The Southern Hoosier Visits Mount Vernon and George Washington’s Distillery

The Southern Hoosier Visits Mount Vernon and George Washington’s Distillery

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Tending the firebox on Sarah.  Pam is on the right and a Vendome replica of an early pot still sits unused at the moment. 


I am a man who has many passions which deeply drive me and fuel my desire to pursue them to their depths.  It is not often in life that the stars align in such away that would allow several of those passions to intersect and subsequently become a significant life event of such magnitude; truly enjoyable, memorable, and capable of a large impact on my day to day thinking regarding multiple subjects.  My passion for agriculture, distillation, and history has led me down an increasingly winding and nuanced path that still surprises and delights me daily and drives me to keep pushing.  In some sense my thirst for knowledge is my true earthly reward as the pursuit fuels my daily life; this be my philosophers stone.  Subsequently no single event in my distilling career thus far having more effect upon my perception and subsequent actions than the honor which I had bestowed on me most recently by my friends, fellow distillers, and peers, most notable of which are Steve Bashore and Lisa Wicker.

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Shawn Stevens, Steve Bashore, Lisa Wicker, Andrea Boyce, and myself.  Truly loved working with these wonderful folks.

Thanks to the recommendation of Lisa Wicker (who has been working with the George Washington Distillery as a volunteer distiller and consultant since March 2016) Myself and my friend Shawn Stevens (of Vendome Copper and Brass and The Copper Onion) were both invited to spend four days at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate while “working” at the historic distillery owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.  I say “working” as although the labor was quite physical there was not a moment where any of it felt like “work”.  To this the Mount Vernon Ladies Association also graciously provided accommodations to us in their quarters on the estate, literally behind the same security wall as the estate and within a quarter mile walk of the home itself.  These accommodations most certainly made all of this financially possible for me to visit and helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of the entire trip as my internal perception of my surroundings on the entirety of estate was so deeply hinged on the charged footsteps and whispers of history; truly humbling.

I have been very interested in the reproduction distillery operation at the estate for some years, having followed it since it’s inception it has always been upon the top of my list to visit, to imagine that I might one day actually work the equipment in the still house was not something I ever considered a possibility and for an underachieving farm kid turned produce farmer and plant breeder who eventually wondered into Moonshining and subsequently had to be pushed into pursuing a job in the legal industry the opportunity to experience this level of involvement and consideration was never something that even crossed my mind as a possibility for me, even amongst my wildest of dreams.

For those who have followed my writings about the history of distillation in Southern Indiana via The Alchemist Cabinet, you won’t find it surprising that I saw this opportunity and it’s inherent value for all of the positives in the previous paragraphs but also in fact as a chance to step back in time in a more generalized way and to experience distillation as was carried out by the farmer distillers of my own home state.  Generally, the equipment, methodology, and subsequent production facets of the Distillery at Mount Vernon (Make no mistake about it George Washington’s Distillery was a large commercial enterprise in it’s day and not a farm distillery) at the time when Washington owned it closely reflect those of the early farm-distillers and commercial distillers of the southern Hoosier hills.  Distillation technology, while in a constant state of improvement, was relatively unchanged between the time of colonialization through the settlement and subsequent statehood of Indiana and a great many distilling families of Washington and Orange County Indiana can trace their own roots back to the distilling families of Virginia who would have been using this same subset of equipment and skills to produce their own whiskies and brandies and whom would have passed this traditional production methodology down to those who would head west to form the new states if they themselves did not bring it directly with them across the mountains or down the rivers in the early 1800’s.

As an operating distiller I can tell you what I experienced first hand was a very practical and intuitive sort of distillation, one which in fact makes the distiller pay much closer attention to the details at hand and forces one to never take for granted the individual nuances of distillation.  I honestly estimate that in four days of working at the distillery I learned more from simple observation and operation about the art I so love than I would otherwise learn in an average calendar year of distilling by the modern method and subsequently I was able to fill gaps in production methodology from my distilling history work.

