Ep. 20 - Steve Bashore of George Washington's Distillery (Downstairs)

18TH CENTURY DISTILLING // How is Steve recreating the distilling process of the past at Mount Vernon?

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Show Notes

This interview pairs nicely with the Whiskey Lore Story Episode: The Life and Times of Washington's Distiller

Join us as Steve Bashore, Director of Historic Trades at George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill gives me a view of this recreated 18th century distillery.

If you are curious about how whisky was distilled back in the late 18th Century, well, is this the interview for you.

In this particular discussion, we're going to talk about the recreation of George Washington's distillery on the foundation of the original building. We'll talk about a Scotsman named James Anderson who was the man that talked Washington into letting him distill, and we'll hear about the relationship between the two men. And well talk about the distilling process and the cast of all-stars that helped bring this historic facility back to life.

The only thing you'll miss (besides the visual) is the smell of smoke from those stoked fires.

To see a virtual tour and to find out more about visiting the distillery, head to mountvernon.org.

  • Talking about recreating the distillery
  • The grinding of the grains
  • Dogue Run Farm and the other four farms of Mount Vernon
  • Anderson liked to go big
  • Getting out of tobacco
  • Crop rotations and rye
  • When not malt whisky?
  • James Anderson's son John and the cooperage distillery
  • The original two pot stills
  • The knowledge about the shape of the stills
  • Wondering what the stills looked link in the Lowlands in the 1780s
  • Realizing how hard whiskey was to make back then
  • The reason the distillery was near the mill
  • The process they used and now use for making brandy and whiskey
  • Ladling in hot water with corn and rye
  • Buying rye and barley
  • Buying yeast and time for fermentation
  • Avoiding scotching the whiskey
  • The difference in making brandy
  • Determining where to make your cuts
  • A use for cheap vodka
  • Can you make the whisky the way it was back then and would you want to?
  • How did they drink whisky back then?
  • Would the uncharred barrel influence the whisky?
  • 23 Year old spirits
  • Who made the barrels and mash tubs
  • The Lincoln connection
  • The swan neck still that may have been like the early pot stills
  • Washington distilled here
  • Washington slept or didn't sleep here
  • Walking in the footsteps
  • The best whisky is yet to come
  • The unique nature of the building
  • The smoke influence on the whisky
  • The ryes they make and
  • All of the fun people Steve has worked with
  • Steve's timing with the distillery
  • The experience of working with the all-stars
  • Long time distillers getting back to their roots
  • Scotch distillers reminiscing
  • Fred Noes revelation
  • Come make some whisky!
  • Craftspeople and their love for sharing knowledge
  • When do start tasting as the run starts? Avoiding the methanol.
  • How an apprentice learns
  • Where you can find it.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore: The Interviews." The full transcript and resources talked about in this episode are available on the tab(s) above.

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Welcome to Whiskey Lore: The Interviews
I'm your host Drew Hannush - Amazon best selling author of the Whiskey Lore Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon and welcome to a full encore interview that I conducted back in late 2020 with Steve Bashore, the master distiller and director of historic trades at Mount Vernon.

If you are curious about how whisky was distilled back in the late 18th Century, well, is this the interview for you.

In this particular discussion, we're going to talk about the recreation of George Washington's distillery on the foundation of the original building. We'll talk about a Scotsman named James Anderson who was the man that talked Washington into letting him distill, and we'll hear about the relationship between the two men. And well talk about the distilling process and the cast of all-stars that helped bring this historic facility back to life.

It was quite a site seeing those wood fires burning under those 5 pot stills and the hard labor that went into distilling in those days...techniques that are faithfully being deployed by Steve and his team today.

I apologize for the noise in the background, this is a working distillery and so you're going to hear it first hand. But hey, that just helps bring you closer to the actual distillery. Also, if you listened to the Whiskey Lore version of this, you've only heard half of the interview, you can pick up the second half around the 44 minute mark.

There is so much to talk about, I'll get out of the way and let you get right in to our discussion. Here is my conversation with Steve Bashore of George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon.

