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Food + Cooking

Reviving Old Spirits

Published in Gourmet Live 02.29.12
James Rodewald finds great new liquors based on old blends enjoyed by George Washington, Ernest Shackleton, and others

The absinthe distillery at Jade Liqueurs

With apologies to George Santayana, it appears that those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to miss out on some spectacular booze. Have no fear, though, we promise this history lesson will be anything but dry; in fact, the result of our research and investigation is guaranteed to be a wetting of the whistle.

We’ll start our studies with another famous George and a rhetorical question: Could “George Washington slept here” (the first real estate cliché, predating “location, location, location” by a few years) owe something to our first president’s interest in distilled spirits? He was reportedly a moderate drinker, leaning to wine, and particularly Madeira, so it probably wasn’t overindulgence that made him so soporific. While there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the father of our country was a cheap date, there is no shortage of documentation of almost every other aspect of Washington’s life, including ledgers recording his farm-based business producing and selling whiskey, as well as the recipes used to make it.

The genesis of Washington’s distillery can be traced to, perhaps not surprisingly, a Scotsman. James Anderson, Mount Vernon’s farm manager, felt the plantation would benefit from the ability to produce ardent spirits, and in 1799, two years after the distillery was built (and the year Washington died), it was the largest in America, yielding 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey. Unlike modern versions of the spirit, the rye of that time was sold unaged, so it would have been clear, spicy, and quite strong. The distillery continued to operate after Washington’s death, and was a major source of income for his heirs for a number of years, until it burned down in 1814.

In 2005, restoration of the building began, with the help of a grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association that represents liquor producers and marketers. The $2.1 million restoration was completed in 2007, and three years later an unaged rye was made available to the public. Last year, an aged rye was also released, and this summer there will be a peach brandy. Quantities of all Mount Vernon spirits are minuscule, and in truth they’re more of a collector’s item than an everyday tipple, but if you’re interested in how an 18th-century alcoholic beverage might’ve tasted, this is as close as you’re likely to get.

Other small-batch distillers have looked to the past to create their products, most notably Anchor Distilling. The San Francisco—based company owned by Fritz Maytag made its mark by resurrecting steam beer, a style that was on the verge of extinction when Maytag got involved, in 1965. When Anchor decided to get into the spirits game, in 1993, it chose to make a lightly aged 100 percent rye. (Most come in close to the legal minimum of 51 percent rye; the balance is usually corn and malted barley, which are cheaper, sweeter, and easier to work with.) The result, Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey, is not for everyone, but if you like intense, spicy, even challenging flavors it’s worth a shot. Templeton Rye, made in Iowa, only goes back to Prohibition for its recipe, but their grain blend is 90 percent rye—an unusually high percentage. It’s also aged longer and in more deeply toasted barrels than the Old Potrero, so naturally it’s sweeter and mellower.

Moving from American to European history, perhaps the most exciting new release of 2011 took more than a century to get to market. Its journey began and ended in Scotland, and included at least one trip of nearly 10,000 miles, a prolonged period in the deep freeze, not to mention some intense scientific poking and prodding. Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky is a modern recreation of the Mackinlay Scotch that explorer Ernest Shackleton took with him—some 25 cases of it—when he left England in 1907 bound for the South Pole. Shackleton and his men got within nearly 100 miles of the pole but were forced back to their ship, the Nimrod, in March 1909, by bad weather. In their haste, they left behind a portion of their liquor closet. Fast-forward nearly a century, to 2007, when a team working on the conservation of Shackleton’s expedition hut uncovered five crates, three labeled “whisky” and two that contained Australian brandy. One of the whisky crates was carefully extricated from the ice and flown to Canterbury Museum, in New Zealand, where its temperature was raised slowly over the course of two weeks, penguin feathers and other debris were cleaned up, and the straw packing was allowed to dry to the point where it could be removed. Incredibly, 10 of the 11 bottles in the case were intact.

Having covered four of the five continents, we can now turn to Asia. Mackinlay, which has since been acquired by Whyte & Mackay, a company founded in Glasgow in 1844 by a chemical manufacturer and a ham curer—a marriage made in heaven for the creation of delicious mood-altering substances—is now owned by Vijay Mallya, the billionaire chairman of India’s United Breweries Group, among other hugely profitable businesses. Mallya was so thrilled to find that he had a connection to Shackleton that he provided his private jet (probably not a hardship since he owns an airline) so that three of the thawed bottles could be flown to Scotland for chemical analysis. And this is where we pause to remind all you youngsters out there to be cool and stay in school. If you win that science fair, maybe you can get a job like James Pryde has. Pryde, a former cell biologist, is now chief chemist at Whyte & Mackay, and he led the team that analyzed everything there is to analyze about Shackleton’s whisky. Utilizing biopsy needles, thermocouples, carbon dating techniques, gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, and, yes, their noses and mouths, the team determined that the liquid in those bottles began as a single-malt from the now-defunct Glen Mhor distillery, that the peat for the malting came from the Orkney Islands, that it was aged in sherry casks made of American oak, that the water used to dilute it to bottling strength was from Loch Ness, and that it still tasted mighty fine.

And that’s when the real work began. Richard Paterson, master distiller and blender at Whyte & Mackay, spent eight weeks experimenting with various whiskies— Balblair, Benriach, Dalmore, Glenfarclas, Jura, and Pulteney, and of course some old Glen Mhor—until he had a close approximation of the Shackleton whisky (the extricated bottles have since been returned to Antarctica). The final blend consists of some two dozen whiskies (so, unlike the original Scotch on which it is based, it is not a single-malt), the oldest of which is probably the Glen Mhor.

Of course if all that sounds like a lot of work just to get a new whisky that tastes like an old one, there’s someone else you’ve got to meet. Ted Breaux, an environmental chemist from Louisiana, is almost single-handedly responsible for the reintroduction of real absinthe to America. In 1996, Breaux got his hands on a bottle of the anise-flavored spirit that was made before absinthe was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1912, largely on the basis of the presence of supposedly insanity-inducing levels of a substance called thujone, and ran it through a gas chromatograph. There was almost no thujone. It turns out that something in the distillation process removes the chemical compound. Now, less than a decade after Breaux’s findings were confirmed, there are quite a few well-made American absinthes, notably from St. George Spirits, Pacific Distillery, and Ridge Distillery. Needless to say, there is an increasing number of excellent imports as well, including—from France—Vieux Pontarlier and, of course, Breaux’s own Jade bottlings (the 1901 is particularly good).

The history of mankind is intertwined with the history of alcohol, but we are the luckiest people who’ve ever put lips to bottle, urn, or coupe. The unprecedented widespread interest in distilling traditions, combined with the advantages of modern technology, has given us a wealth of fascinating flavors to study. Academics have never been so rewarding.

James Rodewald started tending bar in college, never had a hangover until he was a reporter at Sports Illustrated, and always chose quality over quantity during his time as drinks editor at Gourmet magazine. This is his second article for Gourmet Live. His first was about bartenders’ hangover remedies.