Excavating George Washington's Distillery


The archaeological site of Washington's Distillery was quite well preserved, with remnants of the stone foundations marking the outline of the building, bricks and burned soils indicating the furnaces used to fire the stills and the boiler, and a series of drains to transport water needed for the distilling.


A stone partition separated the distilling area from two small rooms that served as a storage cellar for whiskey and an office for the manager.


The sandstone walls of the distillery were supported by a massive foundation made up of cobbles recovered from the Potomac River.


Several holes were found in a line that indicate that the space containing the cellar and the office was divided by a wall supported by posts set into the ground.

Since 1997 Mount Vernon’s archaeologists have been excavating at the site of the distillery in hopes of retrieving enough information to be able to justify reconstructing this important and unusual structure. The project is being supported by a generous contribution from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. As no 18th-century whiskey distillery survives in this country, and since no full-scale excavation of an American whiskey distillery from this time period ever has been conducted, the project provides a unique opportunity to learn more about the early years of this important industry, as well as to shed more light on the economic activities of George Washington. When the distillery is reconstructed within the next three years, visitors will be able to observe the art of distilling as it was practiced more than two centuries ago, and they will see where much of the product of Washington’s mill was used.

The site of the distillery is remarkably well preserved, and the archaeologists have revealed extensive evidence of the building itself, as well as remains of features interpreted as relating to the distilling process. The foundations of the south and west walls of the building are intact, as is a portion of a partition that divided the northern 15 feet of the building from the larger 60-foot long main section. The foundation is between two and one-half and three and one-half feet wide, with individual stones measuring up to two feet in diameter. On the south end a course of the sandstone wall survives resting upon the foundation made of river cobbles, with an even more intact section surviving in the partition. Measuring these remnants indicates that the lower portion of the walls of the building were two feet thick. The character of the masonry work found in the surviving walls illustrates how quickly the distillery was constructed. The mortar was coarsely prepared, as it contains large inclusions of stones and oyster shell, and the sandstone blocks are irregularly cut and shaped. Neither of these treatments is typically seen in buildings that were carefully constructed.

Documentary records indicate that wooden floors were installed on both the first and second levels of the building. However, the archaeologists discovered evidence that indicates that at least a portion of the first floor was masonry. A section of brick paving survives that is roughly centered along the west wall of the building, and a layer of roughly laid cobble stones adjoins the brick and extends to the partition on the north. The masons’ weekly reports for the weeks of March 3rd and March 10th indicate that they were “building the foundation of the stair.” The brick pad seems most likely to be the location for the stair, providing access to the loft where grain was stored and at least some of the workers lived. The cobblestone floor abuts the brickwork, and is a surprising mixture of materials, comprised of broken bricks and mortar, interspersed among the cobblestones. The stones range in size from a few inches to more than one foot in diameter. Given the very uneven texture of the stones, it is hard to imagine the floor as a surface that was meant to be walked on directly. Period sources strongly recommend that mashing and fermenting be carried out indoors, preferably on a solid floor where vibration could be kept to a minimum (so as not to impede fermentation). Therefore, it may be that the mash tubs were located in this area, resting on a wooden floor with the cobblestones serving as stabilizing supports. The archaeologists discovered the decayed remants of the wooden floors in the east half of the first floor, as well as in the north bay.

Two large rectangular burned areas, along with a smaller patch of burned soil, were revealed along the east side of the building that suggest they mark the locations of the furnaces for firing the stills. The bottoms of two of the brick furnaces are still intact and the soils in both of these features are reddened, suggesting that they were burned by the almost constant fires needed to heat the stills. The third burned area is much less extensive and no remnants of the furnace itself survive there. However, it is located on line with the other two burned areas, suggesting that it might have been the site of the fifth still. Period sources indicate that it was typical to arrange stills in pairs, so that two furnaces could be served more efficiently by a single centrally located chimney. The size of the two rectangular features suggests this type of arrangement, while the fifth still would have operated as a single unit.

