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.
The George Washington Distillery in Mount Vernon, VA © John Greim / Getty Images
Almost immediately, Washington’s whiskey was a big-seller. According to Mount Vernon, the nearly 11,000 gallons produced in 1799 yielded a profit of $7,500 (which roughly translates to about $144,000 in present-day money). Unlike most whiskey today, Washington’s was not aged at all because they wanted the product to hit the shelves as soon as possible. “It came right out of the still and into a barrel... for transportation. Everything was a white whiskey back then,” says Bashore, “They wanted it to get to the stores, the markets and taverns quickly.” In addition, the whiskey produced by America’s first president wasn’t meant for the elite or the wealthy. It was distilled and priced for consumption for the average 18th century American. Says Bashore, “It was a common whiskey for a common man.”
Over two centuries later, whiskey is once again pouring out of Mount Vernon’s distillery. In 2009, after a long refurbishing and rebuild, the old distillery is back in production. Today, distilling happens every March and November (during the tourist off-season). With Bashore leading a team of 8 or 9 (which is the number of people Washington likely used, though at least 6 of them were slaves), he estimates they produce 1200 gallons, or 4000 to 5000 bottles, of whiskey a year. While they have to deviate a bit due to safety reasons, modern regulations and legalities, Bashore says they do all fermentation and distillation work using 18th-century methods.
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And, yes, bottles of Washington’s whiskey are for sale, but whiskey lovers have to make a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon for it. It’s only available at the historic home’s gift shop and in the distillery with all proceeds going towards Mount Vernon’s education mission and the preservation of the distillery.
As for what the whiskey tastes like, this writer’s uncomplicated palate noted a spiciness not often found in, say, Jack Daniel’s. Bashore confirms this, plus he says there are corn and grain flavors on the back end that are common to 18th-century-style whiskies.
If you decide you want to celebrate President’s Day by gulping down our first president’s whiskey, you should prepare yourself. Says Bashore, “For some people, unaged whiskey is a little strong.”
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