There are plenty of well-worn legends about George Washington. There’s the myth about him chopping down a cherry tree, which was likely made up by his biographer. There’s the one about him throwing a silver dollar clear across the Potomac River, even though silver dollars probably didn’t exist yet. There’s even the doozy about Washington wearing wooden dentures, which is also not true. They were, in fact, hippopotamus ivory, metal and other humans’ teeth. However, the legend about him running one of the largest whiskey distilleries in 18th century America? That one is true. “We think he had to have been in the top one, two or three in the nation in terms of gallon production,” says Steve Bashore, Mount Vernon’s director of historic trades and distiller. “In 1799, (Washington) almost hit 11,000 gallons.”
When Washington left the executive mansion for good (there was not yet a White House) in March 1797, he moved back to his Mount Vernon, Virginia home in hopes of living out a relaxing retirement. But his plantation manager (and Scotsman) James Anderson had other plans. He thought Mount Vernon was a perfect spot for a whiskey distillery due to the abundance of fresh water, variety of crops — most importantly rye, the main ingredient in whiskey — and a state-of-the-art gristmill. So, he attempted to convince his wealthy, ex-president boss to set up shop.
At first, Washington was hesitant. He was 65 years old and after years of being America’s Founding Father, he was probably ready to take some well-earned naps. Plus, he thought a whiskey distillery would attract riff-raff to his property. But Washington was never one to pass up a good business opportunity and was known to indulge himself on occasion (though, he was more of a fan of Madeira wine and porter beer). So, in late 1797, he gave Anderson the go-ahead to start producing whiskey at Mount Vernon.