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George Washington: His New Nation’s Largest Whiskey Distiller

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Children are told that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, which isn’t true. They’re told that he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, which isn’t true. And they’re told that he wore wooden teeth, which isn’t true.

But they are not told that after he served as the first president of the United States, he went on to become the nation’s larges distiller of alcoholic beverage. But that is true.

The “proof” is now available by visiting his reconstructed distillery located near his famous home, Mount Vernon.

Washington began producing whiskey at the suggestion of his plantation manager, who was Scottish. The new distiller first began by purchasing a copper still, but his first batch was so successful that he bought three more stills and built a larger distillery.
 
In 1798, the year before his death, Washington’s distillery produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey and produced a profit of $7,500. That was an enormous sum of money over 200 years ago.

A team of builders used late-18th century building techniques to authentically reconstruct the distillery, including using mortise-and-tendon joints; hand-hewn and pit sawn timbers; mortar joint stonework; and sandstone blocks of the same variety used by George Washington himself. The Smithsonian Institution has loaned a restored copper still reputed to be one of the five used by President Washington.

Washington’s  reconstructed distillery is now a national distilling museum and the only historic site in the United States showing the distilling process from crop to finished product, which it does with costumed personnel. It’s now open to the public seven days a week from April through October.

At the request of Mount Vernon officials, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America donated most of the  $2.1 million cost of the ten-year research, excavation and reconstruction project.

The museum is the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which encompasses historic distilling-related sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

 

References:

  • Barakat, Matthew. Replica of distillery of Washington opens. Associated Press, March 31, 2007.
  • Cheers to George Washington! Mount Vernon to “uncork” whiskey distillery with grand opening ceremony. TravelNewsFast.com, April 3, 2007.
  • Head, Thomas. First in war, first in peace, first in whiskey: George Washington as distiller. Southern Folkways Alliance, June 14, 2005; Eisele, Albert. Resurrecting George Washington’s booze. The Hill, June 9, 2005.
  • Masters, B. A. First President's 100-Proof Heritage at Mount Vernon: Washington's Whiskey Distillery to be Rebuilt. San Francisco Chronicle, 12-7-00, A8.

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