Distillery takes its rightful place in history


Mount Vernon resurrects the Father of Our Country's whiskey-making operation

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While George Washington may have been "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen," in his 1799 eulogy to the late squire of Mount Vernon, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee failed to mention that he was also the first president to own a distillery.

"There were lots of little distilleries in the 18th century that made whiskey, but what makes Washington's unique was that it was the largest distillery in the country at the time. This was a major commercial enterprise," said Dennis J. Pogue, assistant director for preservation at Mount Vernon in Virginia.

This week, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States laid a cornerstone at the site of Washington's distillery, about three miles south of his home on land that overlooks a broad stretch of the Potomac River.

In 1997, archaeologists began excavating the site and a reconstruction began rising in June where the original 75-foot-by-30-foot building once stood.

In a touch of historical accuracy, the cornerstone was fashioned from a sandstone block used in the original U.S. Capitol building, and was cut from the same vein of sandstone that Washington used when erecting the original distillery in 1797.

"It will be fully capable of producing alcohol, and our goal is to authenticate as accurately as possible the process of making whiskey in the 18th century. It will be operational from April to October," Pogue said. "We will not always be making whiskey, but when we do, we'll be using Washington's recipe, which consists of 60 percent rye grain, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent barley."

Pogue added: "Even though the whiskey, which only takes several days to make, is clear, it is not moonshine." It will not be for sale.

Washington entered the whiskey-making business after James Anderson, a Scottish farm manager, convinced him that there was plenty of money to be made in distilling spirits made from corn and rye grown on his plantation.

This appealed to Washington who was always looking for additional revenue sources. He gave his approval to Anderson and the original operation began with two stills in the existing coopers' shop.

On Feb. 22, 1797, the first 80 gallons of whiskey made a debut, which by year's end would total 600 gallons.

Pleased with his success, Anderson suggested that the operation be expanded to include five stills. Washington agreed and sanctioned the building of the distillery complex, which included a cellar, where the raw whiskey was stored and aged in barrels, a cooperage, pigpens, and accommodations for workers.

The need for corn and rye grown at Mount Vernon was eclipsed by the success of the distillery, and Washington was forced to purchase these commodities from other local sources.

Existing ledgers reveal that Anderson was a good manager. In 1798, 4,500 gallons of whiskey was produced, along with some brandy, and the total for 1799 was 10,500 gallons that was valued at $7,674.

Twice-distilled whiskey sold for 60 cents per gallon, while a more refined and upscale product distilled four times, was sold to customers for a dollar a gallon.

Washington's neighbors lined up to buy his whiskey and merchants in nearby Alexandria, Va., proved a thirsty and willing market.

"The whiskey was sold in barrels and not in bottles. There was no brand name or label," Pogue said.

In a 1799 letter to his nephew, Washington wrote: "Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk."

While the Father of Our Country enjoyed sipping rye, he also enjoyed other alcoholic beverages, according to Pogue.

"He was of that age and also enjoyed rum. He also drank Madeira and port, sweet wines, popular with the upper classes at the time. He also liked drinking beer, which he brewed," Pogue said.

"From his records, we have learned that Washington had a modern attitude toward alcohol. He knew it was part of life, enjoyed it in moderation, and knew its consequences. He had workers on his farm who had trouble with drinking and drunkenness," he said.

After Washington's death in 1799, the distillery and gristmill were willed to Lawrence and Nellie Custis Lewis, and by 1804, Anderson had departed Mount Vernon.

The last barrel of whiskey rolled out of the distillery in 1814, the same year it burned to the ground.


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