As a Founding Father and one of the nation’s greatest leaders, our first president left behind a rich legacy. Yet there’s an accolade on George Washington’s list of accomplishments that is often overlooked: successful whiskey distiller.
In 1797, on the advice of his farm manager, Washington opened a whiskey distillery three miles from his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. His decision soon paid off. In 1799, it produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey and made Washington the largest American whiskey producer in the 18th century. The product was sold to regional merchants, bars, taverns and local farmers even traded grain for it.
Although you can’t credit Washington with launching American whiskey, Melissa Wood with Mount Vernon says “he was prominent in whiskey resurgence.” And the impact of Washington’s distillery is unquestionable. It serves as the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, an educational journey into the cultural heritage and history of spirits. It is the only site in North America that can demonstrate 18th-century distilling from seed to barrel.
The distillery remained in business after Washington died in 1799 until the last recorded whiskey purchase in 1808. The original building burned to the ground in 1814, but in 1999, archeologists started studying the site with plans to recreate the distillery. Construction began a few years later using only authentic tools and techniques of that period, and the restored building opened to the public in April of 2007. The design of the distillery stays true to its original plan – the floor is made out of stone, wood and brick.
Mount Vernon’s director of archeology unearthed Washington’s original recipe, which consists of 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and five percent malted barley. Former Master Distiller of Maker’s Mark, David Pickerell, was brought in to help recreate the beverage using only the traditional colonial-period methods that Washington would’ve used. One whiskey consultant described the result as “surprisingly sweet with an earthy feel.”
Sales began in 2010, and it seems as if the libation’s history is repeating itself – it is Mount Vernon’s most popular product. Currently, the whiskey is only sold at the shops at Mount Vernon and at the Gristmill shop, near the distillery. It is a seasonal product, and they hope to have the un-aged and the aged rye whiskey available during Christmas time.
“It’s an exciting side to George Washington,” Melissa says. “People really want to connect with the Founding Fathers. It’s a tangible way to connect to the past.”
Photo by Russ Flint