Distilling Like It’s 1799: The Early Days of American Whiskey

, | January 25, 2018

Over the course of the last year I’ve reviewed a couple of whiskeys from Old Potrero in San Francisco. This pioneering craft distillery has been making small-batch malted ryes—still an unusual category in American whiskey—since 1993.

The overarching ethos at Old Potrero, according to the distillery, is “an attempt to re-create the original whiskey of America.” That’s the reasoning behind the use of rye, “the grain of choice for America’s first distillers.” For their 18th Century Style Whiskey, Old Potrero uses toasted, not charred barrels, noting that while heating barrel staves is a traditional part of the cooperage process, charring was a later innovation.

All this got me wondering: what did American whiskey taste like in the 18th century anyway? So I called up Steve Bashore, director of historic trades at Mount Vernon. Bashore got his start running the reconstructed water-powered mill at the site, and has worked in the distillery there since it was first getting up and running about ten years ago.

George Washington’s distillery—which, in addition to whiskey, produced small amounts of peach and apple brandy—was a major source of income for our first president. Today, Bashore and his team make whiskey (in much smaller quantities) using the same methods used in the 18th century. If you visit Mount Vernon, you can buy a bottle for yourself.

One of the copper pot stills at work at the George Washington distillery (image via Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

The basic steps of whiskey production, of course—breaking the starch in grain down into sugar, fermenting it with yeast, and distilling the fermented wash—haven’t changed since Washington’s time. Reconstructing specific techniques and recipes, though, is something of an inexact science. Written records are one source of information, but they aren’t always clear or exhaustive—”they didn’t always write everything down, or they assume you know,” says Bashore. The distillery team has supplemented what they can glean from those records expert knowledge from outside consultants like Dave Pickerell and Lisa Wicker.

During Washington’s time, Mount Vernon had everything needed to produce whiskey onsite. The farm, located in northern Virginia, grew many different grains—rye, corn, and barley all among them. Although it hasn’t been rebuilt, there was also a malthouse on the property. The available records refer only to malting barley—but Bashore also notes that “in that time period, they could malt rye, but we don’t know if they were doing that.”

After being milled onsite, grain was cooked in 120-gallon hogshead barrels, in water from a well adjacent to the distillery. “We have a 210-gallon boiler stoked up with a wood fire,” says Bashore. “When it gets to temperature, you work hot water into the fermenters, then add the grain.” Corn goes first, followed by rye—their recipe is 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. After a few hours of cooking, they add the malt, and thanks to the magic of enzymes, what was a thick porridge turns into a liquid. After cooling to 90°, yeast is added, and the mash ferments for three days.

When it’s time to distill, the mash goes straight into the distillery’s five copper pot stills, and workers build wood fires underneath them. The whiskey is double-distilled, and then some is bottled, while some goes into barrels for aging.

That last step is the only part that intentionally diverges from 18th-century practices. At that time, whiskey was neither aged nor bottled. Glass bottles couldn’t be mass-produced until the late 19th century, so whiskey was sold either by the barrel or in customers’ own jugs. At least in Mount Vernon’s case, it also wouldn’t have spent much time in the barrel, as virtually everything the distillery produced was sold either in Alexandria—ten miles down the road—or to customers who came to the farm.

The barrels whiskey was sold in at that time were also different in one important way from modern aging barrels: they weren’t charred. “They would build a little fire inside the barrel,” says Bashore, “that wouldn’t touch the wood, but would heat it up so it would bend.” In short, the typical American whiskey drunk in the 18th century was what we’d call white whiskey today.

How typical was Washington’s distillery? That’s difficult to pin down. Although the methods used may have been typical for the time period, it’s worth noting that Mount Vernon was a large commercial operation, turning out around 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799. It was a big enough business that the farm couldn’t produce enough corn, rye, and barley to feed it, meaning some grain had to be bought elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that the distillery’s workforce didn’t just consist of hired hands, but enslaved laborers, too—Washington owned 317 slaves at the time of his death.

The recipe used at Mount Vernon was by no means the standard throughout the colonies; distillers, many of whom were small farmers, used whatever grain was available to them.

Finally, although Washington’s distillery was a booming business, the really big distilleries at the time weren’t making whiskey, but the other native spirit of the Americas—rum.


Katelyn Best

Katelyn is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She's a regular contributor to the Whiskey Wash with an affinity for the unique and weird side of whiskey.