Distillers turn to old methods to recreate George Washington’s peach brandy at Mount Vernon

By Jessica Gresko, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Distillers recreating Washington’s peach brandy

WASHINGTON — George Washington is best known as a general and statesman, but this week a group of experts was more interested in another one of the first president’s talents: making peach brandy.

In a reconstructed distillery at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, a group from around the country spent Tuesday trying to recreate Washington’s drink. They used the same process that would have been used two centuries ago: keeping fires going to heat the liquid and transferring it by buckets instead of modern pumps.

“We didn’t get into this to get in the liquor business. It’s all educational,” said Dennis Pogue, who oversees historic research at Mount Vernon and oversaw the rebuilding of the distillery in 2007.

Washington was better known for producing rye whiskey. The Mount Vernon staff knows his recipe and has made and bottled it in the past. Tuesday was the first time, however, the estate has used its distillery to re-create peach brandy, which Washington made in smaller quantities.

On Tuesday about half a dozen people were working to produce the spirit. Some were from Mount Vernon, wearing colonial dress. Other experts were from California, Indiana, New York and Vermont.

They began with about 300 gallons of peach juice and expected to finish on Wednesday with about 60 gallons of peach brandy that they will age in barrels. It may later be bottled and sold, as the estate has done with rye whiskey. This summer, Mount Vernon sold a limited edition of 470 bottles of the recreated whiskey. The bottles sold out in two hours at $85 each.

Unlike the rye whiskey, however, historians don’t know Washington’s exact brandy formula. There might not have been one.

“According to the period accounts there really isn’t a recipe,” Pogue said. “You take the peaches, you mash them up, you throw them in a barrel with water, and then you heat them up.”

Ted Huber, who runs a distillery in Indiana and was helping make the brandy, said making it the old fashioned way was was a lot different from what he’s used to back home.

“We turn buttons and pumps, and everything does it automatically,” he said.

At Washington’s distillery, the room is smoky and “patience comes into play,” he said. There are no gauges to tell when the liquid is the right temperature, and the brandy makers were relying on their noses to know when it was ready.

For Washington it wasn’t brandy but whiskey that was big business. In 1799, the year he died, his distillery produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey. A plantation account book also shows that two months before he died he had 60 gallons of peach brandy and 67 gallons of apple brandy sent to Mount Vernon’s main house from the distillery, which is about three miles south.

He also mentioned the stuff to friends. In 1786 Washington wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who served with him during the Revolutionary War, and sent him a barrel of Virginia hams.

“I wanted to have (accompanied) them with an anchor of old Peach brandy,” he wrote, “but could not provide any which I thought of such a quality as would do credit to the distillery of this liquor, & therefore sent none.”

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