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George Washington's Distillery FAQs

Historical Timeline

When did George Washington begin distilling?
George Washington’s Scottish farm manager James Anderson and his son John began distilling in February 1797, just before Washington retired from the presidency. Two stills were set up in the coopers’ shop. By June this venture was so successful that the elder Anderson lobbied Washington to expand the operation and build a large still house. This building housed five stills and distilling began in March 1798.

When was the Distillery built?
The distillery was constructed between October 1797 and March 1798.

How long did the distillery operate?
The Andersons continued to operate the Distillery between George Washington’s death in December 1799 and Martha Washington’s death in 1802. At this time, the Distillery and Gristmill were inherited by Washington’s nephew Lawrence Lewis, and the Andersons moved away. Lewis leased the Distillery rather than manage it himself. The last record of whiskey production was in 1808 when an Alexandria merchant by the name of James Douglass advertised whiskey made at this Distillery.

What happened to the building?
The Distillery burned in the fall of 1814. We know nothing more about the fire. Lewis did receive a small insurance payment.

The Structure

Was George Washington’s Distillery particularly large?
Washington’s Distillery was the largest whiskey distillery in the country during the 18th century. It measured 75 x 30 feet (2,250 square feet) while the average distillery was about 20 x 40 feet (800 square feet).

Washington’s Distillery operated five copper pot stills for 12 months a year. The average distillery used one or two stills and distilled for one month. In 1799, Washington’s Distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey, valued at $7,500 (approximately $120,000 today). The average Virginia distillery produced about 650 gallons of whiskey per year which was valued at about $460.

How many stills were operated and how big were they?
The Distillery had five copper pot stills that held a total capacity of 616 gallons. We know that the three stills made by George McMunn, an Alexandria coppersmith, were 120, 116, and 110 gallons. We do not know how the remaining 270 gallons were divided between the final two stills.

How many mash tubs did Washington’s Distillery have?
Fifty mash tubs were located at Washington’s Distillery in 1799. We think only about half were used at a time to mash or cook grain. These tubs were large 120-gallon barrels made of oak. In Washington’s day, cooking the grain and fermenting the mash all happened in the same container. The boiler, where the hot water would have come from, held 210 gallons.

The Operation

Who did the distilling?
James Anderson learned about distilling whiskey in Scotland, where he supplied distilleries with grain from his farm. He was able to convince Washington to distill, and he served as the “master distiller.” His son John lived at the Distillery and managed the daily operation. John had a hired assistant who also lived at the Distillery. The bulk of the labor was performed by six enslaved distillers, Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James and Timothy.

What was distilled at Washington’s Distillery?
A variety of whiskey, brandy and vinegar were distilled. The most common beverage was whiskey made from 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley. This rye whiskey was distilled twice and sold as common whiskey. Smaller amounts were distilled up to four times and were more expensive. Some whiskey was also rectified (filtered to remove impurities) or flavored with cinnamon. Wheat was also distilled when rye was scarce. Lesser amounts of apple, peach and persimmon brandies were made.

Was Washington’s whiskey aged?
No, during the 1790s whiskey typically was not aged. The storage area was for stocking whiskey until customers purchased it.

Was Washington’s whiskey essentially moonshine?
No, by definition moonshine is illicit, and often of poor quality. Washington’s whiskey was legal and was of very high quality for the day. It did resemble moonshine in that it was unaged and therefore colorless.

Was Washington’s whiskey bottled?
No, bottles and brands were not used until the late 1800s. In Washington’s day the whiskey was stored and transported in wooden barrels of various sizes. The common whiskey barrel was about 31 gallons.

Who purchased Washington’s whiskey?
His best customer was his close friend George Gilpin. Gilpin owned a store in Alexandria where he sold the whiskey. Other Alexandria merchants also bought large quantities to resell. Local farmers purchased or traded grain for whiskey. Many of the people who worked at Mount Vernon also purchased whiskey.

How much did the whiskey cost?
The common whiskey cost about .50 per gallon. The rectified and fourth distilled whiskey was about $1.00 a gallon, and brandy was a little more. Consumers would pay in cash or sometimes barter goods.

Did Washington’s livestock increase with the Distillery?
Yes. Slop, or distilled grain, is a valuable source of food for both pigs and cows. Washington was able to increase his holdings of both these animals with the Distillery. In 1799, there were 150 pigs and 30 cows living at the Distillery eating slop.

Were distilleries common?
Yes, during the 1790s and early 1800s there were hundreds of distilleries in the United States. In 1810 the federal census recorded more than 3600 distilleries operating in Virginia alone.

