Interview with Steve Bashore of Historic Mount Vernon

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You folks might remember a few months back I interviewed Mr Steve Bashore (who’s last name I mercilessly murdered with my cornbread accent; BAY-SHORE) in a video during the opening weekend of Historic Locust Grove farms Distillery.  Steve is the Distiller and Millwright at George Washington’s rebuilt Mount Vernon estate and has a very unique perspective on Distillation as he approaches it from an 18’th century perspective that is authentic to the time and place as well as products (Rye Whiskey, Apple Brandy) I wanted to get a little more in depth with Steve so I thought a nice little follow up interview would be very worthwhile.

Interview with Steve Bashore
Director of Historic Trades
at
George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Steve, tell us a little about your background and how you came to be involved in historic reenactment, distillation, and milling?

I received a degree in history from the University of Texas at Arlington, both of my parents are from Texas, my Dad from Lubbock, Texas and my Mom from Fort Worth, they met in college at Texas Tech University, and that brought me back to my roots for college. With my degree completed, I moved back to Virginia, where I had grown up from 7th grade through high school. My Dad was a career Army officer, so we did move around a lot when I was young, I was born in Bremerhaven, Germany, lived many places, but we settled in Virginia, near Washington, DC, not a bad state to live if you love history.

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My degree focused more on European History, but obviously have been immersed in Colonial and early American History for many years now. After college I got a job with the county park system here in Northern Virginia, my office was in the miller’s house of a site the county owned that had a working water-powered gristmill. The gristmill was built in 1811, and restored in the early 1970s, interestingly enough, the land the mill was constructed on was once owned by George Washington. Washington had even commented that the site was perfect for “two mill seats.” The miller there liked me, and asked one day, “do you want to learn how to run the mill, “, of course I said yes, and I entered the world of traditional milling. The other key aspect of the job was giving tours and relating the history of the site and history of milling to visitors. I enjoy telling stories, stories of the past, and I realized at this time I had found the perfect profession, one which allowed me to work physically in a traditional trade, and also relate the history, the story of this trade and the people who worked the mill and were given sustenance by the mill. Yes, it was the beginning for me.

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One day in 1994, the millwright came to work on the water wheel shaft bearings at the gristmill. His name was Derek Odgen, an English millwright and engineer, and I was intrigued. He was an older man, and obviously so skilled and knowledgeable. I watched him work, and realized that I needed to learn more from him, if possible. This was long before email became in common use, so I wrote him a letter, and then a second letter, and a third, he realized I was serious, and one day he wrote back and said, “Why don’t you come out to the workshop.” That was the invitation and the door that opened up the world of windmills and watermills to me. Derek lived near Culpepper, Virginia at the time, another George Washington coincidence, as Washington had surveyed the Culpepper area when he was a young man. Derek had started working on mills in 1948, assisting his grandfather on a windmill located in Warwickshire, England. The windmill, known as Tysoe, was constructed in the 16th century, a brick tower mill, and the second oldest windmill tower structure remaining in England today. Derek’s interest and love of wind and water mills began there and has continued over the decades. He repaired and reconstructed many mills in England and moved to Virginia in the early 1970s to construct a windmill on the Flowerdew Hundred Plantation, just east of Richmond. This location is the site of the first English windmill in America, which was constructed in 1621. Derek has remained in this country, working as a millwright, and frankly the best in this nation, repairing many mills, including three I have worked at as miller, Colvin Run Mill, Stratford Mill, and George Washington’s Mill. In his 80’s now, he still consults, but cannot do the heavy physical work of millwrighting, but is the most knowledge man I know on mills. I was fortunate he took an interest in me, and took me overseas on several trips to look at the windmills and watermills. We traveled through England touring mills he worked on in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960’s. It was a complete education. He also took me over to the continent and we explored mills in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Many journeys, many miles but so valuable, and memories that I can never forget.