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Of the original distillery:

In October of 1796 George Washington’s presidency was winding down and he was looking forward to returning to his beloved Mount Vernon Estate in order to pursue the agro-industrial pursuit of efficiency and agricultural improvement he had so long dreamed of since the 1750’s. The revolutionary war had fortified these desires in him even more than previously and had pushed his focus to diversify his holdings and improve U.S. agriculture. Washington had always relied on a farm manager to help him about his Estate, particularly from the 1770’s forward.  During the revolution he relied upon the services of his cousin; Lund Washington.  Washington had also previously retained the services of farm managers William Pearce and Anthony Whiting and knew a farm manager was an important implement in his wish to make the endeavor profitable and yet enjoyable to manage. Washington also understood that it would take someone truly experienced to make this work “pay”.  Enter Scotsman James Anderson originally of Inverkeithing (a town itself well known for distilleries producing the “lowland” style which Anderson would have known well).  James Anderson had much experience in the fields of production agriculture having apprenticed upon an estate near home only to eventually become the farm manager for the estate owner’s uncle.  Anderson would go on to own his own farm, mills, and distillery.  To this he adds a wife and seven children.

In 1791 James and his family leave Scotland due to an economic depression caused by a downturn in the whiskey market and rent a farm in northern Fairfax County Virginia while Anderson manages a smaller estate.  Anderson refers to these events in a letter to Washington while interviewing for the manager position:

“farmed on my own account, 18 of which I was also largely in the Grain line, And had several manufacturing Mills. But by the failure of a Sett (sic) of Distillers in 1788 I nearly lost all.”

This quote seems to suggest that Anderson was providing large amounts of grain to other distillers as his main occupation in Scotland.

In 1795 the family moves again, this time to Fredericksburg Virginia to manage the Salvington estate which Anderson describes as “1,700 acres with 25 slaves and a distillery which I also conduct.”

Shortly after coming to work at Mount Vernon, James Anderson begins to convince Washington of the profitability of a distillery via his experiences both at home and abroad and reminds Washington that the location on Dogue creek next to the existing gristmill is the perfect location for such an operation. Washington finally concedes and allows Anderson to use part of the existing coopers shop as a makeshift distillery until Anderson can prove the profitability of the operation, however he does so with much reservation as Washington wrote to a friend:

“idlers (of which, and bad people there are many around it) under pretense of coming there with grist could not be restrained from visiting the Distillery, nor probably from tempting the Distiller, nay more robbing the Still; as the Mill would always afford a pretext for coming to that place.”

In 1797 in the cooperage, two stills were used and James Anderson’s son and a slave ran the operation and produced 80 gallons of whiskey the week of February 22.  This was stored in James Anderson’s cellar for safe keeping.  These spirits proved quite profitable and eventually 600 gallons of spirits would be produced on these two stills in the cooperage.   Later that year James Anderson convinced Washington to invest $640 in an additional three stills, a copper boiler tub for bringing mash water up to temperature, 50 wooden casks (120 gallon capacity each) for making mash.  The building to be constructed of stone by the slave carpenters and brick layers and with water conveyed to the building from Dogue creek via a wooden flume.  This expansion of the project made Washington’s five still distillery one of the largest production distilleries of it’s time in the United States and would subsequently turn a profit for Washington for the next two years of his life despite his sometimes-aggravated nature of dealing with the expense and hassle of the operation via letters to his farm manager and distiller James Anderson.  James Anderson’s son John would later become the daily manager of the distillery, living in a bedroom above the stills.  Six young enslaved men worked in the distillery and were listed as distiller in the records. (Five of these were Dower slaves inherited via Martha Washingtons previous marriage and one who was rented from the previous owner of the farm on which the distillery was located).

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Washington’s restored Grist Mill sits on the same property as the distillery and is powered by the Dogue Creek which also feeds the distillery.  Truly a work of art of it’s own accord and I would gladly spend a week here learning the trade as well! The mill also provides all of the grist for the distillery.

