George Washington was the only founding father to commercially operate a distillery.
At peak production, the distillery utilized five stills and a boiler and produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, yielding George Washington a better-than-average profit of $7500 in 1799. This made the distillery one of the most successful economic components of Mount Vernon.
The distillery is located down slope from the millrace of Mount Vernon plantation's gristmill (built in 1771 and reconstructed in the 1930s). The gristmill and distillery complex also included a cellar for storage, a malt kiln, a cooperage for making barrels, hog and cattle pens, and quarters for millers, distillers, servants, and slaves.
The 75-by-30-foot distillery was among the largest structures of its kind in the eighteenth century. No operating distillery from the eighteenth century exists in America.
The Distillery Under Washington’s Supervision
George Washington began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland and Virginia. He successfully petitioned George Washington that Mount Vernon's crops, combined with the large merchant gristmill and the abundant water supply, would make the distillery a profitable venture.
In February 1797, the cooperage at the mill was converted for distilling and two stills began operating.
By the following summer, the makeshift distillery was so successful that Anderson lobbied George Washington to increase the number of stills.
Construction began in October of 1797 of a stone still house large enough for five stills. The foundation was large river rocks brought from the Falls of the Potomac and the walls of the distillery were made of sandstone quarried from Mount Vernon.
Anderson's son, John, managed the production assisted by six enslaved African-Americans named Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James, and Timothy. The enlarged distillery was working by the spring of 1798.
That George Washington was willing to commit to distilling by building such a large structure is evidence of his desire to pursue the most innovative and creative farming practices of the day. Despite having no prior experience in distilling, he quickly became acquainted with the process.
The finished product was contained in barrels manufactured at the site and marketed to local farmers in Alexandria, and supplied the needs of the Mount Vernon plantation as well. The distillery produced a great quantity of waste and this slop was fed to over 150 hogs and cattle penned at the site.
The Distillery After Washington
George Washington's death in 1799 halted the brief success of the distillery and within a decade the building fell into disrepair and many of the stones were taken away to use in local construction projects.
In George Washington’s will the Gristmill, distillery and all associated buildings are left to Lawrence and Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Washington’s step-granddaughter and her husband).
In 1932, the property was purchased by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Gristmill and miller's cottage were reconstructed and the distillery outlined. Both were opened as a state park.