George Washington entered the whiskey business in 1797 - and it was quite the profitable success. Visit a fully functioning reconstruction of his distillery today.
Admission is free on Feb. 22 for George Washington’s birthday. Admission tickets will be distributed on-site upon arrival.
In January 1797, Scotsman James Anderson — a newly hired manager — proposed that George Washington begin rye and corn whiskey production. Although Washington was looking forward to a quiet retirement from the presidency and claimed to know nothing of the business, he was convinced by Anderson's expertise and by the expansive potential market place for whiskey.
Washington ordered a stone still house and a small malt house to be built adjacent to the gristmill on Dogue Creek, about two miles from the Mansion. The still house was furnished with five copper stills, boilers, and tubs. Wooden troughs were constructed to channel water from the creek to cool the vapor of the heated mash.
Washington attempted to persuade Anderson to choose a site closer to the Mansion in order to keep a closer eye on the distillery. Washington was later convinced that the distillation process made proximity to water crucial. The busy complex on Dogue Creek included a substantial merchant mill, a distillery, a cooper's shop, the miller's house, and livestock pens, all located on the main road to Alexandria or to points south. Recognizing the area as Mount Vernon's economic center, Anderson requested to relocate his residence to the center of activity.
By the spring of 1798 the distillery was in operation. In 1799—the year of Washington's death—over eighty transactions are noted for a total sale of 10,942 gallons of whiskey, valued at $7,674. Customers listed included neighboring farmers, merchants, family, and Mount Vernon overseers. Whiskey was also exchanged for services in the case of family physician James Craik and the farm overseers, and for goods such as corn and rye, which would then be converted into whiskey.
As with his mill, Washington processed the harvests from his own farms but purchased grain from outside sources as well. Washington was clearly not interested in simply supplying the needs of his plantation community, but considered the enterprise to be a thriving moneymaker. The distillery also offered an important subsidiary benefit. Livestock, particularly hogs, were fattened with the leftover cooked mash.
In 1798, Polish visitor Julian Niemcewicz toured the site and noted: "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."
Niemcewicz, Julian Ursyn. Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805, ed. by Metchie J. E. Budka. Elizabeth, New Jersey: New Jersey Historical Society by the Grassmann Publishing Company, Inc., 1965, 100.
Pogue, Dennis J. Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. Buena Vista, VA: Harbour Books, 2011.
The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 35, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944, 352-354.