100 gallons of rye whiskey. Our plan is to fill the two newly charred oak barrels that we purchased from Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky and store those in our warehouse to age for at least two years. The other 50 gallons are going into plastic containers for now, and we hope to bottle soon.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Proof ... Is In the Whiskey

We distilled about 15 gallons of spirit yesterday, with a proof level right in our target range of 110 and up. Dave P. gauged the first batch of distillate after we put it in the spirit still, and it tested right at 40 proof -- just as expected. After cutting off the head from the spirit run, it tested at about 140 proof -- declining from there to below 100 before we cut off the run. We will continue to run both the beer still and the spirit still today. Operating both stills at once has the added benefit of allowing us to put the heads and tails (both with too low proof and too many impurities) from the spirit run into the beer still. This is a more efficient method of increasing the alcohol level than putting it right back into the spirit still.

Before we started mashing Dave had estimated that if everything worked perfectly, we might get a return of up to four gallons of spirit per bushel of grain. We wound up using 37 bushels, so that would mean as much as 148 gallons of finished product. At this point, he thinks that the return might be closer to three gallons per bushel, or about 110 gallons.

We plan on distilling all day Friday and Saturday, some on Sunday, and then again on Monday, and hope to be finished by the end of that day.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pot Distilling 101

After three days of trial and error, we have our procedures pretty well established:

First, we drain all of the spent mash out of still #2. It is such a good beer still that we want it back on line first. Next, we shovel the ashes out of the fire box, and take the head off the still so we can inspect it and re-fill. (As a reminder of why it is good to take the time to inspect the interior every time, we found a big glop of solids in the bottom of the still that we needed to clean off, or it would have baked into cornbread after another day's distilling.) Then we fill the still to about 60 percent capacity, rebuild the fire, reassemble the still (put the head back on and reattach the arm), and begin filling the worm tub (condenser) with water. Finally, we balance the water flow in and out of the tub to ensure an optimum stream and optimum cooling capacity. Then on to still #1.

Once both stills are running, we monitor the water in the condensers and adjust as necessary. Eventually the distillate begins to flow, a few drops at first but soon turning into a steady stream. The first part (known as the "heads") is of poor quality, so it gets dumped back into the fermenter to be redistilled later. Once the quality is good (at least 40 proof, but usually much higher toward the beginning of the run), we collect the product and set it aside to be distilled a second time. The main purpose of the first distillation is to separate the alcohol from the mash, but the proof will be relatively low. If it averages 40 proof we are happy.

When the proof drops into the low 30s, we cut off the distillation and either start over from the beginning, or half-empty the still and refill it with new mash. Dave calls this procedure "turn and burn," and it allows us to extend the still run with less down-time. We leave the fire hot and empty one-half of the still volume through the outlet drain, then refill with fermented mash. The folks who made our stills, Vendome Copper and Brass Works of Louisville, KY, convinced us to let them include a small vent hole in the base of our stills, as a pressure release device to keep us from blowing ourselves up. The hole also acts as a handy inlet for adding mash, and its existence is crucial to the turn and burn maneuver. You have to be quick so as not to scorch the contents of the still, but it is a real time saver.

We hope to have enough first-run distillate available later today to be able to start running the "spirit still" -- where we distill for a second time, and hopefully increase the proof into the 100-110 range.

Dave Pickerell's Happy Thought of the Day

After three days of working out the idiosyncrasies of our copper beauties, Dave has made the following rather beatific observation:

"Each still has a happy place that it likes to run. The trick is not to make it run how you want, but rather to figure out how to make it happy where it wants to run, and then encourage it."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Two more days of distilling have yielded another approximately 80 gallons of first run distillate. All sorts of other mile stones have been reached: we didn't blow up anything, no one was scalded, we didn't make much "corn bread" (burning the slop on the inside of the stills), and the crew members still are on speaking terms. As with all complex processes, we keep learning lessons as we go along: from the best way to build the fires, to regulating the water flow, to gauging when to cut off the run, and the like. Stay tuned, beginning tomorrow Dave P. will post his journal on Pot Distilling 101.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Distilling, At Last!

Yesterday we produced about 25 gallons of first-run distillate. As with all things related to this project, there was a steep learning curve, and we expect much greater efficiency as the week wears on. According to Dave P., the average proof for this batch should be about 40, which is what he expected. After it is redistilled, the proof should increase to between 100 and 110. More details tomorrow on the ins and outs of pot distilling.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Let's mash like it's 1799!