STEVE: Yeah, so today we're running apple brandy, so this is the last day of run you know we're triple distilling some brandy. And then we'll barrel that soon 

DREW: Do you also triple distill the whiskey or 

STEVE:  A little bit occasionally just if we need to like polish up a little bit at the end it's usually all double distilled okay and we make rye whiskey which is what Washington's men made here so and we've got five stills just as they had and this is all based on research and archaeology that was done here so pretty big distillery for the 18th century you know and the records indicate that you know so so we normally run this two to three or four times a year our main job is tours and education about the farms those who lived and worked here, Washington's businesses the enslaved community here that worked on these sites as well as paid staff and so this reopened in 2007 so after six years of archaeology 

DREW: And and of what I'm seeing here all of this was rebuilt in in 2007 

STEVE: 2004 to 2007. 

DREW: How did you how did you determine the layout did did you try to follow the original and did you have original blueprints to work from or some kind of sketches or some something to work from 

STEVE: No what we had was letters between Washington and James Anderson the farm manager and letters between Washington and other friends describing the building was stone 75 by 33 feet with timber frame top that he installed five stills and a copper boiler and that he had you know 50 mash tons in here for for setting fermentation that there was a fresh water well out back they dug for the water for the whiskey and the positioning of this next to the grist mill is critical because you need ground ground grains to make the whiskey out of. So all that written you know primary source documentation is there and then Mount Vernon's archaeological team led by Dennis Pogue at the time and Esther White and her team excavated this for six years wow because the original burned in 1814 so for many years this was just a field and then when the state took it over in the 1930s they rebuilt the gristmill but it was a static display you could just tour it and it had old machinery in there but it didn't run. And there was a marker out here describing this is where Washington's distillery was located and they did archaeology back then as well in the 30s and the the mill is rebuilt right over the original foundation distillery we're in is rebuilt right over the foundation so the archaeology told the layout. So every still is placed where an original still was the copper boiler in the middle of the room is where the coiler was. The cobblestone floor over there where we set mash they found that cobblestone floor and some of those stones are original to the building that's one thing that is original but all the framing everything else had to be redone and we have craftsmen that work on special projects for Mount Vernon.  John o'Rourke and Gus Kyorpus a couple other gentlemen that John Signs was the mason that did the restoration work so there are they make it look real and they use the tools so the marks on these beams are as they would have been so when we do a reconstruction or restoration work it's always to the highest level and so if Washington walked in here he would recognize this place I'm sure. And Gus Kyorpus still works on it for me so I have money in my budget because he's a millwright yeah it works on the mill machinery and the water wheel so every winter this site gets work and so the mill runs 10 months a year this is probably the mill in America historic mill runs the most of any meal I know of because we grind almost every day April through October and we grind for whiskey and we do production grinding for food grade product. So this site's really reflective of the stories we can tell but it's also a production site that really produces product in the mill and also spirits are out of the distillery.

DREW: In the distilleries that I've been to which are definitely much more modern you're looking at hammer mills roller mills to mill your drain how is it being done here 

STEVE: It's on millstones, so we have a 16 foot wheel in that building wooden water wheel made of white oak driving period accurate wooden gears that drive sets of millstones so the right side which are domestic granite stones that's where we grind rye corn and malted barley and then the other set of stones are French they're called French birthstones and that was the premium millstone in the world for making fine flower. So Washington had a set of French fir most merchant mills in America if they could afford them would buy French burst stones for making the high-end flower so that's how our you know runs start in the mill and that's what's neat here these two buildings reflect that time period that goes back generations you know you go back to ireland Scotland anywhere where spirits grain spirits were made you have to have the mill. And in those days prior to the roller mill which came along in 1840s it was all stone ground and in fact in ireland there's listings of mills I have a mill on the Irish a book on Irish mill history and a lot of them they list what they did it says malt so some mills were set up specifically just to feed that other industry of distilling or brewing. And so in this case Washington already had the mill so when he when you know they go back to this story when he hires James Anderson the farm manager Anderson was from Inverkeithing in Scotland he had been involved in farming milling distilling and shipping spirits down to England where they would redistill it in the gin often times and so he knew the business top to bottom left to right he was really well versed in it so when he applies for the job cause Washington's looking for a new farm manager because keep in mind this was an 8 000 acre farm at its peak actually four farms and five if you count Mansion House which Washington sometimes refers to as the home house farm which was smaller but he still grew grains there you know not he had the pleasure garden all the upper gardens but part of that was growing crops but we're we're three miles from the mansion right now so we're on part of Dogue Run Farm which was you know one of the four agricultural sites and the and really this farm was the industrial farm for Mount Vernon because there had always been a mill here the Washington's owned a mill that they purchased from another landowner as they enlarged the original Mount Vernon tract and it was on the same creek but about a third of a mile up that direction north and that was a country mill which just fed the plantation ground into some toll milling for locals. Washington ends up building a bigger merchant mill in 1770 so when Anderson writes Washington he actually says I've been on your farm. So he's like pitching himself to get this job and he says you know so I think in his mind even before he told Washington of his idea for the distillery I think it's all doing in his mind 

