George Washington’s Distillery: Meet Virginia Makers

Author: Steven T. Bashore, Director of Historic Trades for Mount Vernon

In 1797, following the completion of his second term as president, George Washington entered the whiskey business.  The idea to distill whiskey at Mount Vernon was not Washington’s, but rather by his newly hired farm manager, James Anderson. Anderson was a Scot who had immigrated to Virginia in 1791, bringing his wife and six children. He had much experience in farming, milling and distilling. After being hired, Anderson wrote Washington a letter proposing a distillery. Anderson knew with Washington’s large 8,000-acre estate consisting of five farms, along with a fine merchant gristmill, that all the ingredients were in place for a successful distilling operation.

George Washington was careful with his money, and at first hesitant to enter a new business. However, he realized the profit potential could be excellent. As a result, Washington agreed to start distilling on a small scale, allowing Anderson to set up two stills in the cooperage located adjacent to his gristmill. This small operation yielded 600 gallons of whiskey and a fine profit for Washington in 1797. This success led to his decision to construct a large dedicated distillery.

Breaking ground in October 1797, the distillery was completed in March 1798. The structure was 75 feet by 33 feet, and consisted of five copper pot stills, a 210-gallon copper boiler, and 50 mash tubs. No longer was this a small farm distillery; it was now a serious commercial operation. Eight men worked in the distillery, including two paid staff and six enslaved young men.

During the first year in the new structure, they produced 4,500 gallons of rye whiskey. The next year set the high mark for production at Mount Vernon, when 10,942 gallons of rye whiskey were made, along with small amounts of peach and apple brandy. This netted Washington $1,858, easily making the distillery his most profitable business. The success leads us to believe that George Washington’s Distillery may have been the nation’s largest distillery during this period. 

Sadly, Washington died December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. His nephew, Lawrence Lewis, inherited the distillery and gristmill, and attempted to continue the business, but was not as successful. In 1814, the distillery burned, and Lewis did not have the funds to rebuild it. Thus, the short history of distilling at Mount Vernon came to a close.

In the mid-1990s, we began to expand the interpretive story of George Washington. Our research revealed Washington’s incredibly innovative approach to agriculture. In the 1750s and 1760s, he read the latest books on farming, and adopted the new husbandry methods advocated in these texts. His study and efforts to improve American agriculture would continue his entire life.

Interestingly, if asked to describe himself, he would say he was a farmer first. Washington employed a variety of fertilizers and a seven-year crop rotation to reclaim exhausted soils and make them productive again. In 1766, Washington decided to abandon tobacco as his cash crop, and switched to wheat. In 1770, Washington constructed a large merchant gristmill on his Dogue Run Farm, and began to export his wheat flour to the West Indies as well as southern Europe. 

Realizing this aspect of George Washington was not well known, we decided to create a small farm site along the Potomac River to bring the story of his innovative farming approach to our visitors. Anchoring this small farm site is the reconstruction of Washington’s 16-sided treading barn. This unique barn designed by Washington during his first term as president used horses to tread or thresh wheat. With the barn reconstructed, Mount Vernon acquired Washington’s reconstructed gristmill from the state of Virginia and put it back in working order.

As the gristmill work began, we knew from our records that behind the gristmill were the remains of George Washington’s Distillery. Mount Vernon’s archaeologists began an extensive dig, and uncovered the foundation and remains of the distillery. Amazingly, many features were still visible under the soil. We also had the ledgers from Washington’s time and were able piece together the workings of this business, as well as his mash bill: 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. With such rich archaeological remains intact combined with primary source documents detailing the business, we realized an opportunity existed to reconstruct George Washington’s Distillery. With the assistance of the Distilled Spirits Council, funds were raised to reconstruct Washington’s Distillery on its original foundations. 

Mount Vernon’s Preservation Department with its master carpenters and masons began work on the reconstruction in 2004, and by March 2007, the structure was complete. Vendome Copper and Brass Works, Inc., made the five copper pot stills and worms, and on March 31, 2007, the distillery was dedicated and open for visitors. The initial plan was to make whiskey on a very limited basis, running only one or two stills once a year. Then, in February 2009, we decided to give a larger production run a try. We contacted Dave Pickerell, former Master Distiller at Makers Mark, and asked if he would be willing to assist us in making our first production run. He agreed, and in March 2009, we produced a small amount, 91 proof gallons. That first run went to market July 2010 and sold out in three hours. We realized that more whiskey production would be a good pursuit, and so the regular production of George Washington’s Rye Whiskey began. 

