The below information on Washington's whiskey distillery has been excerpted from the following: George Washington's Gristmill at Mount Vernon, by Dennis J. Pogue and Esther C. White (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia, 2005) If interested in purchasing this book, please click here.
The History of George Washington's Distillery
In 1797 George Washington’s farm manager, a Scot named James Anderson, convinced his employer that producing whiskey made from corn and rye grown on the plantation would be a natural complement to his milling business. Washington was initially skeptical, but he soon wrote to Anderson giving him permission to initiate the venture. “I consent to your commencing a distillary (sic), and approve of your purchasing the Still, and entering of it,” wrote Washington, “And I shall not object to your converting part of the Coopers shop at the Mill to this operation.” Washington had expressed some concern about locating the distillery at the mill, commenting that, “idlers (of which, and bad people there are many around it) under pretence of coming there with grist could not be restrained from visiting the Distillery, nor probably from tempting the Distiller, nay more robbing the Still; as the Mill would always afford a pretext for coming to that place.” Nevertheless, Washington conceded that the mill was the perfect site for the distillery, given the “necessity of water passing thro(ugh) the Distillery,” along with the ready access to grain and barrels, and its convenience in proximity to roads and a navigable stream.
Washington chose to construct his distillery adjacent his gristmill, to utilize a gravity-fed water trough from Dogue Creek.
Washington Agrees with Anderson's Plan
George Washington’s agreement to Anderson’s plan reflects the older man’s desires to find another ready source of money that would allow him to simplify his style of life. Just a few years before he had unsuccessfully advertised his western lands for sale, and in 1796 Washington had hoped to find either buyers or renters for the Mount Vernon farms. These efforts were aimed at generating sufficient income to support him in his old age, without the considerable effort required in supervising the far-flung activities of his agricultural enterprise. Therefore, Anderson’s offer to manage the distillery and his pledge of a profitable return found a willing listener. Unfortunately for Washington, even though Anderson largely delivered on his promises, the care and trouble Washington experienced in keeping the distillery running smoothly may have caused him more than once to regret his decision.
The Initial Distillery
The initial distillery used two stills and was set up in the existing cooper’s shop that had been converted for the purpose. It was immediately successful. During the week of February 22, 1797, the first 80 gallons of whiskey were made and stored in the cellar of Anderson’s house for safekeeping. Over the course of the year, Anderson produced more than 600 gallons of whiskey and realized a profit of £83. By June, Anderson was so convinced of the profitability of the venture that he wrote to Washington with a detailed proposal for enlarging the operation. Anderson envisioned a stone structure that could comfortably house five stills, with two associated buildings used in preparing malted barley (with corn and rye, one of the main ingredients in the whiskey). Anderson estimated that the cost of purchasing three additional stills, a copper boiler, and a quantity of wooden mash tubs would amount to $640. The cost of erecting the buildings was not included in his estimate, as Anderson anticipated that much of the work would be carried out by Washington’s slave masons and carpenters.
Two of five authentically reconstructed stills at George Washington's Distillery, as seen today. Photo: Ron Thompson.
Before he would agree to build the new still house, Washington solicited the advice of a knowledgeable friend, John Fitzgerald, who operated a rum distillery in nearby Alexandria. In response to Washington’s inquiry about the feasibility and potential success of the expanded whiskey distillery, Fitzgerald replied, “As I have no doubt but Mr Anderson understands the Distillation of Spirit from Grain I cannot hesitate in my opinion that it might be carried on to great advantage on your Estate … as to a Sale of the Whisky there can be no doubt if the Quantity was ten times as much as he can make provided it is of good Quality.” With this very positive endorsement in hand, Washington agreed to Anderson’s plan. But as a warning to his manager, Washington reminded Anderson that it was only because of his “knowledge of it (whiskey making) and from the confidence” Washington had “in the profit to be derived from the establishment,” that he was disposed to enter into the business.