DREW: So he moved here in ninety seventeen ninety-one ninety-one yeah and he actually was working nearby but not working here from what I understand 

STEVE: Well he first lived in Fredericksburg Virginia so he worked for another landowner he actually built another distillery there but he writes to Washington that the landowner didn't have enough property to really faithfully feed that the grain it needed and so it makes me think that Anderson liked to go big it seemed because that was probably bigger than that local landowner could feed because this will eat a lot of grain with five stills so so he he pitches himself in that way explains some of that and the first letter related to him trying to get the job he doesn't give enough details so Washington writes him and basically asks what we would ask for is a resume and that's where Anderson gets more detailed and he the phrase I always remember from that letter he said I ran mills plural that fed distilleries. So he's in pretty deep and and again the merchant trade too and shipping and stuff so so with that information Washington knows he's probably the man for the job and he hires in January 1797 and Washington's coming back home from the presidency within weeks and Anderson writes him and one of the things he says is you need a distillery. It'll complete your farm business plan you know I know how to do this I've done this and that's how the story starts 

DREW: So Washington also got into crop rotation I don't think he initially was doing that with when he was farming tobacco 

STEVE: Well that happens in the 1760s so as he's leaving tobacco because of soil exhaustion and the soil up here in this part of northern Virginia is a lot of clay so it's not the best tobacco soil to begin with so what happens is he can see that if he stays with tobacco because of some bad crop yields 1764 65 and the fact that the British controlled the trade he had to ship it overseas there's a lot of middlemen cuts that happened so as part of part of that control of the Crown plus his fact his land's just not able to do it anymore that's made led the switch to grain which also at that time he's reading all the books on the new husbandry crop rotation you know what we would call more scientific farming is starting to be thought of and that's when he does right writes out some of these crop rotation plans and fertilization of various types to bring the land some life back to it. And so that led him down the path of grain which leads to the building of the merchant mill to export flower so he was very forward thinking and all that and implemented it pretty early for someone in Virginia being a Virginia planter because back then if you grew tobacco you refer to as a planter. He becomes what we call a farmer because he's moving into grains and other crops  and a lot of Virginians stayed in tobacco along much longer and you know when you the upheaval of the late 1700s with the American Revolution the French Revolution impacted a lot of markets for tobacco and Washington was proved to be pretty smart to get out early 

DREW: So not knowing a lot about crop rotations and how that works but understanding the basic concept of it rye was one of the grains that they would use to do this rotation it was in this particular area but was rye used for anything or was it just there to sort of replenish the soil 

STEVE: It's a little bit of both I've found references of it being you know milled and then sometimes it's just a cover crop okay yeah 

DREW: So and it it so it's a little bit of both going on and have been James Anderson seeing that rye not being utilized that set the bell off in his head that said hey this might be a good you know farm for distilling

STEVE: Having been in America for eight years he would have already seen rye whiskey being pretty prevalent in Maryland Pennsylvania Virginia and so I think he was aware of markets and so that's what people were drinking I mean corn whiskey existed bourbon as we talked about upstairs doesn't yet exist as a name specific type whiskey but there's no doubt that all those were in the market a lot of brandy was in the market and so I think Anderson being a businessman a farmer and a distiller would have been aware of what's being consumed and I think the majority of it was rye in this region.

DREW: It's interesting because I wonder about these when I first heard about James Anderson and that he came from Scotland and we think about Scotland nowadays as being single malt whisky is the most you know is is popular it's come back but blended whiskies were always trying to compete with the Irish so he was familiar with milling other types of grains beyond malts maybe not specifically corn because that wasn't as prevalent in in Scotland but but that thought of a Scottish distiller although he wasn't a distiller at the time so this is all stuff that I'm learning as as as we go but he had knowledge of what they were using in distilling. It's just interesting to think you know that shift in mentality to doing mash bills here versus making grain whisky and and making malt whisky and and how he would have developed his skill as a as a distiller once he got here with that new mentality and why wouldn't just go to malt. 