Of course, always a man of business and well-informed Washington checked in with a close associate named John Fitzgerald, a distiller in nearby Alexandria making rum, prior to investing in James Andersons operation.  Fitzgerald opined:

“As I have no doubt but Mr. Anderson understands the Distillation of Spirit from Grain I cannot hesitate in my opinion that it might be carried on to great advantage on your Estate … as to a Sale of the Whisky there can be no doubt if the Quantity was ten times as much as he can make provided it is of good Quality.”

By March of 1798 the distillery was complete and producing spirits.  The main building measuring 75 x 30 feet.  The five stills having a total capacity of 616 gallons with the three most recent additions being of 120, 116, and a 110-gallon capacity and built by George McMunn, a coppersmith of Alexandria Virginia. The copper boiler, being wood fired just as the stills, was of a 210-gallon capacity.

The distillery put an enormous strain on grain production at the estate and actually exceeded the production of grain on the estate subsequently requiring Washington to source from outside the farm and enter into contracts to buy as many as 500 barrels of corn elsewhere.  Such were the expenses that Washington began accepting and soliciting grain on trade for whiskey.  It is of no doubt at this time that Washington began having second thoughts on the enterprise as he wrote to one of his collection agents, Robert Lewis, about increasing efforts to collect rents and debts owed to him:

“I have been induced, by the experience & advise 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, exert yourself in the collection of my Rents, and that you would let me know, upon the best data you can form an opinion, what dependence I may place on you – not only as to the amount of the sum, but also as to the period of its payment, that I may regulate matters accordingly.”

By the end of 1798 roughly 4,500 gallons of Whiskey and Brandy were produced and in 1799 nearly 10,500 gallons were made for a profit of $7,674.  Whiskey was sold mostly in the Alexandria area and the most common was twice distilled or “common” rye whiskey at $.60 a gallon.  On the higher end was a four times distilled product bringing $1.00 a gallon.  Most was sold to local merchants for resell and often in145 gallon or less lots. Though the whiskey was placed in barrels for shipping it was not aged and was consumed as a white spirit.  Small amounts of brandy were also produced including 73.5 gallons of apple and 8 gallons of peach.

The distillery also produced and abundance of both beef and pork in connection with the feeding of spent mash to the animals which also turned a handsome profit via sale to local merchants.

Rye whiskey seems to have been the most common product of the still and researches have pieced together the percentages of the mash bill from the 1798 and 1799 ledgers pegging the common product at 60% Rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley malt (this too was made on site in a specially made building).  However, like many early U.S. distillers Washington probably used what was handy and I would not be surprised to see some whiskey made using wheat or other proportions of grain as needed.

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Part of the stone lined Mill Race which leads to a flume that delivers water directly to the distillery.

As a side note some quick math computations lead me to believe that at least some portion of the rye must have been malted as the Diastatic power of a common two row malt added at only 5% of a mash bill would make for a terribly inefficient conversion of starch into sugar for fermentation and subsequent alcohol production and it is not as if one could simply purchase isolated enzymes in those days for the conversion of starch to sugar. Two row malt which was common in those days typically only registers at 120 Lintear power whereas rye malt reaches 190.  Using two row as a basis the math for the mash bill and subsequent conversion turns out something like this (note, these are not the exact numbers used at the current distillery and their methods turn out a good percentage and great quality):

SG: 1.070

17.5 Brix

8.75% Potential ABV

120 Gallons

Rye 186 lbs.

Corn 89.09

Barley Malt 12 lbs.

5.0 DP total (30 is considered self-converting which means with the given mash bill you would only convert 16.6% of the available starch to sugar)

Change 46.5 lbs. of the rye proportion however to rye malt and you end up with with a mash that should verge on 100% efficient.  I doubt they were going as far as this but I do not doubt some of the rye was converted to rye malt or the yields would be far to low to warrant production

(Of the theory above Steve Bashore, the Miller/Distiller of George Washington’s Mount Vernon adds:  “We have nothing in our records to support this hypothesis of rye being malted, it could be, but we want to point out that our records, that are pretty complete, do not indicate this”.

in 1799 in his will, Washington left his distillery and gristmill in the hands of Lawrence Lewis (his nephew) who had married Martha Washington’s grandaughter Nelly Custis.  James Anderson and his son John continued to work the mill and distillery until about 1804.  The last mention of the distillery operating occurs in 1808 when James Douglass who rented the property advertises for spirits made there. At some point thereafter, the distillery seems to have burned to the ground.

