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The Distiller-in-Chief

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on April 25, 2017
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Politics can be a convoluted, abstract and unpleasant business, especially now. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the small, simple, concrete things politicians have given us. Like whiskey. George Washington, by the time of his death, ran the largest whiskey distillery in the US. That distillery is still operating today, at Mt. Vernon, his ancestral home, a few miles south of Washington. In fact, they’re making whiskey the same way Washington did in the 18th century.

In 1797, George Washington completed his second term as President and retired from the public eye. He returned to his Virginia farm to enjoy the quiet life of a gentleman planter. Martha was happy to have him back home. Washington had never enjoyed politics, or aspired to be a statesman, in the first place.

But that doesn’t mean he was going to sit idle. Washington was always searching for new ways to make money. That’s where James Anderson comes into the picture. A recent immigrant from Scotland, he’d been hired to run Washington’s plantation. Anderson had a sharp eye and noticed three things. Washington had a cutting edge gristmill (the latest in stone technology!), an abundance of fresh water close at hand, and a large rye harvest that was being wasted—it had been planted as cover crop, to enrich the soil. Anderson approached Washington and asked: Why not make whiskey?

The former president was reluctant. After all, he was 65-years-old, had lost money in previous business ventures and, frankly, didn’t need the headache. Anderson was persistent, however, so Washington agreed to a small production schedule on a trial basis. Anderson began with machinery totaling just two distillation pots. They produced 600 gallons of whiskey, which quickly sold out, so Washington approved a full-scale distillery. A still house was built next to the gristmill, on a creek two miles from the main house. Five copper stills were brought in, as well as boilers, tubs and wooden troughs to reroute water from the creek. The distillery was completed in 1798 and, within a year, Washington owned the largest alcohol manufactory in America. In 1799 he produced 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey, about 15 times more than the average producer at the time. Washington made a gross profit of $1,800 (well over $100,000 in today’s money). He died the same year, presumably in high spirits.

Aside from making money, the whiskey business also helped the livestock. Hogs were fattened with the mashed rye that was a byproduct of distillation and would otherwise have gone to waste. Julian Nimcewicz, a poet and politician visiting from his native Poland, remarked:

If this distillery produces poison for men, it offers in return the most delicate and the most succulent feed for pigs. They keep 150...of the Guinea type, short feet, hollow backs and so excessively bulky that they can hardly drag their big bellies on the ground. Their venerable and corpulent appearance recalled to me our Dominican convents, like so many priors.

Anti-clerical and teetotaling bias aside, this passage shows that Washington, with Anderson’s help, ran an efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable business.

When Washington died, the distillery was transferred to his nephew Lawrence Lewis, who wasn’t much of a farmer, merchant or leader. In 1814 a fire destroyed the gristmill and distillery, after which the family stopped making whiskey.

That’s not the end of our story. In 1930 The State of Virginia made the curious choice of purchasing the grounds in order to renovate the distillery, perhaps forgetting that Prohibition was in full swing. In 2005—almost two centuries after the fire—the site was excavated by a team of archeologists and the reconstruction project began. This was funded by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. They discovered, in the ruins of the old distillery, fragments of 18th-century copper stills, buttons, tea cups and drinking vessels.

In 2007, the project was completed and the buildings were reopened for distillation, tours and tastings. You can also purchase bottles of rye, peach brandy, apple brandy and single-malt whiskey to take home. The spirits are made in small batches according to George Washington’s recipes (or “mash bills”) using vintage machinery and techniques. The new distillery looks much as it did during the 18th century. Handmade wood and nails were used in the construction. The only concessions to the 21st century were those required by safety codes. All the work is done by hand, in the traditional manner. The distiller even wears breeches and a tricorn hat, though his smartphone is not of period make.

Today, the distillers at Mr. Vernon make whiskey the same way that James Anderson did in 1797. Here’s the process:

Water from the creek is heated in a boiler. Afterward, it’s ladled into wooden barrels filled with rye and corn ground at the adjacent mill. This is left to sit overnight. In the morning malted barley is added. The mixture—60% rye, 35% corn, 5% barley—is stirred with a wooden mash rake. Next, the head or “onion” of a copper still pot is removed so that the fermented grains can be poured in. A wood fire is stoked underneath the pot. Once the alcohol boils, it transforms into vapor, rises to the top of the still, and flows through a copper coil (or “worm”) down into a wooden barrel. This is cooled by fresh creek water that rushes down a wooden mill-race into the barrel. Once it cools, the alcohol turns, once again, into liquid. There’s a small copper pipe at the bottom of the barrel—what drips out is rye whiskey that’s ready to drink.

The whiskey would be sold immediately, to merchants in Alexandria and other nearby cities and towns. The common whiskey sold for 50¢ a gallon; the good stuff went for $1.00. Sometimes Washington would accept bartered goods instead of cash. It was perfectly clear in color because it wasn’t aged. Today, they make a vintage clear rye as well as an aged variety.

Although many of our founding fathers were brewers, Washington was the only one to operate a commercial distillery. He was an avid, If responsible drinker, who especially enjoyed sweet fortified wines such as Madeira. In addition to whiskey, he made peach, persimmon and apple brandy, as well as vinegar. There’s no point in hiding the unpleasant truth: to produce Washington’s spirits, Anderson was assisted by six slaves—Hanson, Nat, James, Timothy, Daniel and Peter.

Here’s more bad news. The unaged rye, which sells for $98 a bottle, is not very good. In an article titled “George Washington’s $95 Whiskey Might Taste Like Crap,” Brian Abrams describes the spirit, not surprisingly, as “rotgut.” The two-year aged rye is a little better but, at $188 a bottle, it’s not worth the price. I had a few shots recently—it tastes like tequila. I was born and raised in Virginia, practically suckled on bourbon and rye. I’ve never sipped whiskey that tasted like this.

Presidents, even great ones, don’t always get it right: slavery, ripping off Native America, replacing foreign despots with other foreign despots, stockings and powdered wigs. George Washington’s whiskey shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he was a great leader but only a mediocre businessman and general. On the other hand, as a distiller he was eco-responsible, stimulated the local economy, and brightened the lives of many Americans. He still does. The brandy is pretty good. It’s pricey but, like any artisanal item, you expect it to be. Washington’s distillery also teaches us that immigrants, such as James Anderson, contribute a great deal to American society and should be welcomed with open arms. 

Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More