Real Drunk History at George Washington’s Distillery

Put enough rye whiskey in the guy and he’d definitely tell a lie.
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Put enough rye whiskey in the guy and he’d definitely tell a lie.
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George Washington wasn’t just the first President and a generally honest dude, he was also a serious drinker - one of the pioneers of American distilling. The man who slept everywhere started building his Mount Vernon distillery in the winter of 1797 on the recommendation of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who thought it would be a logical side business for the gristmill impresario and pol. At its peak, the distillery had five copper stills and produced 4,500 gallons of rye whiskey a year. That was in 1799, when Washington was enjoying life as the first ex-President.

Unfortunately, Washington became the first dead President on December 14 and his distillery burned to the ground in 1804. The whole thing went the way of that cherry tree.

The site of former distillery remained untouched until 2000 when archeological work was finally performed on the site. Based on the findings and the records at Mount Vernon, the spot of the original distillery was confirmed and a reconstruction began. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States provided the funding necessary for the massive project and the reconstructed distillery was opened in March 2007, more than two-hundred years after the first distillery burned down. In the spirit of the operation’s insurgent founding father, the business ramped up production rapidly - which is all the more impressive because it’s not a modern operation.

“We sell un-aged rye, as was the practice in the 18th century, they did not age whiskey,” says Steve Bashore, George Washington Distillery’s Master Distiller. “Of course, we also sell the apple and peach brandy.”

The grains used in the distillation process are all ground at the on-site grist mill colonial style then fermented in 110-gallon wooden proto-mash tubs. Corn and rye are added with scalding hot water from the boiler to cook the grains. Malt comes last and its enzymes that will convert starch to sugar. The mixture is left to ferment for about three days.

“We are the only 18th century type operation anywhere running copper pot stills using wood to heat with direct fire,” says Bashore, who is making a drink fit for a solider – or a general.

The distillery may be part of a tourist attraction, but the goal isn’t to create a high-proof Colonial Williamsburg. The goal is to create a lasting liquor business. Right now, that’s precisely what’s happening. Consider it yet another win for America’s least controversial politician.

Photos by Jaap Hart / Getty Images