It all began at the turn of the 18th Century when George Washington’s Scottish farm manager convinced him to start producing whiskey made from the rye and Indian corn growing at Mount Vernon Plantation, located about 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. Despite early reservations, the Scot explained that the distillery would naturally compliment the plantation’s already successful milling business. At the beginning of 1799, two stills began operating and by the end of the year, a total of copper five stills had been installed.
Within two years, Washington had a 2,250 square foot distillery that was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey. This made it the biggest distillery in early America. The product was sold to local farmers and was consumed at Mount Vernon. Washington’s distillery can claim to be the longest running ‘green’ distilleries in the United States—it always reused the slop from the grain to fed cattle and hogs penned near the distillery.
During its peak, this distiller was one of Washington’s most successful business ventures at Mount Vernon. In addition to its vast size, the distillery was also the most lucrative one in the country at the time.
Washington died in 1799 almost immediately after the distillery got into full production. The massive complex ended up being passed down to a relative that was unable to manage the upkeep. It passed through several hands before a fire in 1814 forced its ultimate shutdown. During that time period, it had already fallen into disrepair.
In 1932, the Commonwealth of Virginia turned the land around Washington’s plantation into a state park. Initially only the outline of the distillery was visible. In 2000, Mount Vernon began an excavation project that would unearth the large distillery. Through a $2.1 million grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the complex was excavated, researched and reconstructed. This lengthy process led to the discovery of the original recipes that Washington’s distillery produced and they began reproducing the spirit again at the distillery. This makes Mount Vernon the only distillery in North America currently using an 18th century distillation processes.
The differences in modern day distillation and those employed at Mount Vernon begin with how the water is brought in to mix with the mash. At Mount Vernon, the water still comes through wooden channels. From there the mash is produced, dried and fermented. The original gristmill has also been restored and it is used to process the grain for the spirit. Remember, in Washington’s day there were no thermometers or chemicals to assist during the process. There was also no way to measure alcohol contents. Mount Vernon’s distillery has held true to even these aspects and the eye and the nose handle the entire process.
In 2009, 100 barrels of Washington’s whiskey were distilled for the first time in over 200 years. Traditionally this whiskey was not aged and this holds true today. Spirits are sold immediately, which is obvious in the clear nature of the liquid because it has never been exposed to the color changing barrel-aging process.