Distilling in Mount Vernon

20 Oct 2015

David Frost, SWA chief executive

I spent 13-14 October last week in the United States to celebrate a very special project.  I joined three of Scotland's top distillers, a representative of the Scottish Government, and our US opposite numbers DISCUS, to launch and taste a single malt made from Scottish barley at George Washington's Distillery at Mount Vernon.

The story of Mount Vernon Distillery is an interesting one.  It was founded by James Anderson, who came to the US after a long farming career in Scotland.  He began his work by providing grain to Scottish distillers, but moved to Virginia in 1791 when the whisky market at home slumped.  He started work for Washington in 1797 and within a week he was urging his new employer to start distilling, using corn and rye grown on the plantation.  Within two years he was running one of the largest operations in North America, producing 10,500 gallons, and described by Washington himself as 'a pretty considerable distillery'. 

Anderson's career is characteristic of many Scots who went to America.  Those like me who began life studying history may know the book Albion's Seed by the great US historian David Hackett Fischer.  This changed conceptions of US history by showing how emigration from different parts of the British Isles to early America shaped the cultures in different parts of the new United States.  In particular it showed how Scots and Scots Borderers came to Virginia throughout the eighteenth century and influenced its development. 

One of the things Scots brought with them was a taste for whisky.  And it was pretty widespread.  The Marquis de Chastelleux, one of the many French aristocrats who supported the US Revolution, travelled in Virginia during the war and wrote, reminiscing, "whisky was our only drink … we managed however to make a tolerable toddy of it."

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Washington ended up building a distillery or that it should have been a Scots emigré, James Anderson, who encouraged him.

Fischer's book also notes that the new climatic and agricultural environment in the US required a change in distilling practice, requiring a shift from barley to the US crops corn and rye, making the US whiskey we know today. 

But the whisky that I celebrated was made in the original style: whisky as it would have been, from barley, when the Scots, and whisky, first came to America. Sadly, Anderson's distillery burned down in 1814.  However, in 2000, the US distilled spirits industry financed its excavation and restoration, and in autumn 2006 it was reopened by the Duke of York. 

That enabled the start of something new and special.  The distillery began by recreating George Washington's Rye whisky.  However, a new project began in 2012, when DISCUS and the SWA brought to the US three leading Scotch Whisky distillers: Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling for Glenmorangie; Andy Cant, distillery manager for Cardhu; and John Campbell, distillery manager for Laphroaig Distillery.  They used Scottish barley and 18th-century methods to produce twenty gallons of spirit.  They were matured for three years, first in used Bourbon barrels, and then in barrels that had previously held Madeira wine, a favourite of Washington's. 

Finally, in October, the whisky was ready to market, as George Washington's Distillery Single Malt, "Distillers' Reserve" and "Limited Edition".  This unique single malt very limited edition is being sold to raise funds for a range of charitable and educational purposes, including for Mount Vernon itself.  The first two bottles were auctioned in US for $26,000 for charity on 13 October. I and the SWA were delighted to be part of this project and even more so to have a bottle that we will be devoting to charity ourselves soon. 

Of course, the whisky produced at Mount Vernon cannot be Scotch Whisky - that can only be produced in Scotland.  But in using Scottish barley and the methods used by the Scots who first went to America, Mount Vernon was doing something special - going back to our roots and reminding us of the close distilling connections between the two great nations, Scotland and the United States.  With exports of £750m to the US in 2014, that connection remains as important as ever.