MOUNT VERNON, Va. —"Distillery is a business I am entirely unacquainted with," wrote George Washington to James Anderson, his Scotland-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, D.C.
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's 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, however. 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 (DISCUS). And because of that, Cressy says, "Washington became the most successful whiskey distiller of his day."
Walking across the rolling, manicured grounds of the distillery that edges Dogue Run Creek, which is about three miles from Washington's home at Mount Vernon, I can't help but to be amused that Washington, so revered as our first commander-in-chief, also liked his wee dram o' whiskey now and then.
The historic 18th century-style distillery, open from April until October each year, offers another little-known dimension about ol' George. The distillery not only houses a museum dedicated to Washington's foray into firewater, but also it is the only place in the country where you can actually see how whiskey was distilled during Washington's time.
Taking you back to two centuries ago, costumed distillers in three-corner hats, powdered wigs, and knee breeches guide you through the alchemic process of turning golden grain into golden spirits using water from Dogue Run Creek just as Anderson did in the 1700s.
Venerably perched on a nearby hilltop is Washington's reconstructed water-powered gristmill. Re-enactors dressed in colonial garb grind corn and wheat into meal, flour, and stone-ground grits. With its exposed beam ceilings and brick floors, great lengths have been taken to transport you back to the late 18th century.
The road to reconstructing today's distillery and gristmill to its original state was winding and long and begins with the Revolutionary War.
"Rum was the preferred drink of the Colonies," says Dennis Pogue, associate director of Preservation at Mount Vernon Estate & 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 then began to grow in popularity.
At the urging of Anderson, Washington began distilling whiskey in 1797 with just two stills with rye, corn, and barley, all crops grown and harvested at Mount Vernon.
The distillery proved the adage, "If you build it, they will come," and it thrived to the point where an additional three stills were added and a more permanent structure was built from rocks 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, "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."
A few weeks later, Washington went on to the Great White House in the Sky. His nephew Lawrence 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 before it burned in 1814.
The patch of hillside pretty lay untouched for decades until the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased 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 DISCUS. The project sped up, and the gristmill reopened for the third time in 2002. The distillery, rebuilt from the ground up on the spot of the original, opened in 2007.
"We wanted to show the entrepreneurial side of George Washington," says Pogue as to why so much effort went into the distillery. "He was a Renaissance man and an extraordinary businessman."
Since it reopened, those copper pots have been fired up only a few times since the early 1800s, beginning in 2007 when master distillers came together to make an inaugural batch of whiskey according to Washington's original recipe. Peach brandy and rye whiskey also have been produced at the site, but you'll be more apt to find an elephant swimming in the Potomac than that particular rye, as all 471 bottles sold out within two hours after it went on sale.
Proceeds from the sale of the brandy, whiskey, grits and other items like preserves, jellies and books go toward Mount Vernon's educational program.
"The distillery is all about education," says Pogue. "People are so interested in the story and in the heritage of spirits."
IF YOU GO:
Visit www.MountVernon.org or call (703) 780-2000. The site of George Washington's Distillery is on Route 235, about 3 miles south of Mount Vernon. Open daily from 10:00 a.m., until 5:00 p.m., from April 1 until October 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 (www.AmericanWhiskeyTrail.com).