The George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon, founded by the first president of the United States, was the largest whiskey distillery in America in the 1790s, producing whiskey in the conventional 18th century method, which is practised even today By Rituparna Chatterjee
The first president of the United States, commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and president of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington has always been admired worldwide for his strong leadership qualities. But a lesser known fact about the former president of the United States is that he was the only founding father to commercially operate a distillery – George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon – and also become the largest whiskey producer in America in the 1790s.
Washington’s venture into the whiskey business began at the urging of his farm manager, James Anderson, who was involved in Scotland’s distilling industry before immigrating to America in the early 1790s. Anderson was convinced that a distilling business would generate substantial profits at Mount Vernon. Hence, Washington allowed Anderson to purchase two stills and set up a small operation in the cooperage next to the gristmill in early 1797.
The result was the production of 600 gallons sold for a good profit. Encouraged, Washington decided to construct a large distillery over the winter of 1797-1798. The new distillery was 75 feet by 30 feet and contained five copper pot stills, a boiler, and all equipment required for large-scale whiskey production. In 1799 the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at that time.
Post Washington’s death the brief success of the distillery came to a halt and within a decade the building fell into disrepair. In 1932, the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the distillery and the gristmill property and reconstructed the Mill and Miller’s Cottag though the distillery remained untouched.
In 1995 the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association entered into an agreement with the state to restore and manage the park. The reconstruction began in 2005 and was completed in 2007.
Elaborating on this history, Steven T Bashore, director of historic trades, George Washington’s Mount Vernon opines, “The distillery opened in 1797 right after Washington retired from presidency. He owned 8000 acres of Mount Vernon, which included a commercial fishery and the distillery. Now it has shrunk to 550 acres. This is a great story for Mount Vernon because many Americans and people throughout the globe know Washington as a general or president but not as an entrepreneur or innovative farmer.”
During Washington’s time, the whiskey at the distillery was made from 60 per cent rye, 35 per cent corn and five per cent malted barley. The rye was distilled twice and sold as common whiskey while smaller amounts were distilled upto four times, making them more expensive. Some whiskey were filtered or flavoured with cinnamon or persimmons. Wheat was also distilled when rye was scarce. Apple, peach and persimmon brandies were also produced including vinegar. The whiskey was neither bottled or branded. The whiskey coming from the distillery was poured into wooden barrels and shipped to nearby merchants. Also there was no custom to age the whiskey.
However today, the distillery produces limited batches of both aged and unaged whiskey and places them in branded bottles. But what continues to be followed even today is the traditional 18th century whiskey making process. Elaborating on this, Bashore states, “Here we do everything by hand as opposed to a modern distillery where it is mechanised. From grinding to fermentation to distillation and double distillation, everything is done manually. Right next to the distillery we have Washington’s water powered mill, where all the rye, grain, corn, etc are ground by water power.”
Presently, George Washington’s Distillery is the smallest craft distillery in America producing approximately 1200-1500 gallons of whiskey a year. It is also the only site in North America to demonstrate 18th century distilling from seed to barrel. “Our main focus is organising educational tours where we share the legacy of Washington and how the plantation works. During the off-season (March, November) when the building is not open for tours, we make whiskey including peach and apple brandies. These products are available only in Mount Vernon and aren’t exported. We also grow flowers in the mill, which are sold to the public and restaurants. We also have a blacksmith shop.”
Speaking about the visitors, he adds, “The tourism of Washington DC is huge. We are 14 miles south of Washington DC and people from all over the world visit us – Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis among others. In Spring, 60-80 buses come to Mount Vernon daily. There are 1.1 million visitors a year and a percentage of that visit the distillery. We organise corporate events as well wherein the corporates get to taste the whiskey.”