Making punch with peach brandy has a long history. A Caribbean punch called Mobby, primarily made with tubers, such as potatoes, is described as being made with brandy distilled from apples or peaches in 1705.[i] The famous “Fish House Punch” (rum, brandy, peach brandy, lemon or lime juice, sugar and ice) is said to have originated at the State Country Club, Schuylkill, Philadelphia in 1732. So when I heard that George Washington’s peach brandy had been re-created, I was intrigued.
This postcard, from my collection, shows George Washington being toasted on his birthday with a glass of punch. The cherries are probably displayed in reference to the apocryphal story of Washington’s childhood when he owned up to having cut down his father’s cherry tree: ‘I cannot tell a lie father’ he was supposed to have declared. Instead of being punished, his father rewarded him for his honesty in admitting his crime.
Rum had been the most popular spirit in the colonies, but whiskey and brandy, made with locally grown products became more popular, especially after the War of Independence. George Washington evidently had a good head for business and, on the advice of his farm manager James Anderson, who had been involved in the distilling industry in Scotland before immigrating to America, he built a large distillery with five stills at Mount Vernon over the winter of 1797-1798. Within two years the distillery was producing nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at the time. The most common beverage produced was a rye-based whiskey, twice distilled for common whiskey, four times distilled for a more expensive version. Some were flavoured with cinnamon or persimmons. Apple, peach and persimmon brandies were also produced. His accounts indicate that peach brandy was sent up to Washington’s house for his personal use.
Washington’s death in 1799, followed by that of his wife Martha in 1802 and then the departure of James Anderson, halted the brief success of the distillery and within a decade the building fell into disrepair. In 1814 the distillery burned down. In 1999 excavations started on the site of the old distillery and, with the results from the excavation and Washington’s own notes, the reconstruction of the distillery in 2005-7, financed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Dave Pickerell, (WhistlePig and Hillrock)) acted as consultant in recreating the distillery, along with Steve Bashore, manager of historic trades for Mount Vernon.
In 2010, the project to make Washington’s peach brandy was started. Seven leading craft distillers from across the United States became involved:
- Templeton Rye Spirits (IA) – makers of prohibition era rye whiskey
- Philadelphia Distilling (PA)
- A Smith Bowman Distillery (VA)
- Catoctin Creek Distilling Company (VA) – who also make a pear brandy
- Ted Huber, Huber Starlight Distillery (IN) – who also make an apple brandy
- Brian McKenzie, Finger Lakes Distilling Company (NY) – who also make a pear eaux de vie
- Dave Pickerell, Hillrock Distillery (NY) – solera aged bourbon whiskey
Starting with 300 gallons of peach juice, from peaches selected for their strong aroma and flavour, and, working with various challenges, including a lack of gauges to control temperature and transferring the juice and brandy by buckets (there were no pipes and pumps in Washington’s day), they created 60 gallons of peach brandy. Double-distilled in copper pot stills, the freshly-made brandy has a pronounced peach flavour. The brandy was then aged in toasted-oak barrels for two years.
According to M. Carrie Allan of The Washington Post, the resulting brandy retained a delicate peach aroma like ‘bottled Virginia… sunshine’, with slight almond notes on the palate, very different to the commercial peach brandies currently on the market, which are cloyingly sweet with added peach flavours. In punch a very different flavour is achieved depending on whether it is recreated with industrial or artisan peach brandy. My own experiments with fruit eaux de vie have shown that with the correct balance of sugar and lemon or lime juice, the fruit character of the eaux de vie can be delicately emphasised.
Mount Vernon’s peach brandy enjoyed a pre-launch tasting in March in New York with Derek Brown, a drinks historian, who created a punch with the peach brandy, similar in style to those made by Martha Washington.
Washington’s Mount Vernon Peach Brandy is sold at the Gristmill Shop, Mount Vernon, 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia 22121. Only 400 bottles were available at $150 for 37.5cl from 1st April 1 2014. Sales were limited to one bottle per person and the 2014 release has now sold out.
[i] Beverley, Richard “The History and Present State of Virginia” (London, 1705)