Constructing an Expanded Distillery
Preparations to construct the new distillery began in earnest in the fall, with actual site work beginning the first week of October 1797 (“hewing of timber for the still house”). By the 14th, the Mount Vernon masons were digging the trench for the footings, then from October 21st until December 16th they laid the foundation, raised the stone walls, and continued to prepare wood for the roof framing and for the interior finishes. In short order, the roof structure was in place, the shingles were nailed on, and the door and window frames were installed. By January the project had progressed to the point where building the masonry chimneys was underway and the floor was being laid, and wagons were hauling the new stills from town. During the month of February, the focus was almost exclusively on interior work, including building partitions, hanging doors, and plastering and painting. The distillery equipment was installed by the end of the month, with the stills and the “boiler” set in place, the worm tubs needed to condense the spirit into alcohol were at the ready, and troughs to direct water throughout the building were under construction. Finally, by early March the Distillery seems to have been substantially complete and distilling had begun. According to an insurance document from 1803, the new still house measured 75 by 30 feet in dimension.
Because the distillery had expanded considerably, the demand it placed on the Mount Vernon grain supply was correspondingly high. In fact, the demand seems to have quickly exceeded the capacity of the Mount Vernon farms to meet it, and Washington soon entered into agreements to purchase corn and rye from various sources. In a June 26, 1798, letter to his nephew, William A. Washington, George Washington agreed to purchase 500 barrels of corn annually, at the Alexandria market price. Washington also agreed to accept grain in payment for the whiskey that was produced, suggesting to his nephew that “if you should want more, or any of your neighbors want any, it would be convenient, & always proper, to supply you – and for grain, wheat, Rye or Indian Corn in exchange.”
When combined with the cost of erecting and outfitting the new still house, the additional, apparently unexpected expense of purchasing grain caused Washington to call on his agents to redouble their efforts in collecting his rents and other debts due him. In a letter to one agent, Robert Lewis, Washington provides a candid assessment of the situation that suggests that he may already have been entertaining second thoughts about the scheme. “I have been induced, by the experience & advise of my Manager, Mr Anderson – to erect a large Distillery at my Mill; and have supplied it with five Stills, boilers - &ca which, with the (Stone) House, has cost me a considerable sum already, but I find these expenditures are but a small part of the advances I must make before I shall receive any return for them, having all my Grain yet to buy to carry on the business,” Washington complained. As a consequence, he entreated Lewis “to exert yourself in the collection of my Rents, and that you would let me know, upon the best data you can form an opinion, what dependence I may place on you – not only as to the amount of the sum, but also as to the period of its payment, that I may regulate matters accordingly.”
The Success of the Expanded Distillery
A ledger containing the financial accounts for the distillery provides detailed information on the types and quantities of alcohol that was made, and lists the names of those individuals who purchased it.
According to a ledger of the plantation accounts, Anderson was as good as his word. In 1798 the expanded distillery produced approximately 4500 gallons of alcohol, mostly whiskey with a small amount of brandy, and generated a profit of £334. By the next year, production increased to almost 10,500 gallons, valued at $7,674. According to the plantation ledger, 57 individuals purchased the alcohol, paying an average of 60 cents per gallon for “common” whiskey, that had been twice distilled, and almost one dollar per gallon for higher quality whiskey that had been distilled up to four times. The distillery also continued to produce small quantities of flavored brandy, including apple (73.5 gallons) and peach (eight gallons). In addition to alcohol, livestock in the form of pigs and cattle, and vinegar (distilled cider) was sold. The total profit from the sale of all distillery produce totaled $1858 (roughly 600 pounds sterling) in 1799.
Washington’s customers sometimes paid for their alcohol with cash, but more often they traded for it using a wide range of commodities. The most common item offered as barter was grain, primarily corn and rye, that then was used to supply the raw material needs of the distillery. Other items that were required to support the operations of the gristmill and the distillery were accepted in trade. Even though Washington’s coopers supplied large numbers of barrels that were needed to store flour, whiskey, and fish, apparently they were unable to keep up with the demand as several customers bartered barrels of all sizes in exchange for whiskey. A variety of other goods that were accepted in trade included foodstuffs such as salt, butter, molasses, and oysters, and other commodities, such as candles, tar and “soal (sole) leather.” Others paid for their purchases by performing specialized services, including gauging, or measuring the volume, of barrels, and hauling freight.