It must be noted that our main mission at Mount Vernon is education. Therefore, throughout the season we focus on our visitors and school groups as they come to learn about George Washington, his home, his farms and other aspects of the man and his life. The department I direct, Historic Trades, is tasked with telling the story of George Washington the farmer and entrepreneur. The farm, blacksmith shop and distillery and gristmill provide this opportunity, with active dynamic interpretations and demonstrations. The Distillery and Gristmill site is open for tours April 1 through October 31. 

The off-season presented an opportunity for us to expand our whiskey production. Since 2009, during every March and November, we make the original recipe George Washington Rye Whiskey. The historic nature of the site means we use mostly 18th-century methods, hand bucketing water from the boiler to the wooden 120 gallons mash tubs, rowing mash with wood mash rakes.

Once fermentation is completed, we bucket mash to the stills. There are no pumps and pipes at our disposal. Our stills are wood fired, so we have to chop all that as well.

One of our challenges has been learning to control the wood fires properly to achieve the best product. The other aspect that makes our operation at Mount Vernon unique is the watermill. We grind all the grains used in our whiskey on millstones powered by a 16-foot diameter waterwheel. Truly making whiskey the 18th-century way, from grinding to mashing to double distilling in pot stills, remains very satisfying to my staff and me.

Admittedly, our first run or two was physically tough, learning how to set mash, and run the stills properly. Over time, and working with a variety of skilled distillers, we have improved our production efforts in proof gallons produced and in quality. While whiskey was not aged in Washington’s time (it all went to market immediately as an unaged spirit), we do barrel age a portion of our whiskey from each run. As we have increased the proof gallons produced, we have been able to set more barrels back for longer aging. 

Since conducting regular tours during production is difficult, we do offer two VIP tours during each of our production runs. These small groups get a behind the scenes look at whiskey production as it was done in the 1790s. We also offer opportunities for all visitors to view the distillery in operation during our brandy runs. Over the last few years, we have made several runs of apple and peach brandy. These take place during our open season.

We also occasionally partner with other distillers to produce special products. In 2012, we worked with three Scottish distillers to produce George Washington Single Malt Whisky. We hope to do more special distillations like this in the future.

All of our spirits are sold at the Mount Vernon Gift Shops. The Distillery and Gristmill Shop is open April 1 through October 31, and the main gift shop on the estate is open every day of the year. Keep in mind the Distillery and Gristmill are located three miles from the main Mount Vernon Estate, and your ticket for the estate includes the tour of the Distillery and Gristmill. A shuttle runs regularly from the estate to the Distillery and Gristmill site.

I believe it is fitting that this entrepreneurial aspect of George Washington is taught today. In fact, the more I study and read about George Washington, the more his accomplishments amaze me. From general to president, and yet a farmer and businessman, and yes a very productive distiller. I hope everyone will take the time to visit Mount Vernon and learn more about our founding father, and hopefully enjoy some of his rye whiskey or brandy.

Please visit mountvernon.org for more information on tours.

Tasting Notes:

George Washington Unaged Rye Whiskey
Visual: Crystal clear.
Nose: Spicy, floral, and a little earthy.
Taste: Spicy and floral with hints of clove, allspice, and ginger.
Finish: Clean and relatively short, warm with hints of baking spices.

George Washington Straight Rye (2 year old)
Visual: Light honey amber.
Nose: Caramel, vanilla and oak.
Taste: Warm and slightly sweet, with a backbone of caramel and vanilla. Rye spices abound, slight earthy.
Finish: Medium oak, toffee, spice leading the way.

George Washington Apple Brandy
Visual: Medium straw.
Nose: Floral with lots of apple notes.
Taste: Delicate with a warm mix of tart green apple and caramel and vanilla.
Finish: Clean and relatively short, tart and sweet.

George Washington Peach Brandy
Visual: Light straw.
Nose: Hints of almonds dried peaches, apricots and raisins, backbone of vanilla.
Taste: Honey, roasted peaches, and baking spices predominate, along with caramel, vanilla and oak.
Finish: Long and pleasantly warm, with lots of peach, honey and vanilla.