Resurrecting George Washington's booze

As everybody knows, he was first in the hearts of his countrymen. But did you know that George Washington was also a moonshiner who deserves to be first in the hearts of America’s whiskey drinkers?

Well, maybe not technically a moonshiner, because the federal revenooers weren’t in business when he began making whiskey at the small distillery he built at Mount Vernon in 1797 after stepping down from the presidency.
Albert Eisele
George Dangler of the A. Smith Bowman Distillery prepares to tap a barrel of Rebel Yell whiskey at Mount Vernon.

But that distillery, and a larger one he built a year later, soon made the father of our country the biggest whiskey distributor in the newly formed United States, producing 11,000 gallons of liquor in 1798, the year before his death, and producing a profit of $7,500, a huge sum in those days.

Although it’s not known if Washington drank his own whiskey — he was a light drinker who favored rum and fortified wines — he was convinced of the salutary effects of alcohol on his troops as they were battling the British. As he wrote to a congressional leader in 1777, “The benefits from moderate use of liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed.”

Or, as he instructed the commissary general of purchases for the Continental Army in 1777, “There should always be a sufficient quantity of spirits with the army, to furnish moderate supplies to the troops … such as when they are marching in hot or cold weather, in camp in wet, on fatigue or in working parties, it is so essential that it is not to be dispensed with.”

Washington’s distillery operation fell into disuse after his death and was torn down in 1815, but it’s being reconstructed by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which owns and operates Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. It’s all part of an $85 million campaign to introduce the next generation to the real George Washington, including a new orientation center, museum and education center.

What Martha thought of her husband’s thriving booze business isn’t known, but she must have approved of it, since it was a very profitable enterprise that helped finance the operations of the sprawling Mount Vernon plantation.

As for the good ladies who run Mount Vernon, they obviously approve of it, since they accepted a $1.2 million gift from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) lobbying group to help reconstruct the nation’s first 18th-century commercial distillery.

I visited the distillery’s original site last month at the invitation of Frank Coleman, senior vice president of DISCUS, the Washington-based trade association of liquor manufacturers. He gave me a tour of the site where archaeologists are finishing up five years of work in preparation for the start of reconstruction this month. Esther White, director of archaeology for Mount Vernon, and an assistant were hard at work excavating the site.

The soon-to-be-rebuilt distillery is next to the water-powered gristmill, which was rebuilt in the 1930s and once ground the rye, corn and barley for Washington’s personal brand of firewater. The mill, which is open to the public, sells freshly ground cornmeal in its gift shop and will provide the basic ingredients for whiskey once the distillery is completed sometime next year.

Coleman also introduced me to Dennis Pogue, a native Iowan who is associate director for preservation at Mount Vernon. He explained that Washington got into the liquor business after his Scottish plantation manager convinced him that it could be a moneymaking proposition. He bought a copper still, and the first small batch was so successful that he bought three more stills and built the larger distillery, selling the whiskey by the barrel to local merchants, including Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria.

As Pogue told Knight Ridder reporter Matt Stearns in a 2002 interview, Washington viewed the liquor business from both a business and political perspective. It made him money and got him votes, Pogue explained, since it was customary at the time for politicians to treat voters to liquor at Virginia’s polling places.

Washington once lost a campaign when he failed to do so, Pogue said. “From then on, he always treated. And he always won.”

The tour of the gristmill and distillery site was interesting and informative, but Coleman saved the best part for last, which was when we piled into Pogue’s SUV and drove to a secret, undisclosed location about a mile away.

There, in a cave on the bank of the Potomac River, just upstream from where the tourist boats disgorge visitors to Mount Vernon, we met Joseph Dangler, vice president for production for the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg. His distillery makes Virginia Gentleman, the only bourbon produced in the Old Dominion.

Dangler proceeded to use a contraption known as a bung puller to tap 10 53-gallon barrels of single-batch bourbons donated by some of America’s most famous distilleries. Then, using a device appropriately called a whiskey thief, he withdrew samples of each one and invited us to taste them, which we did in teaspoon-size portions. (After all, this was midmorning and I still hoped to get some work done in the afternoon, as I assume the others did.)

We tasted premium bourbons from Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Virginia Gentleman, including Maker’s Mark (my personal favorite), Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, I.W. Harper, Geo. A. Dickel, Jim Beam, Rebel Yell and Wild Turkey. Fifty bottles of each bourbon were auctioned off in 2003 to raise money for the restoration of the distillery.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, given the fact that we had to drive back to Washington, we weren’t able to sample the Cruzan rum from St. Croix or the small 10-gallon barrel of George Washington American Whiskey, a special batch doubly distilled at Mount Vernon two years ago by Dangler’s company.

The special batch was made according to the rye recipe used by Washington himself, in an exact replica of a 200-year-old copper still found at the Smithsonian Institution, which Treasury agents confiscated from a moonshiner in Fairfax County in 1940. Although the still is stamped with the date 1787, Pogue doubts that it came from Washington’s distillery. The replica was made by a Louisville company, as were the whiskey barrels.

If everything goes according to plan, whiskey lovers will soon find bottles of George Washington’s whiskey, just as he made it and no doubt sampled it, and I’ll be one of the first in line to buy it.