STEVE: Well because I think it's all about markets you know he had to convince Washington what would sell and you know taste that human beings have you know you can look at trends and alcohol over time and you know the 70s where brown liquors were just really down and so I think it's he comes to a new country he's a smart man he would have probably been doing corn and rye down there in Fredericksburg at that earlier distillery so he's got to make something that's going to be a saleable product or your boss is not going to be happy it's not going to be an ongoing concern that makes money so and you know and I think he just switched to what was in the new country he was in he said I gotta make rye because I'm not gonna you know market malt whiskey to Americans at that time there's no way so I think he just adapted he adapted and he would have understood fermentation and all that there's no doubt if he was involved at that level in Scotland he would have been in many distilleries and and understood the process and his son you know obviously at some point got training as a distiller or he wouldn't have been able to do it here.

DREW: Yeah yeah talk a little bit about his son how early did he get involved here do you know 

STEVE: Pretty early pretty early yeah so I think John is his name John Anderson and he's in his early 20s when his dad gets this position so as the distillery ideas floated to Washington the first distillation done here is done in the cooperage next to the mill so we don't have that reconstructed but they Washington had built a cooperage by the mill in 1770 because he needed his coopers to make barrels and many of those coopers were enslaved men and the head miller was also tasked in his contract when he's not milling to be making barrels too so he had a man who was very skilled that made barrels as well and they're exporting lots of flour so that was a necessity but the coopers here move around wherever they're needed because Washington had a commercial fishing operation and a lot of barrels are needed for that but that was the vessel to carry all sorts of things. Washington hears Anderson out about let's get into distilling and being frugal Washington says I agree it's a business I'm not familiar with but you can do that in the cooperage. So instead of launching a new building yeah it's kind of a let's see what this man can do let's see so they set up two stills and we know from our records that James Anderson's son John and an enslaved man worked in there with two stills in 1797 and produced 600 gallons of whiskey and they did not barrel age whiskey then so it went right into market as a white dog an unaged rye and that meant profits coming right back and on that basis Washington sees okay definitely the market's here the money's coming in it's a quick turnaround so that loosens up his thought process about going bigger and then that later that year Washington agrees to start a dedicated new building. So prior to that though one last thing Washington does is he writes Colonel John Fitzgerald who had been in the military with Washington and had at one time owned a rum distillery in Alexandria and he was a merchant and he wrote and asked you know what do you think of this proposal and it came back that well Anderson has a good reputation and there's a lot of money to be made in it and in fact he says if you make good whiskey you'll sell. So with that advice Washington then agrees and you can see the letters I agree to you commencing a distillery and they had to outfit it then so Washington hired a stone mason he also had enslaved men that were carpenters and masons that worked on this. He takes the two stills out of the cooperage and he buys three more okay from coppersmith and Alexandria named George McNunn he buys a 210 gallon copper boiler which you're going to need to heat that water to cook and ferment, all that gets built up over the winter of 1797 98 by March of 98 it's up and running with five stills which you know we've replicated here. And so really the way I describe it is you've got a two still operation which we call farm distilling and now we're really commercial with this many stills.

DREW: Yeah yeah and so were there any records on those original two pot stills to kind of get a or little drawings or something to show what they they look like 

STEVE: Not drawings but there's there's a little bit of a knowledge on it I've come across in research in a little few gray areas because in 1759 and 1760 Washington buys a couple of pot stills. Like any farmer it's nice to have a still around for various reasons and so I did find a reference about one of those stills when they're in the cooperage working and Washington - the letter from Anderson's missing but the reply from Washington exists and he says I'm glad to hear of the old still doing so well. So that means I think one of those early purchases ends up being one of the stills that's in there. And then I think that there's there's a fair good possibility that he does not migrate both of those stills over here because of the gallon size of them I know what the gallon capacity was here and those were a little smaller so again I think maybe one of them came but not both. 

DREW: It makes you wonder if they were aware at that time of how the size of the of a still or the shape of the still could create consistency or inconsistency issues. 

STEVE: Oh they they were aware and I think Anderson he relied on Anderson for all of that so I think they were very much aware of of still shapes and sizes which goes back you know into the 1300s and 1400s for different types of distillations you can see drawings of the way they design the head or the body of the still depending on what they're doing or how much you know in some cases reflux you may want on the still so I think there was a lot more knowledge back then and than we would maybe assume that they had they I think they're they're pretty smart about that sort of stuff. 

