/ The DC Traveler
Washington DC — By Jon Rochetti on July 20, 2010 at 11:39 pm
Filed under: history, top-feature, tour, whiskey

The Whiskey of George Washington

While stopping at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon Estate is a must visit location on any trip to Washington DC, it’s worth the special effort to make a side trip to George Washington’s Whiskey Distillery and Gristmill, just 3 miles south of the Mt. Vernon property.

On George Washington’s large Virginia estate, besides growing corn, tobacco and wheat, the first President also distilled whiskey under the brand Mt. Vernon Whiskey. It quickly became a leading brand.

Mt Vernon Whiskey label.jpg

As American’s taste for British rum as the spirit of choice declined in the late 1700s, mostly due to high import taxes on British rum, American-made whiskey was not yet heavily taxed and thus became the primary consumable alcohol for Americans.  During George Washington’s presidency, to fund the federal government, the US Congress passed an excise tax on domestically distilled spirits in 1791, which was the first federal tax on any domestically produced “American” product.  The tax led to the infamous Whiskey Rebellion.  Across the country the new tax was ignored, or citizen revolts sprang up.  Even tax collectors were being besieged at their homes by angry citizens and one, Robert Johnson in western Pennsylvania, was tarred and feathered by a mob.  Some groups even took over the local militia to stop tax collectors from having protection to collect taxes.

Twenty years earlier, in 1771 Washington, being able to spot the trends and take advantage of his property’s assets, Washington erected a 4,000 square foot, three-story brick, stone and wood whiskey distillery next to his gristmill located along the Dogue Creek.  The creek provided the mill and distillery with a reliable source of water to power the mill and fresh water for the making of the whiskey.  The mill had been grinding wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal for .

The distillery was constructed with five 120-gallon stills, that produced over 44,000 quarts of Washington’s own Mt. Vernon Whiskey in 1797.  In 1799, it sold over $7,500 worth of whiskey making it the country’s largest distillery.  The distillery is the only 18th-century style distillery in operation today in the US that can demonstrate the distilling process from seed to the barrel.

Washington's Distilery & Gristmill

Rye was a main ingredient in making the whiskey, which Washington grew in the rich Potomac bottom lands of his estate. It was ground at his gristmill, under the watchful eye of James Anderson, a Scottish whiskey maker and production overseer that Washington had hired.  His role was to oversee the major functions of the process, the mashing and fermenting of the rye grain, the distillation of the whiskey and business operations, including the distribution to nearby Alexandria.  In town, Washington’s whiskey was on sale to consumers in general stores for around 50¢ a gallon (about $12.00 a gallon in today’s dollar.) Some of his product was even exported to England.

The unaged whiskey was colorless, consisting of about two-thirds rye whiskey, one-third corn whiskey and a small amount of malted barley alcohol.  At that time, the science of whiskey production was in its relative infancy.  Most whiskeys were not aged in barrels and the resulting taste was often raw and at times considered dangerous to drink.  Compared in taste to today’s highly filtered and refined whiskeys, many Colonial-era whiskeys were more like powerful moonshines.

The Mount Vernon distillery also produced apple, peach and persimmon brandies, vinegar and a few specialty or premium rectified (filtered) whiskys that generally doubled the price.

Washington Gristmill Washington's Distillery

Along side Anderson was his son and six slaves that operated the distillery until about 1808, 9 years after George Washington’s death. Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis, inherited the distillery and after the Anderson family moved, the distillery ceased production.  The current distillery is a recreated building that is very close to the original.  It is larger than the one built close to 200 years after the original structure was destroyed by a fire in 1814.

The distillery has a storage cellar, an office and two furnished bedrooms where the site manager and his assistant would have lived, all furnished with period furniture.  The distilling process produced a great deal of waste that was fed to a heard of 150 cattle and 30 hogs that were kept near the distillery.

The adjacent gristmill’s giant stones and gears are powered by a 16-foot wooden waterwheel, still powered by the creek today.  The original mill dated back to 1771, and the current mill, reconstructed in 1933 includes the only operating Oliver Evans Automated Milling System in the country.  It was the first automated and continuously-operating mill of its type that incorporated bulk material handling using bucket elevators, conveyor belts, and screws.  Stone ground cornmeal produced on site is available for sale at the Gristmill Shop.

Costumed distillers, mill operators and tour guides work at Mount Vernon’s distillery and gristmill and are available to answer questions.  They also, due to a special exception to the Virginia alcohol sales law, are allowed to sell bottles of the limited production George Washington Whiskey at the Mount Vernon Visitor Center.

But finding a bottle is almost impossible.  Earlier this month, the first production of George Washington’s original recipe rye whiskey went on sale.   All 471 pint bottles, priced at $85.00 each, sold out in just 2½ hours.

But fear not, the distillery plans to make another 500 bottles, which should be available for sale around late November or early December, making it a great gift to toast in the New Year with.

George Washington’s Whiskey Distillery and Gristmill — 5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway (Route 235), Alexandria, Virginia  (map)

Dates and Times – April 1 to October 31, Daily – 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Tickets – Adults – $4.00, children 6 – 11 – $2.00, 5 and under – Free. Combination tickets with a paid main Estate ticket are just $2.00 for adults, $1.50 for children ages 6-11, and free for children 5 and under.

Nearest Metro Subway Station – Huntington – Yellow line, the catch the Fairfax Connector #152 bus to the distillery and mill (about 20 minutes). Or take a 3-mile cab ride from Mt. Vernon.

Parking – Free

Images – personal collection – ©2010 – Jon Rochetti

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    George Washington's Distillery & Grist Mill
    5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, VA
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