Whiskey distillery reopens at George Washington's Mount Vernon
George Washington: General. President. Whiskey purveyor? Yep.
In his later years, Washington's Mount Vernon estate housed one of fledgling America's largest and most profitable distilleries, capable of producing 11,000 gallons a year at a time when most liquor makers could muster only a few hundred.
"It was a major commercial operation . . . it was as good as any whiskey that was being made," said Dennis Pogue, a historian at Mount Vernon.
Now, the distillery at Mount Vernon has been rebuilt to exacting historical specifications. Built using the plans for the 1797 distillery on the footprint of the original building after a five-year archeological effort, it will open to the public in April. The official dedication on Wednesday featured a visit from England's Prince Andrew.
The building's first floor will have costumed interpreters explaining to visitors Washington's liquor business and how the distillery worked. On the second floor, a museum will guide visitors through a history of the distilled spirits industry during Washington's time.
Mount Vernon officials say it will add an important new element to Americans' understanding of Washington.
"George Washington's story is so rich," Pogue said. "Most of what Americans think they know about Washington is wrong. This is an opportunity to give insight into Washington that people don't have. It fleshes out the picture of what life was like at Mount Vernon and in America at the time."
About 1 million visitors a year go to Mount Vernon. Officials hope that the distillery and adjacent grist mill eventually will entice 50,000 of them annually to their location two miles down the road from the main estate.
Bluenoses might blanch at the prospect of the Father of our Country being touted as a liquor producer, but Pogue noted that Washington "knew alcohol was a part of American life, part of society. He drank himself."
The distilled spirits industry, which paid for most of the $2 million-plus project, hopes the distillery will broaden people's understanding of the place of alcohol in American history.
"We're proud of our heritage," said Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the liquor manufacturers' trade association that underwrote the project. "It gives us the opportunity to, in a very authentic way, show something about the heritage of our industry."
Philip Lynch, a spokesman for liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp., said, "It puts distilled spirits in context for people. Probably 75 percent of the farmers in this country were distillers."
Washington got into the liquor business for the same reason any did: to make money. In 1797, his estate manager, James Anderson, told Washington that a distillery would be profitable. And while it never replaced crops as Mount Vernon's primary source of revenue, Washington did profit $1,800 on the whiskey operation in the peak year of 1799. Records show he paid $334 in taxes.
The operation produced mostly rye whiskey and some flavored brandies. The staff of eight included six slaves, Pogue said.
After Washington's death, the distillery operation declined. In 1814, the building was destroyed by fire and the operation ceased.
The five copper stills and brick ovens in the rebuilt sandstone building can make whiskey. But whiskey will likely be produced only on special occasions. Pogue said Mount Vernon officials may try to win approval to bottle and sell whiskey made at the distillery.
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