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Museums crawl through Washington's distillery days

Everyone has heard the phrase "George Washington slept here." A new museum and tourism trail will pay tribute to where he made and drank whiskey.

The chief historian at Mount Vernon, the first president's mansion on the Potomac River, disclosed plans Tuesday for the George Washington Distillery Museum, which will be become the gateway for a new American Whiskey Trail. The trail is meant to be enjoyed much like the spirit: slowly, as it will feature museums and historic sites in five states.

"We hope people will see this incredible working distillery and go off and visit other things," said James Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director.

The trail goes from the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City, where Washington bade farewell to his troops in 1783, through several museums and plantations in Pennsylvania. It includes distilleries in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

"I don't think people realize how much of the nation's heritage is immersed in making whiskey," Jim Beam master distiller Jerry Dalton said.

Distillers and historians toasted Tuesday's opening of the trail with a historic rye whiskey, the first made on the grounds of Mount Vernon since Washington's distillery closed in 1797. Master distillers from major liquor companies worked together to make the whiskey last year, and Dave Pickerell of Maker's Mark said the many cooks didn't spoil the brew.

"It just kind of flowed very naturally _ one guy stirred, one guy kept the fire going," Pickerell said.

Esther White, an archaeologist at Mount Vernon, said the distillers were able to chart the grain going to Washington's distillery over a nine-month period and reconstruct the probable ratios Washington used to make his whiskey.

Distillers soon discovered there are many details to be worked out.

"The first time we put the product in the still, we didn't know how high to fill it," Pickerell said. "We blew a 10-foot stream of beer out the roof into the air."

Unable to use modern conveniences like thermometers, the distillers had to look at the color of the corn and guess its temperature as it turned from bright yellow to gray.

It's a little early to rate the 10 gallons, as most American whiskeys age for four years.

"It was a very fruity, spicy spirit," said Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown-Forman, which produces Jack Daniel's.

But what would Washington think? The chief Washington interpreter at Mount Vernon, who has portrayed the father of the country since 1989, described the rye as having an edge. He said it would have been welcomed in the first president's time, however: Whiskey was safer than water, which was known to give people typhoid.


Some stops on the five-state Whiskey Trail, places where George Washington made or drank whiskey:

+ Mount Vernon, Va., Washington's mansion beside the Potomac River where he maintained a distillery.

+ Fraunces Tavern Museum, New York City, where Washington bade farewell to his troops in 1783.

+ Gadsby's Tavern Museum, Alexandria, Va., where Washington twice attended the annual Birthnight Ball held in his honor.

+ Woodville Plantation, Allegheny County, Pa., built by Washington friend and Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Neville.

+ Oliver Miller Homestead, South Park, Pa., central to the Whiskey Rebellion in which Washington sent 12,000 troops to western Pennsylvania to enforce a 1794 federal law taxing distilleries and whiskey. The event was important to establishing confidence in federal willingness to intervene to uphold federal laws.