After moving on from Colvin Run Mill, I landed at Stratford Mill, on the grounds of Stratford Hall Plantation, the home of the Lees of Virginia, famous as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, but the home is more important for another reason. It is the childhood home of two brothers, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis “Lightfoot” Lee. The Great House was built in the late 1730’s in Westmoreland County, Virginia, along the banks of the Potomac River. Again, another George Washington foreshadowing, as he was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1732. Stratford had a watermill, dating back to the early 1740s, and it was reconstructed in 1939. I was fortunate to take over as miller in 1997. The site is special as it is one of the first three mill restorations ever done in this country, and it has its original mill pond intact, 9 and 1/2 acres of water, which makes a big difference in the operation of a gristmill. I ran the mill for 10 years, producing a variety of products, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, yellow cornmeal, white cornmeal and white corn grits, the grits being the best seller — people want fresh quality products from the land, and I provided those. In 2001, we did a major restoration project, first working with Derek Ogden, but after Derek retired his apprentice Ben Hassett took over the project. I was his labor and he constructed and I helped install a new water wheel shaft, 17 and 1/2 foot diameter wood waterwheel, five new wooden gears, and repairs were made to other gears, shafts and components of the mill. The work took 27 months, but was such a learning experience, one I will treasure forever.

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I was interviewed by Mount Vernon in the late 1990s, when they had started the restoration of Washington’s Gristmill, but at that time I was deep into Stratford Mill and knew the restoration there was just around the corner, I really could not leave Stratford at that time. I did keep up with the Mount Vernon project, and kept in touch there with the folks in the preservation department and with the craftsmen working on the gristmill. Derek Ogden was the consultant for the project as well. A warm circle for me. I also knew they had started the archaeological excavation of Washington’s Distillery. As the mill restoration moved forward I kept in tune and in touch, and would visit the site regularly, and saw the distillery excavation as it was ongoing. The gristmill restoration was completed in 2002, and it opened for tours that spring. The excavation and research continued on the distillery. In 2004, the reconstruction of the distillery began. Mount Vernon worked with the Distilled Spirits Council, led by Peter Cressy, and raised 2.8 million dollars from member companies to reconstruct Washington’s Distillery. Skilled Mount Vernon craftsmen, Gus Kiorpes, John O’Rourke and Dave Weir, along with stone mason John Sines handled all the work on the structure. Vendome Copper and Brass Works, Inc made the five copper pot stills and the boiler, and Independent Stave made our 120 gallon mash tubs. The project was guided along all the way by Mount Vernon’s Vice President for Preservation, Dennis Pogue.

In mid-2006, Mount Vernon advertised the position for Manager of Historic Trades, a new department was being created to reflect the living history of Mount Vernon, the farm, the gristmill, the distillery and Washington’s true vocation as a farmer and an entrepreneur. The interview process took months, literally, and thankfully I was selected to take over this new department. I came on board in January 2007, and the distillery building was about 85% done. In late March all was completed and we fired the stills for the first time. I was fortunate at that time to work with the consulting distillers, Jimmy Russell, Joe Dangler, Dave Pickerell, Chris Morris, and others, and also Mike Sherman of Vendome. On March 31, 2007 we completed the small run rye whiskey for the opening ceremony, barreled that, and moved into our first season of tours.

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Again the focus of the job was education and tours, and while the gristmill made product regularly, it was not until 2009 that we began distilling George Washington’s Rye on a regular schedule. Dave Pickerell was the key consultant for us on that first run and subsequent runs, and he has been involved with the project, as has Joe Dangler for many years. We appreciate Dave’s knowledge and his help. Since then we have made a few runs of apple and peach brandy, and have done a special distillation of single malt whiskey. We have been able to work with other distillers and we always learn so much in the process. We have worked with Ted Huber, which was a real pleasure and Ted still assists us with solid advice. We have worked with Thomas McKenzie on a couple of brandy distillations, enjoy Thomas very much and we have become good friends over the years and I really respect his knowledge. In 2012, we were able to work with Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie, Andy Cant of Cardhu, and John Campbell of Laphroaig on a special single malt whisky project, a very memorable experience. In March 2016, Lisa Wicker came out to work with us, she was then working for Ted Huber, and he was nice enough to allow Lisa to come out. She is so very talented, and I just read your interview with her. Lisa saw several things we could improve, and her guidance has allowed us to greatly improve our yields at Mount Vernon. She worked with us in November 2016 and again this last March. I respect her very much and look forward to further collaborations with her.