George Washington and Whiskey

Did George Washington drink alcohol?
Alcohol played a large role in the lives of most people in the 1700s. It was drunk during social occasions, and used medicinally and as a trading commodity. George Washington held an enlightened, modern attitude toward the consumption of alcohol. He enjoyed a variety of beverages, his favorite being sweet fortified wines like Madeira and Port. He also drank rum punch, porter, and whiskey. He was well aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol to excess and was a strong proponent of moderation.

Did George Washington drink his whiskey?
We do not know, but upon Washington’s death a variety of products were stored in the basement of the Mansion, presumably for use by the Washington family. These included plain whiskey, cinnamon whiskey, apple, peach and persimmon brandy, and rectified apple brandy.

We do know that Washington proposed to drink whiskey in 1794 during the Whiskey Rebellion. At that time one of his aides wrote, "As the President will be going ... into the Country of Whiskey [Pennsylvania] he proposes to make use of that liquor for his drink."

Did George Washington pay his whiskey tax?
Yes. In the 1790s federal excise tax was collected from distilleries based upon the capacity of the still and the number of months it distilled. In 1798, Washington paid a tax of $332 on stills totaling 616 gallons operating for 12 months.

The Reconstruction

When was the Distillery discovered?
Although the Distillery building burned in 1814, knowledge of the operation was preserved in Washington’s writings. In 1932 the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the Distillery and Gristmill property and reconstructed the Mill and Miller’s Cottage. The Commonwealth uncovered the Distillery foundations but did not reconstruct the building. It operated the site as a state park until 1997.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association entered an agreement with the state to restore and manage the park in 1995. As part of that agreement, archaeological and historical research was conducted on the property in 1997. The site of the Distillery was excavated by Mount Vernon’s archaeologists between 1999 and 2006. The reconstruction began in 2005 and was completed in 2007.

What did the archaeologists find?
The archaeological excavation uncovered the stone foundation of the Distillery, the location for the five stills and boiler, numerous underground drains, and evidence for the wall that separated the store room and office. The archaeologists also found many objects used by the distillers such as fragments of stills, broken plates and tea cups, drinking glasses, and buttons.

Was the new Distillery constructed in the same way as the original?
We have tried to make the Distillery as faithful in appearance to Washington’s as possible. The wood was finished by hand and hand wrought nails and hardware were used throughout. Some compromises were needed in order to comply with current codes and safety standards. For example, 15 extra feet were added to the building in order to house a large stair and elevator.

Why are the floors constructed from different materials?
There are three different floors used in the reconstructed building – stone, wood, and brick. The archaeologists found evidence for floors made with these three materials.

A stone floor was used in the mashing area to lessen vibrations which would disturb the fermentation process. The area around the stills had an elevated wooden floor, which allowed for drains to carry water away from the worm tubs. There is a brick floor around the boiler and staircase.

How was the reconstruction funded?
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), with the support of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, has been the major donor with contributions of $2.1 million. DISCUS has named the Distillery the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail.

The Visitor Experience

Does the Distillery work?
Yes, the reconstruction is a working distillery. It is the only distillery in the country – and possibly the world – to authentically demonstrate the 18th-century process of distilling. The stills will distill liquid on a daily basis, although whiskey will be made only on special occasions.

What will visitors see?
Costumed distillers will operate the Distillery every day, from April through October. Storage spaces, offices, and bedrooms are on view, and the second floor includes a History Channel video, “George Washington’s Liquid Gold,” and a museum exhibit, “Spirits of Independence: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry,” which tell the story of whiskey at Mount Vernon and its history in America.

The Distillery is adjacent to George Washington’s Gristmill, a water-powered mill. At the Gristmill, costumed millers operate four floors of machinery to show visitors how Washington’s complex farming operation expanded to include a commercial gristmill which produced flour that was exported around the world.

Can visitors buy whiskey?
Yes, in the future small bottles of whiskey distilled at the Distillery and limited edition vatted American whiskey will be for sale in the Miller’s Cottage on site or in the Shops on the main Mount Vernon Estate.

Can visitors sample whiskey?
Mount Vernon will hold special events when visitors will be able to sample the whiskey. The Distillery does not distill alcohol on a regular basis or provide samples.

How much does it cost to tour?
Admission to the site is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-11, and free for children 5 and under. When combined with admission to Mount Vernon, tickets are $2 for adults, $1.50 for children ages 6-11, and free for children 5 and under. George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill is located on Route 235, three miles south of Mount Vernon. Visitor information can be found at MountVernon.org.

Media inquiries:

Emily Coleman Dibella
703-799-8607
edibella@mountvernon.org

 
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