DREW: Yeah it's funny because we think about the large Lowland distilleries that he was probably shipping grain to James Anderson and you get a picture in your mind of what today's modern distilleries look like with a large distillery back then wasn't using a Coffey Column still or you know anything that was going to be huge you could do it in smaller buildings like this so it'd be interesting to know you know what what a large scale distillery in Scotland at that time would look like 

STEVE: Look like and size-wise yeah yeah because I do know in this country that rum distilleries the stills for rum distilleries were massive 5 thousand gallons still eight thousand gallons still compared to whiskey. So you're looking at you know Washington had a couple stills that were in the range of 130 gallons and then 110 gallons still and two more that were just slightly smaller and I think you know we could talk about the output here and I have some theories about how they made that much in that year but. 

DREW: Because how much of if you were running this at full capacity you know just seven days a week but maybe not you know maybe 12 hours a day or ten hours a day what do you think you probably would be able to produce off of these in a year 

STEVE: I bet we could get we could get five to seven thousand per gallons in a year but we'd be killing ourselves to do it the way we do it and that's the other aspect about having done this now over a decade is that you realize how hard whiskey production was in the methods they had in that time period you know because we hand row mash and we bucket water and you know they did have a couple pumps in here made of tin for moving spirit or moving water so we know they had some implements to do that but there's a lot of manual labor and and you know and here are eight men you know six enslaved men and James Anderson's son John and over the time of two three years there's a couple different you know assistant distillers. One we always talk about was a guy named Peter Dingle and there were a couple others that rotated through so in 1799 on this spot we're standing they made 10 942 gallons of rye whiskey in one calendar year.

DREW: Were they also making brandy in here small amounts?

STEVE: yeah okay 200 gallons a year he sold a little of it but it seems like a lot of that ends up in barrels in the mansion and that's entertaining and he had a lot of guests and so but a little bit of profit out of brandy but the main profit was the whiskey the rye whiskey. So you can hear the water running that's the cooling water coming down from the mill race to cool the coils on the stills hope that's not bleeding too much over on your mic.

DREW: No I think we'll be I think we'll be fine yeah

STEVE: But that's so people know what that sound is so basically the water infrastructure here is why and the grain is why the distillery had to be here because Washington's mill existed since 1770 two miles up on the farm at a higher elevation they had a mill dam and a pond the reservoir of water for the mill real long mill race brought water down through the farm to run the water wheel and then and it's interesting because Washington initially when Anderson proposes it he says well can't we build the distillery down by your house which is on the other end of Mount Vernon on the river the Potomac River and and Washington knows this but he's worried about theft he's worried about what will happen if I build a still house here because there could be problems you know he was concerned about his property and Anderson says well we need the mill Washington knows yeah we need I know that you know you got to have the mill on the water so they built a wooden trough that brings water from the mill race down along the side outside distillery and elbows in and follows the wall there and then we have spouts feeding down to the worm tubs that cool the coils and the stills  and then there's floor drains which were found archeologically and we've got a drain system under the floor as they did but it's a little more modern under the floor that takes the water back away to the creek. So you know without being a miller I'm always partial to the mill so I always say you know that can stand alone and make money the distillery makes a lot more money but it needs that mill it needs that mill so and so the two big stills here and then these are a little smaller down there but again laid out just as the archaeology remains showed us and then maybe we should walk over to the mash floor you want to.

DREW: Yeah yeah so take me through your process and let's let's talk a little bit about how you're producing versus how Washington time period would have produced whiskey.

STEVE: Yeah so on the cobblestone mash floor we're standing and we've got a 210 gallon copper boiler here and this was a wood-fired boiler back in the day and so they would stoke that fire and the water was from the fresh water well out back because the creek here if you've seen the creek it's not the nicest water to make anything out of it's really used just for running the water wheel and cooling water for the stills coils. So once this is boiling hot the men working in here are going to buck it there's a side valve but also these ladles and you're going to buck it in hot water to one of these 120 gallon mash tuns and there are sometimes called hogs heads but and we know the dimension from the record so that it's a big white oak barrel and then you're going to bucket in that hot water and as that's being added the corn and rye are added first so ground corn meal ground rye. And this was a rye whiskey of around 55 to 60 rye component 30 to 35 corn and the rest was malted barley so as the corn and rye are going in with the water we use mash rakes you can see those wooden rakes over there and we row that mash by hand to mix the grain thoroughly so by the time you've got all that mixed in in the first you know 20 minutes of the set that water level's near the top put a lid on it to trap heat to let it cook. And it'll cook for a period of 45 minutes to maybe an hour and 15 minutes.