 

Tell us a little about what you learned during excavation of Mount Vernon (surprising facts exct) that you are able to apply on a daily basis at Mount Vernon. How close is Mount Vernon to being accurate to George Washington’s Time?

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The excavation did really tell the story. But it was also combined with the amazing amount of primary source documentation we have at Mount Vernon. As Esther White, our head archaeologist at the time told me, sometimes you have great archaeological remains and poor records, or vice versa, in this case we have both. The original distillery was built over the winter of 1797-1798, and opened in late February 1798. In 1814 it burned down, so it was the archaeology that detailed the layout of the distillery. A fair amount of the foundation stone of the distillery was there, although in the 19th-century some of the stones had been taken for use in other structures in the area. The cobblestone mash floor was intact, the remains of the brick base where the copper boiler sat were found, some brick remains of the fireboxes were there, and burnt soils identified where each of the five copper pots stills were located. Some of the drains that took water away from the worm tubs still existed, and the fresh water well behind the structure where water for making the whiskey was drawn was excavated as well. The foundation of the wall separating the main distilling room from the barrel storage and office was also found. In total 6 years of excavation took place.

It is interesting to note that the first excavation of the site was actually done in the late 1920’s by the State of Virginia. In fact, the state did the reconstruction of the Gristmill, placing a new stone structure directly on the foundations of Washington’s Gristmill site. Framing and machinery from an old mill near Front Royal, Virginia were installed in this structure and it opened as a state park in 1932, but the mill never ran, it did not have water re-established to it. In the mid-1990s Mount Vernon took it over and began our restoration work, constructing new wooden machinery, and getting water back to the site so the mill could run. The distillery site had been excavated in the late 1920s also, but they did not go very deep into the project, since Prohibition was in place, the state knew there was no sense in going further. However that archaeological report did provide guidance for Mount Vernon’s team of archaeologists.

Having worked at other historic sites, one of the biggest blessings of Mount Vernon is the volume of historic records, letters, ledgers, diaries, farm reports, etc that my staff and I have access to. This allows us to tell a pretty complete and factual story of George Washington’s home and farm operations. In our interpretations of the sites, as I manage the farm and blacksmith shop as well as the distillery and gristmill, we do not incorporate stories or details that we cannot substantiate from historic documentation. All that we learned from the archaeology and written documents is incorporated into the tour that visitors receive. We can quote Washington’s own words about many topics and that really brings the experience to life and also gives a window into the man, George Washington. Too often he is thought of in mythological terms, the Founding Father, and that he was, but he was also a man running a farm, and related businesses, and had a family and workers under him, both paid and enslaved, and it is through the written documents, the letters, the diaries that much is revealed about Washington as a person. I remember coming across a diary entry from the early 1770s, when Washington had a man staying in his house, a house guest, that stayed way too long (I think we have all been there) and one day the man finally moved on and in his diary for that day, the only thing Washington wrote was, “Posey finally left.” I just love that, he was human and experienced all we do today in life, and in that I find that the real George Washington can be seen. A great leader, entrepreneur, land owner, farmer, businessman, and yes very human.

Washington was meticulous, and kept very precise records. We have the distillery ledgers from 1798 and 1799, which detail the operation of the distillery, grains used, whiskey and brandy produced, the customers both large purchasers and small. The mash bill was not written down anywhere, but in her research and detailed work with the ledgers, Esther White was able to extract entries for the grains listed as entering the distillery, and she determined the mash bill was 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.

There were also letters between George Washington and his newly hired Farm Manager, a Scot named James Anderson that described the design of the distillery. The distillery was actually James Anderson’s idea, and he proposed this early in 1797 as he began his new job as Washington’s Farm Manager. Keep in mind that Mount Vernon was 8,000 acres in size in Washington’s time and consisted of 5 farms, Mansion House, River Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, Union Farm, and Dogue Run Farm (where the gristmill and distillery were located). More about Anderson in a moment.

