Washington's foray into firewater

Posted: June 12, 2011

MOUNT VERNON, Va. - "Distillery is a business I am entirely unacquainted with," wrote George Washington to James Anderson, his Scottish-born plantation manager at Mount Vernon, "but from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one."

As if Washington didn't have enough to do, with being the first president, a soldier, statesman, surveyor, farmer, and goodness knows what else, he tentatively embarked on a journey that would begin with Anderson through fields of wheat, rye, corn, and barley and that would end at his whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, just south of Washington across the Potomac.

Whiskey - often alluded to as "liquid gold" - was quite popular during Washington's day. Anderson had learned from his father in Scotland how to make whisky (where it is properly spelled without the "e"), and now he wanted to make whiskey (in America with the "e") in his new home in Virginia.

The reluctant Washington didn't share his enthusiasm. His concern was that the distillery would draw a certain type of people from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. Plus, he had all those other interests that kept him occupied.

"Anderson was a pretty darned good manager," says Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And because of that, "Washington became the most successful whiskey distiller of his day."

Walking across the rolling, manicured grounds of the distillery at the edge of Dogue Run Creek, about three miles from Washington's home at Mount Vernon, I can't help but be amused that this Founding Father, so revered as our first commander-in-chief, also liked his dram of whiskey now and then.

The 18th century-style distillery, open from April until October each year, houses a museum dedicated to Washington's foray into firewater and is the only place in the country where you can actually see how whiskey was distilled in his day.

Taking you back to the 1700s, costumed distillers in three-cornered hats, powdered wigs, and knee breeches guide you through the process of turning golden grain into golden spirits using water from Dogue Run Creek, just as Anderson did.

Perched on a nearby hilltop is Washington's reconstructed water-powered gristmill, with exposed-beam ceilings and brick floors. Reenactors dressed in colonial garb grind corn and wheat into meal, flour, and stone-ground grits. Great lengths have been taken to transport visitors back to the late 18th century.

The road connecting Washington's original distillery and gristmill to today's restoration is winding and long. It begins with the Revolutionary War.

"Rum was the preferred drink of the colonies," says Dennis Pogue, associate director of preservation at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. "Molasses came from the West Indies, which was ruled by the Brits. And after the Revolutionary War, we didn't like the Brits."

That's when whiskey began to grow in popularity.

At Anderson's urging, Washington began distilling whiskey in 1797, using two stills and rye, corn, and barley that were grown and harvested at Mount Vernon.

The distillery thrived to the point that three more stills were added and a more permanent structure was built from rock and sandstone. At its peak in 1799, the distillery was churning out 11,000 gallons of whiskey and smaller batches of peach, apple, and persimmon brandies.

In October 1799, Washington wrote to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis: "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 is brisk."

A few weeks later, Washington died. Lewis and his wife, Nellie Curtis Lewis, inherited the distillery, but it would never again see the halcyon days of Anderson's keen craftsmanship. Within a few years, the distillery fell into disrepair, and it burned in 1814.

The patch of pretty hillside lay untouched for more than a century, until the Commonwealth of Virginia bought it in 1932 and rebuilt the gristmill and miller's cottage, with plans to excavate the distillery. But this was in the midst of the Great Depression, not to mention Prohibition, so the idea never came to fruition. Instead, the land was turned into a state park until 1995.

That's when the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association agreed to step in.

Archaeologists located the foundation of the distillery in 1997, but the work was slow going until 2001, when Mount Vernon received a $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council. The project sped up, and the gristmill reopened in 2002. The distillery, rebuilt on the site of the original, opened in 2007.

"We wanted to show the entrepreneurial side of George Washington," Pogue says, explaining why so much effort went into the distillery. "He was a Renaissance man and an extraordinary businessman."

Master distillers came together in 2007 to make an inaugural batch of whiskey with Washington's original recipe, and all 471 bottles sold out within two hours.

A batch produced in March will go on sale July 4, but you must be at Mount Vernon or the distillery to buy one of the 400 bottles. The whiskey, clear because it is not aged, is twice distilled and bottled at 43 percent alcohol. Each 375-milliliter bottle retails for $95, and there is a limit of one per person.

The distillery also has produced peach brandy. Proceeds from the sale of the brandy, whiskey, grits and other items, such as preserves, jellies, and books, go toward Mount Vernon's educational program.

"The distillery is all about education," Pogue says. "People are so interested in the story and in the heritage of spirits."


Washington's Distillery

The site of the George Washington Distillery is on Route 235, about three miles south of Mount Vernon. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from April 1 through Oct. 31.

The distillery is also the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, a cultural heritage and tourism initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council in cooperation with

Historic Mount Vernon.

More information

Mount Vernon

Estate and Gardens 703-780-2000

www.MountVernon.org.

Distilled Spirits Council

202-628-3544

www.AmericanWhiskeyTrail.com.

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