Washington's whiskey hits the barrel after 200 year hiatus

April 16th
By Emily Brown


Revolutionary War hero. Father of our country. Master distiller? George Washington boasted many honorifics in his life, but owning the country's largest and most successful whiskey distillery in the late 1700s is perhaps one of the least known accomplishments of the first president.

Washington-the-entrepreneur was an early American success story. At his sizeable Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia, some 15 miles south of Washington, D.C., the general had a lucrative distillery, fishery, meat processing facility, gristmill, blacksmith shop, textiles production and seized opportunities in farming- making his plantation nearly self-sufficient and creating enough goods to turn a profit.

In April, the Mount Vernon distillery and adjacent gristmill will open to the public for the season. And for the first time in nearly 200 years, liquor fans will soon be able to purchase whiskey made in the distillery, following Washington's own recipe.

"There's nowhere else in the country you can see what a distillery was like in the 18th century," said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director of preservation who oversaw the distillery's reconstruction. And the experience shows visitors an intriguing side of George Washington. "It's an opportunity to talk about different aspects of Washington's career that most people don't know about," he said.

Whiskey was one of Washington's most important business ventures at Mount Vernon. At peak production, the distillery used five stills and a boiler and produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey. With sales of $7,500 in 1799, it was the country's largest distillery at the time. Today it is the only distillery in North America that demonstrates the 18th-century distillation process.

"The science doesn't change, it's the application of the science that's different," said Dave Pickerell, a master distiller and former vice president of operations for Maker's Mark who oversaw the distilling of Washington's recipe for Mount Vernon.

In the 18th century, water was brought into the distillery by wooden channels, there were no thermometers to assist in measuring alcohol content and knowing when chemical reactions took place, and the role of yeast's fermentation wasn't quite understood, Pickerell said. Early distillers used "lots of visual and olfactory cues you can go by to get to the same point, but it took a lot more experience."

Pickerell and a few helpers distilled about 100 gallons of Washington's whiskey in late February, the first time since the early 1800s that Washington's recipe was made. The gristmill processed the grain, allowing the two buildings to operate together as they did in Washington's day.

A $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America allowed for the excavation, research and reconstruction of the distillery. The archeological investigation began in 1997 and the distillery opened to the public in March 2007.

Surprisingly detailed documentation about Washington's operation allows historians to know which families frequented the distillery, quantities and prices paid for the whiskey and a record of the distillery's construction and operation.

"There is no better way to showcase the industry's proud heritage and shine a light on it than show the important role George Washington played in the industry," said Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council.

Just as Washington sold his spirits immediately -not aging his whiskey as is the standard practice today -the first bottles of whiskey will be for sale around June at the estate's gift shop. Washington's whiskey will be noticeably clear, as it is the barrel-aging process gives whiskey its darker color.

The former president's consent to start the business came with a push from his plantation manager James Anderson, a Scottish man with distilling experience, and from practicality - his gristmill had leftover ground wheat, corn and rye that was unsellable.

The distillery was originally built in 1797 and burned to the ground in 1814. Washington's death in 1799 curtailed its quick success. Visitors to the distillery, about three miles down the road from the Mount Vernon estate, can watch costumed distillers demonstrate daily between April and October how whiskey is made, though the distillers are actually using water.

The distillery also has a storage cellar, office and two furnished bedrooms where the site manager and assistant would have lived. The adjacent gristmill is a four-floor water-powered mill which produced, among other things, flour that was exported around the world.

"Everything he did set a precedent," Cressy said. "It's extraordinary."

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