Here is an example from one of Washington’s letters that reflects the type of details that we have to work with. In January, 1798, Washington wrote to Robert Lewis,

“I have been induced, by the experience & advice of my Manager, Mr Anderson—to erect a large Distillery at my Mill; and have supplied it with five Stills, Boilers—&ca which, with the (Stone) House, has cost me a considerable Sum already, but I find these expenditures are but a small part of the advances I must make before I shall receive any return for them, having all my Grain yet to buy to carry on the business.2”

I think you bring an interesting perspective into play as you have a very East Coast/Southern perspective on Distilling and the history of that Distilling culture that honestly hasn’t been well represented (or has been eclipsed by the popularity of the Kentucky and Tennessee styles) in the media and history books. Tell us a little about the people who were distillers and about the culture that surrounded them, the details of their transactions and the use of their products.

I do think that much of the East Coast perspective on distilling in the colonial and early years of the republic seems to focus on the Whiskey Rebellion story, but we all know whiskey’s roots in this country go back much further. Scottish immigrants and their influence on American spirits is profound, and fact is there is much more research to be done, and I am working on that, as others are, because I think there is a larger story yet untold. And also we all know that rum was such a huge part of the development of this nation, as a business, but also enjoyed by so many, and used as incentive pay at Mount Vernon and other plantations in the east. The documentation for that exists here in Washington’s case, both with paid staff and enslaved people. I honestly have to say that I will be able to answer this more fully once more of my research is completed, it is a work in progress, and I have much more to do to refine an answer for you about specific distillers. As you know from your work and research, alcohol was interwoven into our culture and society from the earliest time, and we also know the story of east coast rye and how that developed in Maryland and Virginia and other colonies.

I think it’s becoming far more apparent to the general public that George Washington was a business man and obviously owned a distillery and the history is out there for those to find, particularly if they come and visit you, but it’s not often that a new detail emerges or that a good comprehensive history of his distiller James Anderson makes it’s waves in historical circles, could you speak a bit more to him, his history, where he came from and how he came to work for George Washington?

I do believe that most visitors that come to Mount Vernon, and most people today think of the public figure George Washington, a general and our first President. When they tour Mount Vernon, particularly the sites I manage, they come to realize that Washington was an innovative farmer and an excellent businessman. That surprises many folks. The relationship between Anderson and Washington is so very interesting, and I continue to dig into the records and find more details that reveal much about the business of Mount Vernon and the true friendship that developed between the two men. Anderson was from Inverkeithing, Scotland, and recent research in the Scottish archives indicates that he was more than a distiller. He was a merchant, owned interests in shipping, managed farms, and as he told Washington when he was being interviewed for the position, “I ran mills that fed distilleries.” Anderson obviously had a broad business in Scotland, and that leads one to ask, why did he leave? Well in 1789, the British placed a heavy excise on Scottish spirits being shipped to England (interesting how the story never changes, heavy excise, hurts business), and Anderson realized that his business would be in peril. So, in 1791, at the age of 47, he left Scotland for America with his wife and 7 children. He came to Virginia, and worked as farm manager for a landowner near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and actually built a distillery there, (more on that to come as I am researching that as well). In late 1796, he sees the advertisement Washington placed for a farm manager, and well the rest is history, that phrase works here I think……

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In early 2016, I traveled to Scotland, did some initial research on Anderson, and will do more soon, but I was fortunate to be able to have drinks in the farmhouse that Anderson left when he came to America. The owner of the house Alex Nichol, had been to Mount Vernon in 2008, we met and toured the distillery together, and he was very generous in allowing me to visit his home. Alex owns Ship Dip Blended Malt Whisky, and also Edinburgh Gin. The house has been upgraded with modern conveniences as one would expect, but the original hearth and kitchen remain, architectural elements exist, exposed beams, etc, and the original dairy in the basement is now Alex’s wine cellar. It was intoxicating to be there, literally, but historically as well.

