Recreating George Washington's Distillery - Using Colonial-Era Tools and Techniques

A sophisticated team of archaeologists, architects, carpenters and stone masons are authentically recreating George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon using late-18th century building techniques and historically appropriate materials.

Dr. Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s chief historian, said “this project presents a unique opportunity to do something no one has ever done in this country.” Upon completion, the distillery will be America’s only operating 18th century building. “The craftsmanship and detail that go into making this historic site come alive is truly original,” he said.

The distillery is being recreated on top of the footprint of the original foundation Washington built in 1797, after his presidency, making the 2,250 square foot structure among the largest whiskey distilleries in early America. In 1799, Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, worth $7,500. Upon Washington’s death in 1799, the complex was passed down to a relative who apparently was not equipped to run it, and he rented it to a local operator. The distillery ceased operating in 1814 when the building burned. Not until 2000 did Mount Vernon begin the excavation and restoration of the distillery with a grant from the distilled spirits industry.

“Mortise-and-tenon joints; hand-hewn and pitsawn timbers; mortar joint stonework; and, sandstone blocks of the same variety used by George Washington himself are some of colonial-era techniques we’re employing in the reconstruction,” said John O’Rourke, Mount Vernon’s head restoration carpenter. That means, O’Rourke pointed out, that the wood members and stone will have hand tool markings on them – as they would have in the late-18th century. “This will not simply be an interpretation of the historic distilling process, but of historic building crafts, too,” he said.

Prior to beginning the reconstruction, Mount Vernon’s team of expert restoration builders – including O’Rourke - did extensive research on similar colonial-era agricultural and industrial sites in order to integrate 18th century distillery design with construction techniques of the same period.

“One of the biggest challenges was that this building is going to be a working distillery,” said architect James Thompson of Quinn Evans | Architects, the Washington, DC-based architectural firm working with Mount Vernon on the project. “We took the results from the archaeology and projected upwards to reflect what was actually there in the 18th century. As the project was developing, the ongoing archaeological investigation at the distillery site was continually informing us as to how the building worked.”

Thompson pointed out that the distillery was not an isolated building, but one in a group of agricultural industry buildings - including an adjacent gristmill already reconstructed - that George Washington built to complement each other. The area of the Mount Vernon Estate where the distillery is located is the area that received raw grain.

“As grain came in, some was diverted for sale, some for processing into flour and some for distilling,” he said. “The reconstructed distillery will not only serve to interpret colonial-era spirit making, but together with the gristmill and other structures on the site, will also offer a unique look at agriculture in Washington’s time, and provide insight into his business skills.”

George Washington’s distillery, slated to be dedicated on September 27, 2006 and open to the public in April 2007, will be a national distilling museum and the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which encompasses historic distilling-related sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The reconstructed distillery will make Mount Vernon the only historic site in the country capable of showing the distilling process from crop to finished product. Thousands of visitors annually are expected to visit the site to learn more about the process through demonstrations and hands-on activities.

The distillery is located three miles from the Mount Vernon estate, next door to the site of George Washington’s gristmill, which has been reconstructed and operates as an 18th century mill. It is currently open for tours seven days a week from April through October. When the distillery opens to the public next spring, it will operate on the same schedule as the gristmill, and visitors will be able to tour both facilities.

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