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A short break from splitting wood out front of the distillery.

Of the current distillery:

The current distillery was built directly on the foundation of the old distillery using the outlines of the previous furnaces to lay out the equipment therein.  It was opened in 2007 and the work was partially funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.  Since opening rye whiskey, apple, peach brandy, single malt whiskey and rum have been made and offered for sale to the public.  The methodology is similar to Washington’s time where it is practical and is brought up to modern standards where it is needed. My friend and distiller Steve Bashore has assembled a crew who truly understands the importance of the history of the site and the heritage of distillation and who take pride in their work, chief amongst them is his production manager Tim Larner, a consummate and well-educated distiller if I have ever met one, also a fellow Hoosier and all around good guy.  The stills are still wood fired just as they were in the days of James Anderson’s management and the grain is ground next door in Washington’s gristmill by Steve and his head miller Cory Welshans.  Donald Garlock, a fulltime staff member, also mills a lot of the grain used in the distiller. The work schedule is tight and everyone has his or her place in a production day which will typically see all five stills run along with three barrels of mash run.

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Pam, doing what she does.

The preparation of running the stills themselves is pretty intensive and consumes a large amount of wood and subsequently man power.  On our first day on the property three cords of wood were delivered and Shawn and I both did our best to throw in and help Peter Curtis and Randolph Bragg split wood for the stills on the four large stumps placed out front of the distillery over the course of our four-day visit, this of course with an axe.  This wood is split to an appropriate size to maintain the fireboxes under the stills and is air cured outside until it is needed when it is hauled into the distillery and placed next to the furnaces to be used by the distillers.  Despite the manual labor component of this exercise I had a blast exchanging stories and historical and distilling asides with Peter and Randolph and they helped add to the experience and atmosphere of being there.  The importance of the work wasn’t lost on me as being a practical distiller and a guest privileged enough to come work the distillery I think Shawn and I both felt the need to help in any way we could to keep the operation working efficiently.  In fact, before we left I told Steve I’d be glad to come back even if my next visit consisted only of splitting wood.

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Emptying a 120 gallon oak tub as part of the bucket brigade prior to stripping runs.

Striping runs see the stills charged with mash via a bucket brigade.  One person is put in charge of emptying buckets into the stills and one in charge of doling out the mash via bucket from the 120 gallon wooden tubs used for fermentation, everyone else ques in line to receive three gallons or so of mash into their individual bucket which is delivered to the person charging the still, after a still is charged someone begins the process of lighting a fire under each of the five individual stills.  The fire is started using a combination of old newspapers, wood shavings from the estate wood worker, and kindling split outside the building which is built into a pattern alternating three to four sticks spaced evenly one direction with a layer added as the fire grows laying the other direction.  The still heads are then lowered into place (they have gaskets around the outside of the neck on the head that grip the inside of the pot) and the worm is then connected to the head.  At the back of the still near the top of the shoulder is a pressure relief port which is plugged with a Champaign cork.  If the still were to build pressure the cork “relief valve” is pointed upwards and away from the fire (and the working distiller) in a safe direction the steam to escape. Doubling runs are charged in the same way, using a bucket brigade.

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One of several 120 gallon tubs/butts used for fermentation in the distillery.

Once a mash barrel is emptied it is taken outside where it is cleaned and sanitized and allowed to air dry.  The barrels are very well cared for and their importance to the operation is never overlooked, they are well dressed and kept in good repair and clean at all times.

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Copper boiler for heating water for mashing in.  This has a valve on one side which allows a user to drain boiling water into buckets to be carried to the fermenters. Long handled implements with small barrels attached to the end are used to ferry water to the fermenters also.

