By Ben Swenson
George Washington was perpetually restless. At the age of 65, having already led an army and a nation through seminal moments, the Founding Father decided to add one more line to his resume: distiller.
The results of this decision, now more than two centuries later, are available in 375-milliliter bottles of rye whiskey and brandy – all of it made in the same manner it would have been during Washington’s time.
Since 2009, a group of paid historical interpreters at his Mount Vernon estate have been making batches the old way, using heat from open fires and fermenting the mash in wooden barrels. There are no buttons that pause the process, no days off in the middle of a run. Modern regulations and hygiene call for a few, small 21st-century concessions, such as a stainless-steel container to catch the clear liquor flowing from the still, but the way this whiskey comes into being would be recognizable to the men who originally brought it to life.
“We’re living on the edge of the 18th century,” says Steve Bashore, Mount Vernon’s director of historic trades.
The resurrection of George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill offers a portal to the past through a drinking glass. Americans venerate Washington for his many accomplishments as a soldier and statesman, but the old general was, at heart, a businessman and planter. Mount Vernon encompassed 12 square miles and was worked by more than 300 enslaved people. Washington grew grain and was constantly looking for innovation, efficiency and profit.
When newly hired farm manager James Anderson told Washington in 1798 that a distillery could be profitable, he jumped at the opportunity. After all, Washington was well-acquainted with Americans’ fondness for drink. As commander in chief during the American Revolution, he ordered that rum be given to the rank and file daily.
When he decided to open a distillery, Washington went big and ordered the construction of a facility that dwarfed contemporary operations – five stills in a two-story stone structure, capable of producing more than 10,000 gallons of whiskey (which it did in 1799). The distillery also produced peach brandy, although in much smaller quantities.
Under the direction of Anderson, six enslaved men – Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James and Timothy – did the hard work of teasing liquor from grain. They tended fires under the boiler and stills, transferred scalding hot water in buckets, muscled vast quantities of heavy grain – all by hand. And by the sweat of their brow emerged a clear, potent whiskey that sold quickly in cities like Alexandria and Richmond. Back then, whiskey remained unaged, and drinkers consumed it as soon after production as they could.
The whiskey might have enjoyed decades of popularity, but in December 1799, Washington died of a throat infection. His distillery soon succumbed, too. Two hundred years after his death, archaeologists began excavating the site of the distillery, some of which remained intact, allowing museum officials to reconstruct the building on the original footprint.
Folding this facet of Washington’s life, which had been neglected for decades, into Mount Vernon’s interpretation and programming was an obvious choice, according to Doug Bradburn, president and CEO. “This speaks to different audiences and helps keeps Mount Vernon relevant with people who aren’t necessarily interested in George Washington or history in general,” he says.
The educational possibilities are not limited to the public. The crew working the distillery has learned quite a bit about making liquor. Bashore says the first batches were a little rough around the edges, but he knew making good whiskey would be a process. To help things go as smoothly as possible, Bashore and his colleagues brought in consultants, among them Lisa Wicker, president and head distiller of New York distillery Widow Jane, and Joe Dangler, master distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
The diligence paid off in the quality of the spirits. The distillery’s unaged whiskey earned a silver medal at the 2019 American Craft Spirits Awards. The whiskey starts off strong and peppery, thanks to the hefty rye component in the mash bill, and fades into a gentle sweetness from the corn. Also present is a subtle woodsmoke note, a characteristic imparted not by any barrel (as the spirit is unaged), but by the environment where the whiskey comes into being amid woodsmoke and open fermenters.
The spirits always sell well. Bashore supposes it’s as much about the history as what’s in the glass. People appreciate this novel method for honoring Washington’s legacy and all the people who made his spirits possible.
Becky Harris, cofounder of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Loudoun County, says George Washington’s spirits helps solidify the bonds of whiskey aficionados past and present. “We set a thermostat to get a certain temperature,” she says. “They have to tend a fire all day. In that way there is a kinship with the people who did this in the past.”
When to go:
George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill is open from April to October for paying visitors to Mount Vernon. Production runs occur every March and November. Unaged and aged whiskeys, as well as peach and apple brandies are available for purchase at the Shops at Mount Vernon.