Washington’s neighboring land owners provided a ready market for much of the product of the distillery. Included among the distillery’s customers were many well known members of the local planter society, such as William Fitzhugh, Daniel McCarty, and Henry Peake. The purchases that were made by one neighbor, Sarah McCarty Chichester, in 1799 exemplify the nature of these transactions. Chichester purchased 7,000 herrings, 32 gallons of whiskey, and one barrel of flour, with a combined value of $32.78. In exchange, she traded 603 barrels of corn and 243 bushels of wheat, valued at $785.38. The difference was credited to her account.
Merchants from the nearby town of Alexandria purchased a significant portion of the whiskey that was produced, who then resold the alcohol through their retail outlets. In 1799 12 merchants purchased 4300 gallons of whiskey valued at $2,394.59. Most prominent among these customers was George Gilpin, a long-time friend and business partner of George Washington’s. Gilpin was a well-known and successful merchant, who owned a warehouse and a wharf as well as a store in Alexandria. In 1798 Gilpin partnered with Washington to sell whiskey in his shop on consignment, reimbursing him according to an agreed upon percentage of the value of the whiskey after it had been sold. But in 1799 Gilpin began to purchase the whiskey outright, a change in strategy that appears likely to reflect his success the previous year in finding a ready market for Washington’s product. He bought 2,238 gallons of common whiskey valued at $1,208.45, 106 gallons of rye whiskey valued at $61.84, and 58.5 gallons of apple brandy worth $36.56, along with barrels of herring and shad. He paid for the items with a variety of foodstuffs and other goods from his store. The other 11 merchants on average bought just less than 145 gallons of spirits each, with the next largest purchase at 512 gallons.
Another Alexandria merchant, Laurence Hoof, focused his energies on acquiring and butchering livestock to sell the meat in his shop. In 1799 Hoof was the largest single purchaser of livestock from the distillery. Over the course of the year Hoof bought four calves, four cattle, four cows, and one steer, with a total weight of 3,753 pounds and a total sale price of $209.63 (approximately 60 cents per pound). He paid for the animals with cash and goods: “2 Rams for the Farms” and “127 pounds Beef for Mt Vernon.”
Distilleries could be found throughout the country in the years following the Revolution, providing farmers with a means to turn their grain into a product that enjoyed a steady market. In addition, alcohol could be transported more easily than grain and was more resistant to spoilage. In 1810 there were more than 3500 distilleries in Virginia alone. Judging by the size of the building (2250 square feet), the number of stills in operation (five), and the volume of alcohol produced (almost 10,500 gallons in 1799), Washington’s distillery was one of the largest in the region. In comparison, the typical distillery during this time period operated only one still and produced a few hundred gallons per year.
A Polish gentleman, Julian Niemcewicz, undertook a grand tour of the United States in 1797-99 and made a special effort in June 1798 to visit Mount Vernon and to meet George Washington, who was by then one of the most famous men in the world. Washington appears to have taken considerable pleasure in showing off the many parts of the plantation to his visitor, including the gristmill property and the distillery. In his journal, Niemcewicz commented quite favorably on the financial prospects of the new venture: “Just near by [the gristmill] is a whiski distillery. Under the supervision of the son of Mr. Anderson, they distill up to 12 thousand gallons a year (they can distill 50 gallons per day if the weather is not too hot); each gall at 4 Virginia shillings; that alone should bring in up to 16 thousand doll[ars].”
The Last Mention of the Distillery
The distillery, along with the gristmill, was bequeathed to Lawrence and Nellie Custis Lewis in 1799 in Washington’s will. By 1804 the Andersons had departed Mount Vernon, forcing Lawrence Lewis to seek tenants to operate both the gristmill and the distillery. The last mention of the operating distillery occurred in 1808, when James Douglass, an Alexandria merchant who rented the property advertised “liquor made at Maj. Lewis’s distillery near Mt. Vernon.” The distillery seems to have ceased operating by 1815 at the latest, as it is not included on an insurance policy covering the gristmill property that Lewis took out in that year.