Mashing in is done the old-fashioned way as well with no modern mechanization, the copper boiler is filled with water and brought to a boil, one person takes control of an oak mash rake placed inside the fermentation cask and boiling water is added to the cask to which corn and subsequently rye is added.  The mash rake must stay in a perpetual state of movement the entire time the grain is poured into the barrel or the grain will not go into suspension and will simply become a ball of dough (we are making whiskey, not cake!).  I quickly discovered there was a methodology behind this device on my first day as I got thoroughly whooped by my first experience with the rake.   Fermentation in the modern distillery is carried out for three days leaving a small amount of residual sugar from which aroma precursors no doubt occur in the distillate giving the gustatory illusion of sweetness in the new make whiskey.  It was interesting to see how the mashing regiment was treated a bit differently than I once upon a time treated what I did at home.  The main difference is that no pre-malt is added prior to the addition of corn to the boil water, traditionally this is done to “slicken” up the mash and to keep from producing a thick mash and subsequently dough balls (although it does not mitigate the problem completely).  The methods currently employed by the distillery work very well and the crew is very attuned to the needs and wants of every piece of equipment and process.  I won’t get into detail regarding the distilleries current regimen as it is considered proprietary.

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I learned quickly to work with the mash rake and leverage and not against it.

Doubling runs are accomplished in much the same way as stripping runs.  Typically, the five stills (all are named, largest to smallest: Pam, Sarah, Maggie, Sondra, and Elizabeth) are manned by the historic trade workers on the estate who take turns working in different parts of the establishment including the farm, blacksmiths shop, mill, and distillery.  Each of the workers typically has a still that they are familiar with running and subsequently are responsible for.  Each of the five stills most certainly has its own personality and its own preferred “touch” to deliver a good spirit.  It is during this doubling run on the pot stills that heads cuts are determined; typically, by Tim, Steve, or when she is there Lisa Wicker.  While on hand I got to determine a few heads cuts and really enjoyed getting to taste the distillate from each of these beautiful girls which allowed me to examine the intricacy and the quirks of each still. Every worker in the distillery has their preference of still/new make with the majority seemingly gravitating to Maggie (the smallest) as the favorite and Pam (the largest) as the least favorite.

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Wooden coopered buckets for moving hot water to the fermenters. 

Only one of the five stills (Maggie) has her own dedicated flue and firebox while Pam and Sara share a flue, and Elizabeth and Sondra share a fire box divided by a wall and a flu.  As any of you who are familiar with tending a woodstove can imagine each of these setups “draws” air and distributes heat quite differently which means that each fire box has to be tended as an individual and each one has its own requirements.  In the four days I was at the distillery I had a chance to run Pam, Sara, and Maggie and to get a hands-on lesson in the differences.

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I thoroughly enjoyed running all three of the stills I got to run although I am slightly infatuated with Pam as although she does produce a much more characterful (read slightly rough and tumble distillate) and is typically not used for a doubling run I found a lot to be liked in the distillate she produces, particularly if it were a distillate set to age in a wooden barrel.  A couple of observations came from running her in particular, she is a bit touchy and took a bit longer to dial in the proper stream of condensed alcohol from the worm, once she was there however it was a matter of keeping a relatively low fire which could be fed every 10-15 minutes to maintain the stream, I started wondering why she was making a spirit that was so much bolder than the other stills and I think it has everything to do with condensation and the subsequent “obtention” temperature of the distillate.  The worm for Pam in particular is substantially larger than the other stills and subsequently the barrel upon the flake stand in which she is placed is quite a bit larger than the other standard 53-gallon worm tubs, subsequently she is being cooled at a more rapid pace that the other stills.  Traditionally 65-68 degrees fare height is the target temperature the distiller trys to hold the distillate at (hearts in particular) from the still, lower temperatures don’t allow the more volatile and sometimes sulfurous compounds to be volatized to gas as they are instead forced to condense and bond as a liquid with the rest of the alcohol which can lead to “meaty” or sulfurous aromas and flavors, subsequently I think the trick might be to either switch the worm tub to a smaller size or to control the water coming into the worm at such a level that the target temperatures (or something close to them) can be achieved.  I think then she would be a fine doubling still for products going into a barrel.  This of course is only my philosophy and observation.

