Monday, March 6, 2017

Down at the Still with George Washington

Note:  By my count this is the 500th post for my blog on pre-Prohibition whiskey men.   For this “historic” occasion, I have decided to devote the vignette to a truly historic figure, George Washington.  Living not far from Mount Vernon, I was privileged to write a number of articles as Washington’s distillery was being reconstructed there under the guidance of staff archeologists.  Those articles largely were about the distillery; this vignette is on the distillery owner, a pioneering American whiskey man.

After George Washington’s death a myth was spread by Temperance forces that our first President drank nothing stronger than tea.   Nonsense!   Even as a teenager the future President had recorded with evident satisfaction that there had been “wine and rum punch in plenty”  at a dinner prepared for him and companions.  During the Revolution Washington considered liquor “essential to the health of the men.”    Now the myth has been exploded entirely.  Washington,  it turns out,  was one of the earliest and most successful distillers in the newly fledged America.

Washington was a farmer at heart.  Upon returning to Mount Vernon after his presidency, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the agricultural activities of the plantation, including growing corn and rye wheat.  At the urging of his farm managers, James Anderson,  a Scotsman with experience making whiskey both in his homeland and Virginia, Washington began commercial distilling in 1797.  Anderson had advised George that Mount Vernon’s crops, combined with his large gristmill and abundant water supply, would yield a profitable venture.  Always looking for ways to make the farm pay off, Washington agreed.

As a result, in February 1797 the cooperage at Washington’s grist mill, 2.7 miles from the plantation house, was converted to distilling and two stills bought and put into operation.  Success came quickly and Anderson was able to convince Washington to increase the number of stills.  That fall, construction began on a building large enough to hold five stills.  The foundation was laid from large rocks brought from the Falls of the Potomac where Washington was trying to build a canal.  The walls were of sandstone quarried right on the plantation itself.  Washington also invested heavily in the interior.  He bought five large copper kettles, 50 mash tubs, five work tubes and a boiler.

The enlarged distillery was up and running by the spring of 1798.  The facility was managed by Anderson’s son, John, aided by six black slaves.   While not the first distillery in America, nor the largest, Washington’s 75-by-30 foot facility was among the largest of its kind in 18th Century America.  An artist’s concept of the original complex is shown above with the distillery on the right and grist mill on the left. Between 1798 and 1799,  Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey,  valued in that day at more than $7,000 (equivalent today to several hundred thousand dollars).  The  distillery also made brandy using locally grown apples, peaches and persimmons.

In October 1799, a delighted Washington wrote his nephew:  “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….”  About the same time he was writing to friends to describe a steady market for his liquor in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.  A merchant there named Gilpin there would buy all Washington could provide of this un-aged whiskey — equivalent today to moonshine or “white lightening.”  Shown below is a reproduction of the desk that George might have used to calculate his earnings.

Some liquor clearly was kept for home use.  Marquis de Lafayette, on a visit to Mount Vernon from Paris,  wrote of the “swift authority” of the plantation’s spirits.   Achille Murat,  a Frenchman who married Washington’s great-grand niece,  remarked after a taste:  “Whiskey is the best part of the American government.”
A determined agriculturalist, willing to do hands on experimentation in the pursuit of profit, Washington himself became versed in the process, writing in 1798 that: “Rye chiefly, and Indian Corn in a certain proportion, compose the materials from which the Whiskey is made….”  Never one to waste anything, he stored the spent mash and fed it to more than 150 hogs and cattle kept on the site.

The success of Washington’s distillery was short-lived.    In 1799 the first President died suddenly, the facility was closed  and within a decade the building had fallen into disrepair.  His heirs removed many of the stones from the structure for other building projects on the plantation.  In time the distillery site disappeared, although drawings of it survived.
For a long time it was believed that one of the original stills from the Washington distillery resided in the Smithsonian Institution.    The copper kettle had been confiscated in 1939 from a moonshine operation, allegedly run by a Virginia family descended from Washington’s servants.  Later it was put it on display at Mount Vernon.  While almost certainly not one of Washington’s, the still dates from 1787 and England,  and is similar to the ones George purchased.   It became the model for the five stills installed in the restored distillery.

Today the American public knows a great deal more about the Father of the Country as a whiskey-maker.  Using a multi-million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DICUS), the distillery as conceived and operated by the Washington was recreated on the original site and opened to the public in 2005.  

I recommend a visit.  The second floor contains a museum where a number of artifacts can be found, including my gift of matches from a “Mount Vernon whiskey” that had nothing to do with Washington’s liquor.  Once a year DISCUS actually distills on premises and the bottled whiskey is sold to raise funds for Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

Afterword:  More than a year ago when the number of whiskey men profiled reached 400 and I determined to go to 500, the question was left open about what would happen when that mark was reached.  In ensuing months, I have found so many intriguing stories of pre-prohibition distillers, liquor dealers and saloonkeepers that it was an easy decision. I will go for 600.  


  1. About $100 per bottle for the unaged rye whiskey at Mount Vernon, I think it's worth it. The taste is very unique, and the money goes to help Mount Vernon.

  2. Dear Dan: I agree with your assessment as do the many people who line up to buy a bottle. Remember too that the bottle itself is a collector's item. It is unaged, as you pointed out, but so was George's.