Drinking in the spirit of George Washington

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WhistlePig10Recently I attended WhiskyFest DC, the annual festival of all things whiskey. There were many standout whiskies on offer, several of which were made by Dave Pickerell, something of a magic man in American whiskey.

In 2008, after 14 years as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery, Pickerell broke out on his own and began consulting, effectively shepherding along the fledgling and then burgeoning craft-distilling movement. As part of his master distiller-for-hire career, he is responsible for both WhistlePig Rye and Hillrock Estate—both of which were on display next to each other at WhiskyFest DC. “I stand here in front of my children,” he joshed, gesturing to the two exhibit tables behind him.


I first met Pickerell at DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States — the national trade association representing the leading producers and marketers of distilled spirits — in 2006, at the ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony of the newly recreated George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon.

It was great fun. I got to meet not only Pickerell and other American and Scottish distillers and industry folk, but also Britain’s Prince Andrew and Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell. What brought British royalty? George Washington’s distiller was originally from Scotland. On the strength of that, DISCUS teamed up with the Scotch Whisky Association to create this educational and celebratory homage to America’s great heritage of whiskey production via George Washington at his distillery on the Mount Vernon Estate. Ever since, I’ve been a Pickerell fan.

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Following is a snippet of our conversation at WhiskyFestDC.

Why do you think the craft-distilling movement has taken off in the United States?


Well, you have to go back to previous trends. First was food. That goes from executive and celebrity chefs to the popularity of local products. Next are alcoholic drinks and cocktails. Basically, taste has become important. I think that’s why vodka is on the decline. Terroir is becoming important. A sense of place and locale increasingly matters. Also, folks want historic things. Authenticity. This is why rye [whiskey] is doing so well. The fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them. The whiskey rations during the Revolutionary War were in rye.

Is that why you have that tattoo of Washington’s rye on your arm?

When they threw the tea into Boston Harbor, it wasn’t just throwing tea, it was throwing the British way of life — and that included rum, the colonial drink. They certainly weren’t about to quit drinking, but it did mean they were going to switch to something made indigenously, and that was rye whiskey. America was truly settled on the back of rye whiskey and our independence was won on the back of rye whiskey. It is the true American spirit. And George Washington was one of the biggest rye whiskey makers of his era.

Hard to argue with any of that while drinking either of these awesome rye whiskies from Dave Pickerell:

Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye whiskey (45 percent abv; $90): the nose starts off stilted and a touch over-woody, but then radically changes on the palate and opens to become a stunning, complex whiskey with warm notes of vanilla, caramel, espresso, prunes, apricots, toffee, cloves, cinnamon, butterscotch and banana bread, with a long, warming finish that sees additional notes of dark chocolate covered orange peel and baking spice. With time and or water, the nose softens and the over-strong wood aromas dissipate, and become rather charming. But even if you’ve no patience, the palate forgives all.

WhistlePig 10 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey (50 percent abv; $70): One of the world’s great whiskies, WhistlePig offers interesting, lively spice notes of mint, clove, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon, with dried orange peel, vanilla, toffee, hot chili peppers, caramel, and butterscotch, with a long, dry spicy finish. This is a rich, full and delicious rye whiskey. The finish is long and creamy, but never loses the kick of the rye, and with some additional mint, butterscotch and dark chocolate notes. L’chaim! n

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