This interpretation of the probable locations of the stills is given credence by the discovery of a series of underground drains that were found in association with them. The historical sources indicate that water was used to cool the vapor back into a liquid as the alcohol passed from the still through a copper worm submerged in special tubs. The water was brought into the building from the millrace by way of a wooden trough, which branched into five smaller troughs, each one distributing water to pour into the tops of the worm tubs. Once the water passed through the tubs, it exited the distillery via another complex of underground wooden drains. The five sub-floor drains that were discovered terminate at points near the presumed sites of the furnaces, and thus suggest the locations of the tubs. The drains passed through the foundation to connect with yet another drain lined with a wooden trough that ran parallel with the long axis of the building. In this way the water was channeled away from the building to Dogue Creek, a few hundred yards away.

Evidence was found indicating the locations of two other fire boxes, both of which may relate to the boiler used to heat the water needed to prepare the mash for distilling. Impressions of where bricks had been set in the brick pad, directly adjacent to the cobble stone floor, point to a three-sided brick structure that was roughly seven by five feet in dimension. The bricks within the footprint of the structure were heat damaged, suggesting that they mark the site of a relatively intense fire. In January 1798, a 210- gallon copper boiler, essentially a large copper pot, was purchased from George McMunn, an Alexandria craftsman who also made at least three of the five copper pot stills. As the boiler was needed to heat water for “cooking” the mash, and the placement of the boiler near the mash tubs would have been beneficial, the structure’s position near the presumed mashing area suggests that this is the site of the boiler. A second feature with similar dimensions, six and one-half feet by five and one-half feet, and with roughly the same overall character as the structure on the brick pad, was revealed outside the building and abutting the west wall of the still house. This stone foundation also provides strong evidence for being the site of a furnace, as it is paved with brick that are reddened and damaged by fire. The foundation is directly adjacent to the other fire box, and given their similar shape and their shared proximity to the mashing area, both features may have related to the boiler. However, only one boiler at a time was ever in use at the distillery, and the placement of the features so close together would have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to operate simultaneously. Therefore, it may be that the position of the boiler was changed slightly during the operation of the distillery, with both of these features marking its location at different times.

The north bay of the building (15 by 30 feet) was separated from the large distilling area by a stone wall. This space was also subdivided into two equal parts by a wooden partition. Five holes to hold the posts that supported this wall were discovered by the archaeologists. A four-foot gap occurs between post holes in the center of the apparent wall, suggesting the placement there of a doorway. There are documentary references to a “cellar” being incorporated into the distillery, and also to constructing a “partition” in that space. The cellar reference suggests that this was where the whiskey was stored in barrels while awaiting sale. If the west room served as the cellar, then the east room could have been used as an office, where records were kept and where customers came to transact business. With a locked door in the partition and a lockable exterior door leading into the office, the distillery manager could have kept tight control over access to the valuable alcohol stored inside. Customers could come into the office to trade their grain or purchase whiskey without having to enter the main work room. At two feet thick, the stone partition is quite substantial, suggesting that its function also was to act as a fire wall between the furnaces and the highly flammable alcohol.

Documentary references indicate that two rooms that served as living quarters for John Anderson and his assistant were located above the storage bay. The archaeologists found a number of domestic artifacts in the area beneath where the rooms were located, including a tea cup made in England, numerous buttons, a drinking glass, and a slate pencil. Pieces of window glass also were found, which probably relate to the dormer windows that provided light to their living spaces.

Two additional artifacts found at the site appear to relate to one or more of the five stills that were used in the building. A piece of a copper spout may have been used to allow the spent mash, or slop, to drain from a still after the distilling process was completed. A fragment of a copper handle could have been used to open and close a still spout. Because most of the distilling equipment presumably was removed from the building before it was dismantled, the archaeologists discovered very few artifacts during their excavation that could be identified as relating directly to the distilling process.

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