I had the good fortune a couple of weeks ago to spend some time at the reconstructed George Washington distillery down near Mount Vernon and watch the distillation process in action—with a twist. The Washington distillery usually produces rye whiskey, but the batch brewed up when I was there was in the Scotch style. They even brought over ingredients, casks (which, as you’ll read below, originally came from the United States), and a trio of master distillers from Scotland for the project.
Few know it but the father of our country was not only a consumer of beer and liquor (Martha Washington’s rum punch was a staple of their household) but toward the end of his life he actually started distilling as well. A few years ago the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (with financial support from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) rebuilt his old distillery and started producing twice annual small batch runs of rye whiskey.
As a whiskey (and whisky, as the Scotch spell it) fan, I found the experience of watching the distillation process fascinating, not simply because it gave me a greater sense of how whiskey is made but also because I have a finer appreciation of the differences (aside from taste) between Scotch whisky and U.S. whiskey. You can read my whole account of the time I spent at the distillery in our Travel section here. On the specific topic of U.S. versus Scotch whiskey, here’s what I discovered:
There are several differences between how Scotch and American whiskey are produced. The basic ingredient of Scottish whisky is malted barley, which is mashed with warm water and then strained off; in the States, a mix of grains are cooked at a higher temperature (usually boiling), and are not filtered off but go into the still. "Straight" whiskey in the United States must be aged a minimum of two years in a new, charred barrel; malt scotch has to be aged at least three years, and usually in bourbon barrels imported from the States (though sometimes in European oak casks).
It is in the barrel that whiskey gets its color and also some of its flavor. The bourbon casks, for example, "impart a light vanilla note to the whisky," says [Cardhu distiller Andy] Cant. And because of climate, U.S. whiskey gains proof in the barrel, "sweating the water out," [Glenmorangie distiller Bill] Lumsden explains, while scotch loses proof while aging as "water ingresses into the barrel."
But there is of course a basic process of distillation common to all whiskey. After the grains are cooked and then fermented, with the addition of yeast, the resulting mixture—called "beer" by Americans and "wash" by Scots—is transferred into the stills.
If you want to try Washington’s rye, it goes on sale only twice a year. The good news is the next batch goes on sale tomorrow (Saturday, April 14, 2012); the bad news is that it usually sells out in a few hours.
If you want to try the single malt (it’s not actually Scotch as it wasn’t distilled in Scotland) the Scots produced at Washington’s distillery, you’ll have to wait until 2015. But if it tastes as good after three years as it did when it was distilled, it will be well worth it.