In the late 1790s, Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon, noted the presence of what he called a "whiski distillery" on the estate. He recorded that it distilled up to 12,000 gallons a year, and that its waste products yielded a great amount of "the most succulent feed for pigs."1 George Washington installed the distillery at Mount Vernon in 1797 and 1798. By his death in 1799, the distillery had already become financially successful. Although he did not consume whiskey frequently himself, Washington had a significant impact on the whiskey industry in the United States, both by his example as a distiller and through his role in the Whiskey Rebellion.
Given the success of the distillery it is somewhat surprising that George Washington seldomly consumed whiskey. In fact, the first mention of Washington imbibing in whiskey was in October of 1794, as he planned an excursion into Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington's personal secretary wrote to Secretary of War Henry Knox: "As the President will be going . . . into the Country of Whiskey he proposes to make use of that liquor for his drink."2 The rebellion was in response to a 1791 federal excise tax on whiskey production. The tax was extremely unpopular in western communities, where farmers contended that it imposed a disproportionate burden on their small distilleries. When western Pennsylvania erupted into violence over the tax in 1794, President Washington led an army of thirteen thousand troops to quell the uprising. The effort successfully curtailed the farmers' challenge to federal authority without harming the young nation's whiskey production.3
Three years later, estate manager James Anderson, convinced Washington to allow him to begin distilling a small amount of whiskey in two stills set up temporarily in the cooper's shop at Mount Vernon. It was successful enough that Anderson eventually persuaded Washington to build a separate whiskey distillery on the estate (near the already-existing gristmill). Despite some trepidation about thieves stealing from the stills, Washington gave Anderson permission to proceed. This decision was not unusual for the time and place, as distilling was a common practice for Virginia farmers. Mount Vernon's operation, however, was exceptional for the large size of the distillery, which allowed for a high production capacity. The distillery's five stills yielded nearly 11,000 gallons of spirits in 1799—lower than Niemcewicz's estimate but still a highly profitable enterprise.4
The distillery and gristmill as they would have appeared in 1799.
In 1798, Washington substituted some of the whiskey produced at Mount Vernon for the rum he regularly distributed to his workers. Both slaves and employees on the estate were given drink as a weekly ration and as a reward for hard work. Estate accounts show that in March 1798, forty-five gallons of whiskey were given to the fishery workers alone.5 As Niemcewicz noted during his visit to Mount Vernon, the leftover grain slop provided feed for 150 pigs on the estate, as well as thirty cows. Washington did, in fact, pay his excise taxes on the production of these vast amounts of whiskey: the Mount Vernon farm ledger for 1799 records that Washington paid $332.64 in annual taxes on his distillery.6
Washington's distillery, although a leader in quantity, followed general trends of growth in America's whiskey industry. In 1797, American whiskey production was on the path to become one of the most widely consumed beverages in the nation. After the American Revolution the high price of imported Caribbean and locally made rum led to a decrease in its production and consumption. In addition, shifting alliances with France and Portugal created fluctuations in the demand for and availability of Madeira wine and champagne. As a result, beer and whiskey production increased; their relative inexpensiveness secured their position as America's most popular alcoholic drinks. The influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants with knowledge of distilling (among them James Anderson) helped as well.7
The whiskey distillery continued to operate past George Washington’s death, until approximately 1808. Six years later in 1814, the distillery burned down. An archaeological investigation supported by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in the late 1990s and early 2000s produced evidence about the construction and equipment of the distillery. Between 2005 and 2007, the distillery was rebuilt as close as possible to its original specifications. Visitors can tour the distillery and purchase whiskey made on-site that approximates Washington’s original recipe: 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley.8
George Washington University
2. "Bartholomew Dandridge to Henry Knox, 9 October 1794," George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2, Letterbooks (Washington DC, Library of Congress): 118.
8. "George Washington's Distillery & Gristmill." George Washington's Mount Vernon.
Niemcewicz, Julian. Under their Vine and Fig Tree. Translated by Metchie J. E. Budka. Newark: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965.
Pogue, Dennis. Founding Sprits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. Buena Vista, VA: Harbour Books, 2011.
Pogue, Dennis. "Drink and Be Merry: Liquor and Wine at Mount Vernon," Dining with the Washingtons, Ed. Stephen A. McLeod. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 97-101.