DREW: So you're I mean you're getting it hot over here you're putting it into your mash tun and then it's basically just cooling cooling down but it's cooking as as the temperature slowly starts to drop.

STEVE: And you want to move quick because we want to cook at a certain temperature so that's the dilemma here in our our process and this is what's neat about it is that it causes limitations and hold heat real high we can't dial it in but I think it leads to part of the unique way of the whiskey taste this is how they did it we're doing it the way they did it and there's nothing we can do about certain limitations we have here we're not you know we have certain aspects we've ramped up a little for bottling and filtering but ninety percent of it on the front end is really done like they did it back then. So you lose heat you know you even lose heat as you're bucketing because water's you know if you're doing the front row fermenters that's an easy pour so we'll have three rows of these by day three so when you have to carry water out to row three you know it's traveling along in the open air and losing heat so we get that lid on it as quickly as possible so when you're setting the first two grains you want to work as fast as possible get them in get it covered and let it cook. And then when it's in the high 140s we'll hit it with malted barley and the malt will then take effect and this gelatinous rye can be very sticky and gelatinous it'll start to thin out and also that conversion of starch to sugar starts happening.

DREW: So so talk a little bit about malted barley because again it probably to the person familiar with how bourbon is made we don't pay as much attention to malted barley over here but over in Scotland of course you know if you're malting barley they used to have big malting floors within the distilleries that they would do all of their in-house malting. Would there have been a malting floor or somewhere where they and were they getting the barley from Washington's farms?

STEVE: He's getting most of the grain for this building from his farms but it to make that much whiskey with five stills he couldn't grow enough also the corn that's a component of the mash bills that was also rations for the enslaved population the paid staff the Washington family so he couldn't pull all the corn from his farm and run it through the distillery so he has to contract to buy corn from a relative and he got so many barrels a year just for the distillery. He also has to buy rye sometimes and found out recently that he was buying some rye grain right across the river in Maryland. It's kind of interesting so there's you know there's a lot of trade along the river and so he grew rye but he had to buy some it drew corn had to buy some the barley he grows and he did build a malt house on site so I think it was outside in that direction near the building and we have a description of its construction. So I also wonder sometimes if he wasn't malting the rye as well okay that's just a mystery but yeah I have some you know it's gut feeling that that was probably going on.

DREW: Well it’s interesting to see there are some distillers that have gone to using malted rye and skipping barley all together 

STEVE: Yeah there's some that are 100 rye that are very high rye that are all you know they malt that so malt right from what I little I know about its malting it does take well to that yeah and it'll change the flavor profile.

DREW: So one of the I actually watched a video that was showing that process of adding the barley I had never seen it go from this thick because when they're stirring this initially when it's it's corn it's like oatmeal the corn and rye and can be very hard to stir but in adding the malted barley in the the character of it changes completely.

STEVE: Yeah and again I I'm no I'm a historian by trade so I'm not I'm not a chemical engineer or a chemist but what I have learned from our consultants is there's liquefaction that takes that thick grain and you know gives it a smoother easier row liquefying and sacrification which is a sugar creation that starts so malt's critical. And then we'll let that cover that let it rest for a period of time and then row it down to temperature to yeast so all those grains going in the first day the east will be hit in the early evening before we leave. Washington got yeast from a brewery in Alexandria and would be able to cultivate it but I recently found that he made two or three other purchases over the years or Anderson did when they needed yeast they go to that brewer. And then it'll ferment three to five days here what we've learned over the years is we'll ferment three days usually and it's consumed most of those sugars occasionally because of weather you know this building you can feel it it's cold in here today. It's it's not like a modern place even though many distilleries I do know that not all of them are climate controlled I have a few you still are friends and they work in cold environments sometimes too. But the walls here are two and a half feet thick and whatever the temperature outside is even with fires running it's cold in here and that'll affect how long it ferments sometimes 

DREW: Even when it's hot and humid outside you still have a certain amount of but it's it doesn't get over 90 plus degrees in here where 

STEVE: It does so whatever the outside weather is yeah when the seasons change once it penetrates the mill or distillery that's what it's like inside too okay so like the gristmill you know in the winter is an iceberg you can see your breath that's why we run the mill like they would have as long as they could then you get ice on the wheel you stop for the winter or the creek would freeze back in his day so we've been in here in like May when we were making brandy once and it was real mild spring and then the last three days the temperature shot up to 90. we were we were roasting in here especially with fires running so but that all the elements affect the outcome.

