First American President George Washington once wrote that “the benefits arising from the moderate use of liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed.” Moreover, he put his theory into practice. In 1798, Washington built a distillery in Alexandria, Virginia that produced fifty thousand liters of whiskey per year. Today, Mount Vernon is carrying on this whiskey-making tradition and distilling this liquid gold today.
Although history books tend to omit Washington’s whiskey enterprise, he did achieve considerable success as a whiskey producer. In fact, Mount Vernon’s distillery was one of the largest distilleries of its time; it was also one of the most profitable and helped put the American whiskey industry on the map. During its peak, the distillery featured five gigantic copper sills, several mash tubs, and a large boiler.
After Washington’s death, the distillery and gristmill complex fell into disrepair. In 2002, the gristmill was finally restored and a team of archaeologists began to work on the excavation and reconstruction of the distillery. The two-story structure was recreated in 2006 and outfitted with reproductions of eighteenth-century sills. These sills produce whiskey according to Mount Vernon’s original recipe; the recipe calls for rye, corn, and malted barley and was created by Washington’s farm manager, Scottish-born James Anderson. With the help of his son, Anderson ran the distillery and was, in large measure, important to the operation’s success.
The estate’s distillery and gristmill are located three miles from Mount Vernon. Visitors may tour the distillery and visit its small museum located on its second floor. The distillery’s operators dress in period clothing and make whiskey the way it was made in Washington’s day; visitors have the opportunity to witness this rare depiction—which is unique in America since no other eighteenth-century commercial distilleries exist in the country. The tour details the importance of Washington’s distillery to the subsequent whiskey industry and also describes its significance to the Mount Vernon estate. Today, the estate’s whiskey is sold at Mount Vernon’s shops as well as at the gristmill.
Tickets for the distillery tour are available at Mount Vernon or at the gristmill. There is also public transportation available between Mount Vernon and the distillery complex. There is also more information available at these shops about Washington’s whiskey enterprise. For whiskey enthusiasts, this trip down memory lane is a tasty excursion made possible by one of America’s most revered Founding Fathers.
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