George Washington: First President of the U.S. and a Major Distiller
Everyone knows that George Washington is called the father of his country. But few know that after his service as the first president of the new republic, he became one of the new country’s largest whiskey distillers.
Washington erected a 2,250 square foot distillery in 1797, making it among the largest whiskey distilleries in early America. In 1799, the former president produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey worth $7,500, making him one of the most successful distillers. $7,500 was a very large sum of money in 1799.
After Washington’s death that year, the distillery fell into disrepair and later burned to the ground.
Almost 200 years later a team of expert restoration architects, carpenters, archaeologists and historians is taking on the extraordinary challenge of authentically recreating George Washington's distillery using 18th century building techniques and historically appropriate materials.
Prior to the site's reconstruction, the team extensively researched colonial-era agricultural and industrial sites in order to integrate 18th century distillery design with construction techniques of the same period, according to restoration architect James Thompson.
"One of the biggest challenges was that this building is going to be a working distillery," Thompson said. "We took the results from the archaeology and projected upwards to reflect what was actually there in the 18th century. As the project was developing, the ongoing archaeological investigation at the distillery site was continually informing us as to how the building worked."
The team of builders is employing late-18th century building techniques to authentically reconstruct the distillery, including using mortise-and-tendon joints; hand-hewn and pit sawn timbers; mortar joint stonework; and sandstone blocks of the same variety used by George Washington himself, according to John O'Rourke, head restoration carpenter for Mount Vernon.
"The finished distillery will have real hand tool markings on the wood members and on the stone," O'Rourke said. "It's not only an interpretation of the historic distilling process, but of historic building crafts, too."
Thompson pointed out that the distillery was not an isolated building, but one in a group of agricultural industry buildings - - including an adjacent gristmill already reconstructed -- that George Washington built to complement each other.
"The area of Washington's Mount Vernon Estate where the distillery is located received raw grain," Thompson said. "As grain came in, some was diverted for sale, some for processing into flour and some for distilling. The reconstructed distillery will not only serve to interpret colonial-era spirit making, but together with the gristmill and other structures on the site, will also offer a unique look at agriculture in Washington's time, and provide insight into his business skills."
"Washington became quite a successful distiller in the two years he operated the site. But within only a few years of Washington's death the distillery production declined and the building later burned down," Thompson noted. "It says a lot about Washington as an entrepreneur that he was so successful while those who followed him couldn't keep it going."
Upon Washington's death in 1799, the complex was passed down to a relative who apparently was not equipped to run it, and he rented it to a local operator. The distillery ceased operating in 1814 when the building burned. Not until 2000 did Mount Vernon begin the excavation and restoration of the distillery with a grant from the distilled spirits industry.
George Washington's distillery, which will open to the public in 2007, will be a national distilling museum and the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which encompasses historic distilling-related sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The distillery is located three miles from the Mount Vernon estate, next door to the site of George Washington's gristmill, which has been reconstructed and operates as an 18th century mill. It is currently open for tours seven days a week from April through October. When the distillery opens to the public, it will operate on the same schedule as the gristmill, and visitors will be able to tour both facilities.
Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's chief historian and director of preservation noted that the reconstructed distillery's cornerstone is a sandstone block from the original 1793 U.S. Capitol and from the same vein of sandstone which George Washington used to build his distillery in 1797.
The reconstructed distillery -- and currently operating gristmill -- will make Mount Vernon the only historic site in the country capable of showing the distilling process from crop to finished product. More than 100,000 annual visitors are expected to visit the site to learn more about this fascinating process through demonstrations and hands-on activities.
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