DREW: So what do you do with the fermentation process then do you just not ferment in the summer you're not running the stills in the summer.

STEVE: No we can't yeah and I have I don't think they did a lot of that either if fermentation is affected by it you don't have cool water from the mill race Virginia in summers and his day there were a lot of droughts so sometimes the milk can't even run so you couldn't produce and then when the cooler months start coming on they ramp back up. So after ferments three to four days we then do another bucket brigade and we bucket mash to the stills so the heads of the stills can come off as you can see to their the onions as they're called are popped off and you can pour right in through the throat of the pot and fill the still. 

DREW: That's a true I love this bucket brigade idea that you basically so it's all hands on deck for for a few minutes while we go run all this stuff over to to the next phase and so you're stilling with the grain.

STEVE: Yeah we tried early on to louter it and you know cheesecloth and stuff it just was took so much time it wasn't really working and so we go it's not like it's chunky you know the thing you have to do at the end of the day is drain the slop out of the still if you leave it in there overnight we learn the hard way it'll bake on like cornbread you'll have a hell of a job scraping that out well 

DREW: That's where I also hear sometimes moonshiners will talking to talk about scorching their whiskey because you have more of a chance that you can actually burn that grain at the bottom y

STEVE: Yeah yeah so that's a 

so how do you manage that temperature control or now 

STEVE: What we do it's what we've learned to do is we will set the fire after the stills are all charged we don't put the onion on right away we have a paddle and we'll row as the fire is being built up we'll do that walking down the line rowing each one so you're stirring the bottom and then once it starts to see signs of getting close to boiling you know we'll put the head on and connect all the line arm and the in the coil and then you're off and running yeah and it's interesting we have a couple of texts we've acquired through different libraries that have been republished of 18th century stills and how to operate distilleries and they talk about doing that and we were already doing it they talked about rowing it don't put the head on right away yeah and they refer to when you see it start to boil inside then put the head on we do it a little earlier we'll see a wisp of vapor and we'll go ahead and put it on there.

DREW: A lot of trial by error I guess in your in your initial runs.

STEVE: Yeah we've learned a lot over the years and it was certainly mistakes were made corrections and lessons were learned. 

DREW: I was going to say the the plus to making mistakes on smaller batches like this is that you ruin a batch of this size it's not catastrophic whereas if you were running a continuous still and you were you know pumping out hundreds of thousands of gallons and then find out 

STEVE: That's a painful mistake yeah yeah 

DREW: Not too long ago I saw my first pot still that was gas fighting and had the flames going underneath it and that is so rare nowadays and you're actually kindling fire 

STEVE: Yeah wood fire yeah and you can see here on this one and again we're just running one today just because we're down to the end of the run but for the last couple weeks we've been running these three small stills on this brandy run 

So what is the main difference I hear brandy is a little bit more messy to work with when you are at the beginning stages I guess 

STEVE: Yeah if you had to press like the apple juice or with peaches you know get hit them and press the juice there's a they would have had cider presses in the 18th century to do that 

DREW: So right are you doing it more from already created wine 

STEVE: No it's from juice but we have a couple partners one that runs a cider operation and so he has an orchard of over 4 000 trees and so we're able to get him to press it for us which is great and he has varietals of trees that Washington would have grown so we try you know it's not all early varietals but they're mixed in there with the juice so we've got that angle we're trying to you know build the history into it 

DREW: Are there any differences in terms of the actual distillation process you say you triple distill?

STEVE: Just just a little bit yeah not with every run that's kind of based on flavors and where we are with what we last have and we think we can get a few more gallons out and polish it up more we'll run a little batch at the end and triple it the difference is is and again others can speak more to the science of it better than me but what I've learned is you want you want some more tails in your brandy at the lower end of the run because there's flavor notes in there so basically what we've learned to do is we'll do the first pass first distillation and we'll mingle all that together basically rebuilding the apple and we take a heads cut so we always remove that but then you have the hearts and some of the tails a certain level and that goes back and we build that back and then we double it.