I’m curious about the records you guys have on hand, are there any interesting minutia there, perhaps variety names or descriptors of grain used or distilling notations?
Obviously the distillery there would have relied heavily on slave labor, are there any details on the lives of these distillers?

Yes, the ledgers are very detailed and quite helpful, regarding grain, mostly it is entries for rye, corn, barley coming from the farms into the distillery. Washington also had to buy corn on the market to supply the distilleries needs. Corn was used for rations for the enslaved workers, and so the corn Washington grew on his Estate went mostly to rations. Sometimes he had to buy rye as well. The production volume of Washington’s Distillery is astonishing, in 1798 he made 4,500 gallons of rye whiskey and in 1799, the last year of his life, he produced 10,942 gallons. Apple and peach brandy in smaller amounts were also made. This level of production also meant barrels were sometimes in short supply (another issue recently faced in the industry), and the ledger indicates that Washington was sometimes trading whiskey for barrels, he did not like that arrangement, but his coopers could not keep up with demand. A note here, as we all know, the whiskey in Washington’s time was not aged, the barrels were not charred, they were simply vessels to get the whiskey to market. His market was Alexandria, Virginia, only 9 miles away, so the distillery provided great cash flow for Washington. In 1799 he netted $1858 dollars from his whiskey operation. The ledgers have more details on the varieties of wheat Washington grew for his export milling business, as his mill shipped superfine white flour to the West Indies, Portugal and Spain. Washington noted that the white wheat was best for making the superfine flour.

Another interesting entry regards the amount of firewood needed to feed 5 pots stills and a 210 gallon boiler. In March 1799, the ledger indicates that 51 cords of wood were used at the distillery. And yes the labor was done mostly by enslaved people. In the 1799 records, we see that 6 slaves are listed as distillers: James (age 24), Peter (age 18), Nat (age 17), Daniel (age 17) and Timothy (age 14). The story of the enslaved workers at Mount Vernon is very well documented. When Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, he married the wealthiest widow in Virginia. With that marriage, Martha brought wealth, land and also slaves. This group of slaves were known and listed in the records as dower slaves. George Washington had inherited slaves himself when his father and older brother Lawrence died and so over the years some Washington slaves married dower slaves. This would lead to painful separations later, as in his will Washington freed his slaves, but legally he could not free the dower slaves as they were part of the Custis Estate and remained enslaved following Washington’s death. Five of the six slaves at the Distillery were dower slaves, and remained at the site after Washington’s died.

The daily manager of the distillery was James Anderson’s son John, and he had a paid assistant named Peter Bingle. John and Peter lived in bedrooms in the upstairs of the distillery.

What is it like distilling over an open flame on wood, how does that effect the product and how hard is that to regulate?

This was one of our greatest challenges, learning how to feed the fires to get the stills running most efficiently. Fact is it took time and trial and error to gain the skill set to do this properly. Each still runs differently, ambient temperature impacts the operation (our structure is stone, wood and with brick and cobblestone floors), there are no dials or gauges to tell us where we are. After a few times where staff overfed wood to the stills and boosted the heat too much we learned what fun puking a still can be, (I was guilty of this too) so we learned small pieces of wood and gradual feeding of wood is best. We let them come up more slowly on mash/stripping runs. We also do not want the distillate to come off too warm, so it is a balancing act. If we underfeed the fires we can see the stream of distillate pulse and slow down, and sometimes feel vapor on the end of the worm tube, and this means we need to feed more wood to the fire.