We finished mashing the remaining eight tubs on Friday and Saturday and introduced the yeast. "Mashing" is the process of mixing and cooking the grains in order to change their starch into sugar -- which is what the yeasties then will consume (ferment) in three to five days to produce alcohol. The process is essentially the same whether you are producing 100 gallons of spirit in two weeks like we are, or thousands of gallons a day like at the large commercial distilleries. But instead of using giant vats with lots of modern equipment to speed things up, our little tubs accommodate only 120 gallons and the process is strictly by hand.
To guide us, we have several recipes and detailed descriptions of mashing that we've found in distillling manuals that were published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But Dave P. has some modern insights and tricks to bring to the table as well. When working with wooden mash tubs, bacterial contamination is a real problem, and the last time we tried distilling about a year ago this was a major obstacle. In addition to doing our best to clean out the tubs, we painted their interiors with a lime slurry to lower the PH level (making it less hospitiable to bacteria). Dave also has taken the precaution of adding hops to the water as we boil it, as this releases a natural anti-bacterial agent.
As for the mashing itself, it is a time consuming and arm breaking process that requires lots of attention to detail. Here are the steps: (1) about 15 gallons of cold water is placed in the tub, followed by 15-20 gallons of boiling water -- enough to bring the temperature up to 13o-140 degrees; (2) the ground corn is carefully added, while a second person vigorously stirs using a wooden mash "rake" -- the stirring is needed to help the grain dissolve and to retard clumping into balls of dough; (3) after the corn is in, we fill the tub two-thirds full with boiling water and let it sit for 20 minutes -- allowing time for the corn starch to become gelatinous; (4) add the rye, stirring vigorously -- this is the hardest work for the stirrer as the rye gelatinizes almost immediately, turning the solution into a thick soup; (5) keep stirring occasionally, waiting until the temperature cools to about 148 degrees -- the optimal temperature for malting; (6) stir in the malted barley -- the barley helps to break down the starch even more, making the mixture much thinner and easier to stir; (7) keep stirring, letting the temperature drop to about 90 degrees, at which point we add the yeast; (8) take a break and rest your arms, before starting on the next tub!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Team, Part I

Why do these people look so happy? Because today they completed four tubs of mash, and now they can go home and take showers! Left to right are: Travis (The Dude) Shaw, Kevin (Shutter Bug) O'Rourke, Dave (The Boss) Pickerell, Deborah (Precious Princess) Betko, and Randolph (Fire Starter) Bragg. Missing in action -- probably trying to pry the malt dust out of their pores -- are Steve Bashore and Daniel Purkey, our "dusty millers." Tomorrow, more mashing and fermenting.

Repairs to the barrels have been completed, and the "fleet" of 12 120-gallon mash tubs have been filled with water to make them swell and tighten. After three tries to get a working steam cleaner -- don't ask, but suffice to say that maybe the 18th-century technique would have been faster! -- Dave and the gang cleaned the barrels and the two stills that we will be using. Next up is moving the mash tubs back into the building, firing up the boiler, and getting the grain ready to mash.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dave Pickerell arrived Monday, and he immediately began directing us in the many housekeeping tasks required to be able to distill. These included such glamorous activities as cleaning out the boiler (used to heat water for mashing the grain) and the stills, and testing the mash tubs to make sure that they are water tight. And what do you know? Many of them weren't. Some shimming and pounding on the iron hoops soon solved that problem, and now we are ready to steam clean them to ensure that no foreign organisms will interfere with fermenting the grain. We hope to begin mashing on Thursday.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Washington's mash bill called for approximately 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. Because we have our own operating gristmill, we have the opportunity to grind the grains using water-powered mill stones, as it was done 200 years ago. Over the weekend our miller, Steve Bashore, and his assistant, Daniel Purkey, purchased the grain from local suppliers and began grinding. We will need about 170 pounds of grain for each tub of mash, so a total of about 2040 pounds. At roughly 100 pounds per hour, it will take Steve 20 hours to grind.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Planning For Making Washington's Whiskey

After years of archaeological excavations, research, and planning, and almost two years of construction, Mount Vernon unveiled an authentic replica of George Washington's whiskey distillery in the spring of 2007. Open from April through October, visitors to the distillery may observe how whiskey was made by Washington's distillers, when his distillery was one of the largest in the nation.
While the distillery is fully operational, generally speaking the goal is to demonstrate the process of distilling rather than actually making whiskey. However, in the interest of historical research and to raise money to support our educational programs, over the years we have distilled and sold small amounts of spirits -- rye whiskey, on three occasions, and rum, on one occasion. Before the distillery was completed in 2007, we distilled using a small replica 18th-century pot still set up in a temporary furnace. Once the distillery opened we distilled 12 gallons of rye whiskey using one of the pot stills in the new building. Now we are planning to carry out a more ambitious round of distilling, aimed at producing up to 100 gallons of rye whiskey, with the product to be made available for sale to the public in a series of special bottlings.
Over the next few days we will be making preparations for the distilling -- acquiring and grinding the grain in the nearby reconstructed gristmill, cleaning the mash tubs, and many other tasks -- and we hope to begin distilling during the week of February 9th. Please come back and check on our progress!