Party Like the Founding Fathers Did

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MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- With his wooden teeth, powered wig and staid expression, George Washington is not remembered today as a party animal. But both he and fellow Founder Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a good drink and used their gorgeous Virginia estates to make
fine libations.

Washington's wooden teeth, as you soon learn on a stroll through the expansive, modern visitors' center at Mount Vernon, is a myth, but Washington's whiskey, which the first president hand-crafted in a stone distillery that was rebuilt and opened to the public just last year, is no myth. Jefferson's love of elegant wine is no myth, either. But, although he failed to make wine after many frustrating attempts, our bon vivant third president's restored vineyards are a prime reason for visiting Monticello.

Both estates, lovingly maintained by nonprofit foundations and long popular with visitors, have recently begun to seriously talk about the two national heroes' relationships with drink. Alas, actually sampling modern versions of presidential whiskey and wine on-site is not easy -- unless you visit Mount Vernon or Monticello on special occasions, in which case you may literally get a taste of history.

Viewing Washington and Jefferson through a glass, clearly, is another way of seeing them. It humanizes these long-ago sages and makes them seem more like real people.

Certainly that's what I thought when I learned on a recent visit that prim and proper George Washington was America's largest, richest maker of commercial whiskey at his death in 1799. Washington was persuaded to use his creekside grist mill and new distillery to make whiskey by a Scottish-born associate, James Anderson, who thought high-octane hooch could fuel a thriving business. He was right. At its peak, Washington's distillery made 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year.

Located on route 235, three miles south of Mount Vernon and its stunning views over the Potomac River, Washington's distillery is a handsome, two-story replica rebuilt for $3 million and opened in March 2007. The distillery, open from March through October, carries a separate admission charge ($4 adults, $2 children) from the rest of Mount Vernon, with its stately manor house, cluster of work buildings and working farm. All are run by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association , which has maintained the estate since 1858.


The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States ponied up $2.1 million of the cost of rebuilding the distillery, using 18th century construction methods and patterning the building on discoveries made by archeologists who excavated the site.

The distillery serves as a museum of spirits in America and is the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which guides travelers to contemporary distilleries open to the public, such as Wild Turkey and Jim Beam in Kentucky and Jack Daniel's in Tennessee.

On the ground floor, distillers in period costume demonstrate the traditional way of making American whiskey. They use five copper pot stills located above fireplaces; the liquid in the demonstration is usually water that will never actually become whiskey, and there are no tastings at the distillery. Plans are afoot, Mount Vernon officials have said, to pour some whiskey made on-site at fundraisers and other special occasions and sell the stuff at Mount Vernon's main gift shop -- though none was on sale when I visited.

On the distillery's second floor are bedrooms where the managers would have lived in the old days, an exhibit on whiskey-making and showings of an eight-minute History Channel video called "Washington's Liquid Gold.'' The distillery is believed to be the only one in the country to use authentic 18th century methods of making whiskey.

Washington's whiskey was very unlike modern drink. It was not aged, but made to be consumed right away, which means it was colorless. Comprised of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley, the old recipe tastes rough to modern palates, although it was considered top-shelf quality in the 1790s. It is strong drink, too, at 120 proof.
The wines that Thomas Jefferson savored, and tried to make at his mountaintop estate, would have been considerably smoother. Jefferson learned to love wine as the fledgling American republic's ambassador to France. Unlike Washington, who didn't travel abroad, Jefferson toured the wine-producing regions of France, Italy and Germany, and transported European cuttings to Monticello.

Also unlike Washington, who was a successful, practical businessman, Jefferson was a visionary and something of an impractical dreamer who was in debt at his passing in 1826. Most of his vine cuttings died on slow-moving wooden ships, withered in changing climates or perished from infestations of molds, fungi and the aphid-like phylloxera, according to modern Monticello's wine expert, Italy-born Gabriele Rausse.

Jefferson's two small vineyards flank the lovely Monticello manor house, and together constitute just under an acre. They have been thoughtfully replanted and are calming, bucolic places with panoramic views of the mountains near Charlottesville, a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C. Visitors, who buy general-admission tickets at Monticello's small visitors' center and gift shop and ride shuttle buses to the top, are free to walk around and snap photos.

The northwest vineyard was replanted according to Jefferson's 1807 plan, and consists of terraced rows, each one devoted to a specific varietal, as in his time. His ''Black Cluster,'' as Jefferson called it, is believed to be Cabernet Sauvignon. The southwest vineyard was replanted entirely with Sangiovese, the main grape used in Chianti, in 1993.

Just over a thousand numbered bottles of 1999 Monticello Sangiovese were put on sale for $34 each and quickly sold out. But bad weather and small harvests at times doom production - including 2007, when no wine was made. In years when Monticello Wine is made, it goes on sale in the first week of January in the Monticello shop run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Monticello is proud of its vintage heritage. On Aug. 9, Gabriele Rausse will lead a two-hour wine-making workshop, held in Jefferson's revived vineyards.

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