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Sarah and Pam being tended

Sarah as well was a lot of fun and was generally my second favorite producer (the first being Elizabeth who I did not get to run but hope to when I get to go back).  The distillate produced off of this still was much more refined than Pam and leaned toward the fruitier side of rye with just enough grassy character to remind the distiller of the aim of the exercise.  I noticed that Sarah gave a profile not at all unlike the profile I get from the same mash bill when we run it on my 350 gallon pot still Sophia at Spirits Of French Lick.  In fact, tasted blind, I’m not sure I could tell the difference.  Heating here was similar to Pam, seemingly the shared flue and subsequent indirect draw of air meant that spacing fuel for air flow was very imperative but that fuel could be added slowly but steadily to the fire to maintain adequate heat/flow of distillate.

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Steve Bashore checking Sarah’s firebox

I ran Maggie on my last day at the distillery during a striping run.  Striping runs are always nerve racking regardless of the source of heat in a still but certainly more so when the heat is as variable as it is on a wood fired still (one I had never run before to boot.) as bringing the temperature up too quick may force the beer to foam and subsequently “puke” into the worm (old timers used to throw a little butter into the wash to avoid foaming/puking).  I had a bit of initial hesitation in running Maggie due to this, particularly once I saw how different it was to feed her fire box.  Having a dedicated flue located directly to the back of the fire box meant that she was able to breathe more freely and subsequently burned through fuel at a much more rapid pace.  There are no temperature gauges on these stills so everything is still done by “feel” in the distillery.  This literally requires the distiller to feel the shoulders of the still, the head, the line arm, and subsequently the worm for the heat of the vapor passing through and to determine how close to coming “online” the stills are and if they are running too quickly or cold.  Once vapor hits the line arm it is usually only a matter of minutes before it hits the worm and subsequently condenses.  Maggie came to temperature much quicker than I expected and since I was having to load wood in much shorter intervals to keep the heat going I was more than a bit concerned.  Fortunately for me I discovered that my intuition was correct and that more fuel and subsequently more heat was needed to run this particular still compared to the previous two I had run.  She came over just fine, clear, and nearly at the ideal temperature of obtention.  Running Maggie however required that the fire box be kept stoked evenly in all four corners and down the middle, if you let her die back even just a touch she would spit and sputter and the distillate stream would vary wildly.  Trying to bring her back under control took substantially more effort than the other two stills as well.  During this time, I also ran wood via a cart between the guys out front splitting and the five distillers and had to keep a close eye on the water level in my flake stand as I nearly overran it twice playing with the bottom valve and trying to improve my distillate temperature.  Everything done here was done intuitively and with the help of my newfound Historic Trades friends on the grounds.  Truly, I learned more in one day of distilling in this fashion than I have in the past year distilling by the modern methods.

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Elizabeth to the left produced my favorite distillate by far although she and Sondra to the right are a bit more difficult to run as they share parasitic heat and a flue which draws air at an angle as opposed to head on.

All of this is not to even begin to mention the fun had with my friends and the deep impact of the rest of the grounds and their history during the trip.  Many times I had to stop and ask myself if this experience was indeed a part of my reality or just a dream.  There were many deep moments during the time around and near the Washington’s mansion.  Seeing the house, touching history, and being part of it seemed surreal.  One moment in particular will always stand out for me, standing on the front porch of the mansion and staring at the Potamic with three of my best friends in the world during a private moment, enjoying what we do, enjoying one anothers company, and content with the fact that we were all sharing a quiet moment propped up by the history of one of the greatest men who ever lived, in a space where he himself likely had many self-reflective moments.  It was quiet enough you could hear a pin drop and yet loud enough to deafen the four of us listening………

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All said, what a fantastic experience, though I don’t think I’ve rethought what my reaction during the whiskey rebellion would have been. 🙂  I’ll leave you with a couple photos from around the estate.

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While I won’t reveal where this photo was taken during my trip or with whom it was taken, this too was one of the highlights of my trip.  1930 100 proof California brandy.  Fantastic.

Addendum: A huge thank you to Steve Bashore for some of the photos used here and to Shawn Stevens for the shared trip to Virginia.  No Nachos were harmed during the writing of this article.










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