DREW: Okay in other words you want a little bit more of the fruity funk that probably comes from that that tail but in whiskey it doesn't really give you quite the flavorful advantage.

STEVE: Yeah you want some of that in there but there's a point with whiskey when you know it's like you know pouring bad into good you want you cut the still off when it's when it's hitting that level and that gets destroyed 

DREW: Yeah yeah so you're busy stoking these fires throughout the day then I guess to keep them rolling.

STEVE: Yeah the the double runs will like yesterday and the day before the still ran from nine in the morning till about 6 30 at night. The whiskey it'll run about four or five hours but the double runs are always longer the finish runs just because you've got distillate that goes in that is a certain proof and it's going to come off at a high proof so the brandy's been coming off around 150 and it'll ride high for several hours and you know as it goes through the day those proofs drop down into the tails and then at some point we're ready to cut it off and the brandy runs for us are easier too and that it's a smaller run you know with whiskey we'll set the most we've ever set on fermentations is 54 of these barrels yeah that's a lot of mash that's over 10 000 pounds of grain. With the the juice here we get you know it's going to be a lot smaller volume so it makes everything easier with two or three stills instead of all five 

DREW: Well I was gonna say then you are with the whiskey you're actually running all five stills at the same time yeah for production and how long does your production run usually go for that much 

STEVE: About 30 days is it 30 days straight every day 

DREW: Yeah and you do that in the spring or the fall 

STEVE: We do it in March usually right before we open April 1 is when the tours start yeah and then we'll get into our tour season regular you know educational programs and then we'll run whiskey again in November well after the tour's in because you've run five stills there's some safety issues and things to get tour groups in here great we've run whiskey in October before small batch you know so we've done it in season yeah on occasion and brandy on occasion but when you're running all five you got that much grain and fermentation going on you know we'll do small vip package tours sometimes for just a group of ten which they pay an extra fee they get a tasting they get to come in and see it operating but for the general tours it would just be too many people and now the year of 2020 you know it's one of the reasons we're doing brandy is it's less staff in here. You know normally this time of year we'd be running rye right but I think I can smell this coming on it's starting to smell you can smell it so it's going to come online in a little bit and then we'll do our heads cut and we'll run this until we think it's at that mark where we know we're dropping out of the good flavor and the and this will be the last run of this particular batch.

DREW: And so Steve and I continued our conversation downstairs talking a little bit more about where he makes his cuts where he gets his barrels and his mash tubs and Steve also threw out some of the all-star names that came in from Kentucky Scotland and beyond to help get the distillery set up if you are a member of the Whiskey Lore Society you're going to get a chance to hear the second half of that downstairs distillery walk-through and all you have to do is go to patreon.com/whiskeylore here's a little sample of what you'll hear 

DREW: Do experiment because you weren't really distilling prior to coming here 

STEVE: No no I was a miller and traditional miller and so I came with my mind really focused on the water mill and over time you know the depth of the project here I've gotten more and more love for making spirits and so I came here in january of seven and this restoration was just being finished the stairs here didn't exist yet they hadn't finished wow and then we shot a History Channel film where we did some you know water in the still running them it's pretty neat just to show you know tell a story yeah and then march of that year before we opened we had several major master distillers come here with Dave Pickerell and Jimmy Russell and Chris Morris from Woodford and others and we made one small run and barreled it yeah and that's when you you know in my mind you know as a traditional miller I started to see another side of grain and then it's just grown from there so I've been very lucky to be here at this time and Dave came in 0-9 and helped us do our first batches and then occasionally we do something special with you know the distilled spirits council we bring press here or other distillers here because the distilled spirits council funded this restoration and so a lot of the major companies contributed to get this rebuilt and so then we do these projects and you learn from each person that comes through here and I think you know the last five years the program's really grown and I think we're just in a neat spot right now to where we have some really great whiskey we've released we've got a lot more skills we understand more still got a lot to learn but we have a lot of barrels laid down that's just really fine product and you know I look forward to seeing how that comes out in the bottle when we get the bottle all that

DREW: Steve is a fascinating guy to talk to and I had so many more questions, so we step away from the stills in the next episode and talk more about James Anderson and I get to sample different age ranges of their rye and a special surprise. And to see the distillery head to mountvernon.org.

And if you enjoyed today's episode, make sure to tell a friend about Whiskey Lore. I'm your host Drew Hannush.

And until next time cheers and slainte mhath.

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