Distillery Focus

Back in business

After 200 years,George Washington's distillery has been restored to its former glory, Charles K. Cowdery looks at the history and takes us behind the scenes
By Charles K Cowdery
George Washington’s distiller was from Scotland, so Prince Andrew cut the ribbon at the restored distillery’s grand opening in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on September 27. A thin reed, perhaps, but His Royal Highness, The Duke of York, also was acting in his capacity as the United Kingdom's Special Representative for International Trade and Investment.The Duke proves to be a big draw and the small site teams with guests long before his arrival. There is almost too much activity going on. Over here, modern distillers in period costumes are making rye whiskey in a small replica still they have used for these events since 2003. Over there, other workers, also in 18th century garb, are breaking the spell by using an electric pump to fill about 20 bottles with the rye whiskey made here almost three years ago. In the new/old distillery itself, Mount Vernon’s Chief Historian, Dennis Pogue, is giving a tour.A taste of the rye was smuggled out. A year ago, this whiskey was quite rough. It has mellowed nicely since then. All things considered, it’s good. The 20 or so bottles of it filled this afternoon will be raffled off later this evening, with the proceeds to benefit Mount Vernon.When HRH arrives, all eyes are on him. He makes a nice speech, is presented with a bottle of the rye in a fancy wooden box, then cuts the ribbon. A cannon is fired. Nothing is said about the fact that 200 years ago, the two countries being celebrated today were shooting those cannon at each other.George Washington made whiskey, brandy and rum at his home in Mount Vernon for the last two years of his life. The distillery was one of the estate’s most successful ventures and researchers believe it was one of the largest in the USA at that time.James Anderson, who took over as Washington’s estate manager in 1797, was born on his father’s farm near Inverkeithing, Scotland, in 1745. He grew up farming, managing farms, milling and distilling. After some financial setbacks in Scotland, he decamped to the colonies, farming on his own for a few years before signing on with the expresident.Building the distillery was one of his first suggestions to Washington. After Washington’s death in 1799, Anderson, with his son, John, continued to operate the mill and distillery for several more years, but never again with the success it enjoyed in 1799, the years it produced 11,000 gallons of spirits and turned a profit of $7,600 (back when that was real money).After five years of archaeological excavation and other research, Washington’s distillery was rebuilt by a team of restoration architects, craftsmen and historians using 18th century building techniques.Authentic touches include mortise-and-tenon joints; hand-hewn and pitsawn timbers; mortar joint stonework; and, sandstone blocks of the same variety used by Washington himself, according to John O’Rourke, head restoration carpenter for Mount Vernon.Compared to the tumbledown shacks that passed for distilleries in Kentucky in the 19th century, it’s a very substantial and handsome structure.The entire project, from initial excavation of the site through reconstruction, cost $2.1 million, $1.5 million of which was provided by the distilled spirits industry. Peter Cressy, President of the Distilled Spirits Council, presided over the day’s festivities, joined by executives from most of the distilled spirits producers.Large farmers in Washington’s day tried to add as much value as possible to the crops they grew and the livestock they raised before bringing their products to market, hence the mill and distillery.There they received raw grain from the fields. As it came in, some was diverted for sale, some for processing into flour and some for distilling. The distillery is adjacent to the estate’s water-powered gristmill. Together, they provide a more complete picture of the agricultural practices of Washington’s time.Mount Vernon is the only historic site in the USA capable of showing the distilling process from crop to finished product. The operators of Mount Vernon estimate that about 100,000 tourist a year will visit the site.Will those visitors see whiskey being made? As of now, probably not. Although that was the original plan, now that they have a working distillery on the property, the private group that operates Mount Vernon is getting squeamish about actually making alcohol there. Don’t look for any of George Washington’s rye in the gift shop either.The distillery, with five copper pot stills of between 75 and 100 gallon capacity each, is capable of making whiskey. Let’s hope it someday does.