History of US Whiskey Seminar with Dr. Dennis Pogue

“I would beg leave to suggest the propriety of erecting Public Distilleries in different States.  The benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquour, have been experienced in All Armies, and are not to be disputed.” George Washington 1777

On January 17 the Museum of the American Cocktail found itself at the Warehouse Theatre in Washington, DC for a presentation by Dr. Dennis J. Pogue, Vice President for Preservation at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, and Gardens. Dr. Pogue featured his book Founding Spirits, a history of the American whiskey industry. The book also informs readers about George Washington’s successful business in whiskey distillation noting that his farm at Mount Vernon at one point made more money from whiskey than it did from farming. Dr. Pogue was joined by Phil Greene, Founding Member of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and Derek Brown of The Passenger and Columbia Room and member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of the American Cocktail, who prepared four whiskey-based cocktails for guests.

To start, the audience was presented with some “American Whiskey Punch,” a recipe developed by cocktail historian David Wondrich (recipe below), who is also a Contributing Scholar and member of the Board of Advisors of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Its ingredients of Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey, sugar, lemon peel, lemon juice and water is a simple yet balanced flavor of sweet and sour, complemented by the rye’s spicy and woody notes.

In addition, Derek Brown demonstrated how he makes an Old Fashioned (recipe below) explaining that it has the original components of the first cocktail medleys, those being a spirit, sugar, water and bitters. He went on to say that many believe that is how the Old Fashioned got its name in that it is prepared in the “old fashioned” style.

Derek Brown prepares an Old Fashioned.

Dr. Pogue explained to the audience that George Washington’s distillery, which began in the in the late 1790s, was the largest in the country at the time. Most distilleries were very small in nature serving immediate, local markets. Washington was skeptical at first in investing in whiskey production and sought advice from his friends and colleagues. In a letter to Washington in 1797, John Fitzgerald, referring to James Anderson who would become Washington’s distillation manager, stated:

“As I have no doubt 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 Whiskey there can be no doubt if the Quantity was ten times as much as he can make provided it is of good Quality.”

Dr. Dennis Pogue

Once George Washington began distilling whiskey, he produced rye, as it was the most popular at the end of the 18th Century. His consisted of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley and yeast to ferment. In Washington’s last year of life he produced 10,500 gallons of rye sold at 60 cents per gallon, resulting in a profit of $7500 in 1799, sold mainly to his thirsty local community.

Up until the US Revolution rum had been the spirit of choice. But after the US Revolution the supply of rum, coming mainly from the British controlled Caribbean, was disrupted. Whiskey quickly replaced rum and became quite popular as it was cheaper and contained a higher alcohol content. By 1810 there were 3500 whiskey distilleries in Virginia alone. Most were only small operations in which farmers would turn excess grain into alcohol. Washington’s whiskey and most others at the time were not aged producing a clear spirit that could move quickly to sale. Not until the mid-19th Century was whiskey aged giving it the distinctive color and flavor we know today.

During his portion of the presentation, Phil Greene presented what he called the New Orleans Cocktail Trinity. Pointing to a map of the French Quarter, he explained how three classic New Orleans drinks all were born within footsteps of each other, near the corner of Royal and Iberville.  Indeed, the original Sazerac House was located on Royal between Canal and Iberville, the Vieux Carre (recipe below) was created at the Monteleone, on Royal just across Iberville, and if you walk up Iberville toward Bourbon you’ll pass the former site of the La Louisiane (recipe below), home of the drink of the same name.  Phil discussed how each drink resembles the other, one swapping out one ingredient for another, or sharing common ingredients.  But all three are unique, not to mention delicious.

Phil demonstrated how to make a Sazerac (technique and recipe below) which like the Old Fashioned is composed of original cocktail parts of spirit, sugar, water and bitters with its use of Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey, Peychaud’s bitter, simple syrup and ice with the addition of Herbisaint/Absinthe, in this case Pernod enhancing the cocktail with a thin layer of anise flavor and aroma.

Phil Greene adds a bit of Pernod in demonstrating the Sazerac.

Phil also discussed another rye whiskey classic, the Deshler (recipe below).  It’s not as well-known as some of the other classics, but it’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance.  Like the Sazerac and Vieux Carre it contains Peychaud’s Bitters, but also the spice and botanicals of Dubonnet Rouge, offset by the slight sweetness of Cointreau.  It’s a fairly easy drink to make and is holding up well, in spite of its age (it will turn 100 later this decade).

David Wondrich’s American Whiskey Punch:

Muddle one cup sugar with the peel of two lemons. Add 4 oz. lemon juice and 8 oz. water until sugar is dissolved. Add 16 oz. Wild Turkey Rye and 3 cups water. Serve over large block of ice in punch bowl. Garnish with lemon wheels.

Derek Brown’s Rye Old Fashioned:

2 oz. Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey

1/2 oz. Cane Sugar Syrup (2:1)

Dash Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters

Lemon peel

Add ingredients with ice to mixing glass. Stir and strain over fresh ice. Add lemon peel.

The Vieux Carre Cocktail:

3/4 oz Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey

3/4 oz Martini Rosso

3/4 oz Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac

1/8 oz Benedictine

2 dashes Angostura bitters

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Build drink in rocks glass with ice, stir until chilled and garnish with lemon peel.

Deshler:

1 1/2 oz. Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey

1 1/2 oz. Dubonnet Rouge

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

1 dash Cointreau

1 wide lemon twist

1 wide orange twist

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Twist a broad swathe of lemon peel over the shaker and drop it in. Shake and strain into a chilled glass. Twist one strip of orange peel over the drink and discard. Twist a second one over it, drop it in and serve.

Sazerac:

2 oz Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey

2-3 dashes Peychaud’s

Dash Pernod or Absinthe

Dash simple syrup

Chill a rocks glass, set aside.  In mixing glass, add the simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, then fill with ice.  Add the rye whiskey.  Stir well, set aside.

Discard ice from rocks glass.  Add 1 teaspoon Herbsaint, swirl it around, or spin it into the air, to discard excess.  Strain contents of mixing glass into rocks glass.  Garnish with a lemon peel, twist to extract essential oils.  Au votre sante!

Cocktail à la Louisiane:

3/4 ounce Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce Bénédictine
3 dashes Pernod or Absinthe
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, stir on ice until well chilled, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

As always, the Museum of the American Cocktail would like to offer thanks to the generous support of our sponsors for this event, namely: Cointreau; Benedictine; Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac; Wild Turkey 101 Proof  Rye and Bourbon; and Fee Brothers Bitters.

We would also like to thank the contributions of Sazerac and Co. for their Peychaud’s Bitters, Heaven and Hill for the Dubonnet Rouge, and Martini for its Rosso sweet vermouth.

By Matt Keller

Matt lives in Washington, DC. When he’s not contributing to his blog District Cocktail – A Drinker’s Notes in Capitol City, his imbibing can be followed on his Twitter feed @DCcocktails.

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