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George Washington Rye Whiskey Distillery

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

America's first President George Washington had a distillery at his Mount Vernon estate that produced rye whiskey. In 1799, the distillery made 11,000 gallons and was the largest American distillery at the time. (The average distillery produced about 600 gallons).

George Washington Rye Whiskey

(George Washington’s Rye Whiskey, made today by the rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon, based on the original recipe. Photo credit: Creative Commons, Otherspice.)

Washington is said to have favored Madiera wine and port, but he also drank other alcohol, including rum and whiskey. 

Whiskey/whisky was a big part of American life -- not only a beverage, but used medicinally and even as money -- brought to the new world by European immigrants. In fact, it was Washington’s Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who convinced the father of the country to build a commercial distillery at Mount Vernon, with its crops, the water, and existing  gristmill. The distillery was built in 1797. It would have five copper pot stills.

There were also six enslaved distillers that worked for Anderson. There were over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon at the time of Washinton's death. He "owned" about half of them. The latter were emancipated per his will in 1801. A memorial dedicated to the enslaved population at the estate was created by students at Howard University and dedicated in 1983.

The business made a variety of whiskey, a basic pour, some flavored, and some brandy. The whiskeys were not generally aged, as we know them today.

(SIDE NOTE: Bourbon's history is filled with myth and legend but it is said Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, first put his whiskey in charred new oak barrels in the late 18th century but the whiskey wasn't commonly known as bourbon until later in the 19th century.

It goes without saying of course that there were also no bourbon t-shirts yet, and the myth and legend of Colonel Bourbon T-Shirts had not yet begun ;)

The business

Washington’s distillery was not only the largest, it was very profitable, $7,500 in those post-Revolutionary days, which of course was a lot of money. But you couldn't go to your local store or tavern and order a glass -- or mug -- of "Washington Small Batch," or any such names. There were no brands. A merchant would buy a barrel and pour you a mug or two.

According the Wikipedia, the ingredients for Washington's then-unbranded rye whiskey was:

  • 60% rye
  • 35% corn
  • 5% malted barley

"The grain (was) processed in Washington’s water-powered gristmill, fermented in wooden mash tubs and distilled in copper pot stills heated by wood fires."

Here's a video, that describes the 18th century process:

Whiskey Rebellion

You may be interested in reading about George Washington's other whiskey adventure -- the Whiskey Rebellion:

As we wrote in a previous blog post

The Whiskey Rebellion "...was a violent protest against the national tax imposed on whiskey in 1791, during George Washington's presidency. Taxes were something new and unpopular, and a tax on whiskey -- America's drink that was used for so many things -- was very unpopular..."

"Tired old Washington with his wooden teeth was in his second term as President when he led a mission into western Pennsylvania to subdue the rebellion. Tax collectors had been tarred and feathered by the small distillers in the region."

The end and rebirth of history

Washington died in 1799, just two years after the distillery was founded. Operations ceased and soon enough the business was closed, forgotten. The distillery building burned down in 1814.

It wasn't until exactly 200 years later, in 1999, that archeological efforts began, to escavate the site, which included also digging through writings, ledgers, and other documents to research the mass bill and how the whiskeys were made.

Today, you can buy Washington Rye Whiskeys, from the original recipes at the rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon. The production is limited and up until recently could only be purchased in person. Last time we heard they would ship online orders within Virginia and D.C.

Here's part of the description of the now-branded at Mount Vernon's shop (the bottle pictured at the top of this article.)

"George Washington’s Rye Whiskey®, the official state spirit of the Commonwealth of Virginia, received a silver medal at the 2019 American Craft Spirits Association Awards—a top award among white (unaged) whiskeys nationwide."

At the time of this writing, a bottle was $98.00 and sold out.

From the Wikipedia article referenced above: "On March 22, 2017, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill sponsored by Virginia Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30th) designating George Washington’s Rye Whiskey as the official state spirit of the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Mount Vernon Facts

Mount Vernon

(Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Photo credit: Creative Commons, Otherspice.)

Washington’s main house, on the estate was built in 1758, on the banks of the Potomac River, in Fairfax. Virginia  The land was 8,000 acres but is now 500 acres. The estate has had 30 other buildings. The main house/mansion is over 11,000 square feet and has 21 rooms. The distillery is located 2.7 miles from the main entrance at Mount Vernon.

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