George Washington retired to a life as a distiller

First president produced whisky, brandy to sell

October 09, 2002|By Matt Stearns | Matt Stearns,KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- You know George Washington as Commander of the Continental Army and first president.

Now meet the George Washington who was one of America's leading liquor producers.

Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon, Va., poured out 11,000 gallons a year at its peak, according to plantation records. At the time, the average distillery produced less than 1,000 gallons annually.

Washington's booze -- mostly corn and rye whiskey and fruit brandy -- was one of his plantation's biggest moneymakers.

Now, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which owns and operates the estate, is rebuilding the long-gone stills.

Washington got into the liquor business in 1797, after a new plantation manager convinced the recently retired president that he could make a lot of money at it, said Dennis Pogue, associate director of preservation at Mount Vernon.

A first, small batch was so successful that Washington built a large distillery, with five stills and a staff of eight, on the plantation grounds. It opened in 1798.

The product was an instant hit, although nobody knows how much Washington's popularity had to do with it.

The distillery fell into disuse and was torn down by 1815. "In the last 15 years, there's been a growing recognition that people are losing touch with George Washington," Pogue said. "That's a real shame. He's the American hero. One way to address that is to expand our interpretation into areas that people didn't know about."

A new program at Mount Vernon, called "To Keep Him First," will, among other things, highlight his acumen as a farmer and businessman.

It's unknown how much Washington enjoyed his own liquor. He was a light drinker, known to enjoy rum and fortified wines such as port and Madeira. He seemed more interested in the practical aspects of the liquor business, Pogue said: As a businessman, whiskey made him money. And as a politician, it got him votes.

At Virginia polling places, it was customary for politicians to treat voters to liquor. Washington once lost a campaign where he didn't do so, Pogue said.

"From then on, he always treated," Pogue said. "And he always won."

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