With finish runs we can push the heat a little more but again, gradual feeding and balance is key to bringing off good rye. We still make mistakes, but we are better, and I have several staff members who have become very proficient at running our stills. When we are doubling, it is always this skilled team that I have on the stills. Of course, I could not manage all this without Tim Larner, who I think you met when we were all at Locust Grove in May. Tim lived in Virginia for a while as his wife Shirley worked for DISCUS at that time. He applied for a job with me in early 2010, and although they moved back to Indiana, their home, a few years ago, Tim comes out for every production run and is my right arm and a great manager of staff. He and I work almost every day when we are distilling, but we trade off to have a day off here or there during the run. I really appreciate Tim’s knowledge and expertise, and dedication and enjoy his friendship very much. I will never forget Tim’s words one late evening while cleaning slop from the stills and pressure washing them to get ready for the next day — it was Tim’s first production run, November 2010. As you and other distillers know, and millers know, most folks think of producing spirits or running a watermill as glory, fun, and excitement, until you have to do the many dirty jobs that come with milling and distilling. So that night as Tim sat on the brick firebox of our small still Maggie, his looked down at me and said, “As B.B. King once said, the thrill is gone.” I laughed but understood, as we all do, it is sometimes just punishing work, but it is truly worth it.

Can you talk to us a little about the differences in distilling in those days compared to now?

I believe that distilling in the 18th century was obviously less controlled due to the equipment being used and also fermentation challenges regarding cleanliness when using wood mash tubs made things difficult. The science was lagging then as well, they did not even know what an enzyme was, what they knew was process. Yeast was also such an unknown to them, they knew it was needed and created the desired result, but from the bit I have learned about yeast strains today and all that is being experimented with, it is quite interesting. Back then the skills were passed on master to apprentice, and so they learned if I do these steps we get alcohol. I also wonder a lot about the consistency batch to batch, I think it was obviously varied due to the techniques being used. Our early runs at Mount Vernon were inconsistent, but I can say that we have gained in skill and expertise with our process and through that learning we have gained consistency, and so I suppose they did that too in Washington’s time.

The other challenge for those working in the 18th century was the amount of physical labor required at every step on the process. I have come to love rowing mash by hand, but there are days usually working on the last few fermenters where Tim and I long for automation and also for pumps and pipes. But our site is meant to reflect the early methods and in the end we are glad we get to do it all by hand. In the coming years I hope to get more exposure to modern distilling, very much want to learn more.

Were they making heads and tails cuts or was liquor just liquor?
This we do not know, one would hope the heads were cut, but nothing in our records gives us any clues to what was being done at Mount Vernon. In my other research and reading thus far, I have not found great detail on this, although in a recent 18th century book on distilling I just acquired there are references to cuts, and actually will be reading more of that this weekend.

What is, in your eye, the biggest misconception about distilling in the historic style?
I believe people think it cannot be any good. But it is, we are making good rye whiskey and good brandy. Admittedly, our first couple of runs were a little rough, but we were in our learning curve days. I can say now I am very proud of the whiskey we are making. I have had industry friends and distillers taste our rye, both unaged and aged, and they praise it, and that is good enough for me, if these talented folks like it, I know we are moving in the right direction.
We are aging longer now in 53-gallon barrels and look for a premium rye offering from Mount Vernon in the coming years.

Last, but not least, talk to us about the importance of preserving this history and about representing it through historic reenactment?

I believe preserving our nations past, the memories of how we developed as a country and people is critical to the fabric of our culture. The lives and challenges faced by those who came before us also provide inspiration. To read about our history and farming or the trades of the 18th century is important, but for many, admittedly, that can be dry, and not very experiential. Visiting a site that does living history, where you can see the work happening right in front of you, and often get a hands-on experience, that is learning that sinks in deep, particularly for children. The old saying, if you do not learn history you are doomed to repeat it, well that is true — but another fact is true, if you lose the past, the people, the land and how they worked to survive, you lose touch with a part of yourself and a part of this country that is indeed our fabric. Technology is great, we live in an interesting age, and it can be a useful tool. But I see how visitors, old and young, light up when the gristmill is turned on, or when they see the stills running, or the blacksmith at work, or the horses plowing at the farm. There is something so very tangible and real about it all, that takes us back and away from all the lights and flashing technology that dominates today. By learning about out past and preserving it, we all gain, and stay connected. And for me, there is something about the wood, fires, copper, water, grain, all the elements that we work with our hands that come together to make fine products. I’m thankful to be able to be a part of it, and be creative and share the stories.

 

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