In the late 1700s and early 1800s there were thousands of distilleries operating throughout the United States. According to the 1810 U.S. Census there were more than 3,600 in Virginia alone. Most of those were small farm distilleries that would distill spirits for just one month out of the year. They were craft spirits distillers before the term ever existed.
In 1797 the newly retired first President of the United States, General George Washington was approached by his farm manager, James Anderson, a Scottsman by birth and a distiller by the grace of God, about starting a distillery operation at Mount Vernon. Anderson 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. Here is Washington’s response.
“Distillery. Is a business I am entirely unacquainted with; but from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one…”
~ George Washington, June 1797
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 existing gristmill that would supply the grains to the distillery.
While the average distillery at the time was about 20 x 40 feet (800 square feet), Anderson got Washington to agree to build a distillery that measured 75 x 30 feet (2,250 square feet) making it one of the largest in the country at the time. Construction began in October of 1797 and the new distillery was operational by the spring of 1798. The distillery was finished with boilers, tubs, and five copper stills, and wooden troughs were made to bring water from the nearby creek to cool the vapor of the heated mash.
A surviving ledger shows that by the following year the distillery provided nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey — valued at over $7,500 — to more than eighty customers, including neighbors, merchants, family members, and overseers at Mount Vernon. Washington frequently tried to diversify his operations at Mount Vernon, and had success with fishing commercially on the Potomac River, as well as the development of his gristmill. Whiskey, however, proved to be the most profitable of his many business ventures.
The Death and Rebirth of George Washington’s Distillery
The distillery continued to operate past George Washington’s death in 1799, until approximately 1808. Six years later in 1814, as is the case with many historical distilleries, it burned down and was left buried under ash and dirt for nearly 200 years. 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. Beginning in 2000, with a $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, Mount Vernon began the excavation and restoration of George Washington’s Distillery. Between 2005 and 2007, the distillery was rebuilt as close as possible to its original specifications.
10 Year Anniversary of George Washington’s Distillery Reconstruction Celebration
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of restarting George Washington’s Distillery, distillers from across the country gathered together and fired up the stills to collaborate on a special rye whiskey.
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“George Washington was not only the father of our nation, but also the father of craft distilling,” said Distilled Spirits Council President & CEO Kraig R. Naasz. “Since the distillery re-opened to the public in 2007, more than 400,000 guests from around the world have visited the Distillery & Gristmill site. Preserving this special site, has shed light on the important role of distilling in our nation’s history and has contributed to the revival of American rye whiskey.”
Robert Shenk, Senior Vice President of Visitor Engagement at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, said, “Most people know Washington the general and Washington our first president. But many more are still learning about Washington the Distiller. It is here, in this working distillery, that we can best share the surprising story of Washington the successful entrepreneur with all of our guests.”
Since 2008, when Virginia legalized spirits sales at the distillery, Mount Vernon has sold more than 23,600 bottles of whiskey and brandy and 8,000 whiskey gift sets raising almost $1.5 million in revenue, which benefits the ongoing preservation and restoration of Mount Vernon and its educational programs.
Distillers Produce George Washington’s 10th Anniversary American Rye Whiskey
The 10th Anniversary American Rye Whiskey distilling project was a two-day event sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Mike Sherman, Vice President at Vendome Copper & Brass Works said, “The George Washington Distillery is probably the only distillery that can bring together master distillers from all over the country to collaborate on making a single historic product. It is truly just one the most unique events in the industry and I am just thrilled to represent Vendome Copper and be a part of it.”
The event featured top American whiskey distillers, including: Jim Beam Distillery Master Distiller Fred Noe, Woodford Reserve Distillery Master Taster & Sr. Quality Control Specialist Elizabeth McCall, Angel’s Envy Distillery Chief Innovation Officer Wes Henderson and Production Manager Kyle Henderson, Wild Turkey Distillery Brand Ambassador Bruce Russell, Huber’s Starlight Distillery Founder Ted Huber, Woodinville Whiskey Co. Co-Founder and Distiller Brett Carlile, Catoctin Creek Distilling Co-Founder Becky Harris, Westland Distillery Master Distiller Matt Hofmann, MGP Director of Distillery Process Engineering Gordon Working, Diageo’s Ewan Morgan, Hillrock Estate Distillery and WhistlePig Distillery Dave Pickerell, A. Smith Bowman Distillery Retired Master Distiller and Consultant Joe Dangler, Master Distiller and Owner Saints & Monsters Consulting Lisa Wicker and George Washington’s Distillery Master Distiller Steve Bashore.
Steve T. Bashore, Director of Historic Trades at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, added, “The reconstruction of George Washington’s Whiskey Distillery was completed in 2007 by our team of skilled craftsmen. Over the last decade we have had the opportunity to work with many talented distillers to create a variety of spirits using 18th-century methods. We are honored to once again collaborate with these masters on a special distillation. They have taught our team so much about producing fine whiskies and brandies.”
Rye Whiskey Category Has Grown Rapidly Since Distillery Re-Opening
Since 2009, rye whiskey volumes have grown 778 percent from 88,000 cases to nearly 775,000 in 2016. In value terms, that translates into a 900 percent jump in revenue from slightly more than $15 million in supplier revenues in 2009 to nearly $160 million in 2016. The Council projects rye whiskey growth to continue in the double digits through 2017.
“American rye whiskey is retaking its rightful place among the world’s great distilled spirits, a place that was lost to Prohibition,” said Naasz. “The growth of rye whiskey has also benefited American farmers, and underscores what George Washington knew, that producing distilled spirits is the essence of value-added agriculture.”
In addition, at the request of the Council, the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) recently established a new export code for U.S. exports of bottled rye whiskey, a recognition of the re-emergence of American Rye Whiskey as a notable spirit not only in the United States but also abroad. The new export code will allow the U.S. government to track exports of “American Rye Whiskey,” similar to how Bourbon exports are treated.
George Washington’s Distillery 10th Anniversary Celebration Photos
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