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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
Washington and his field hands wait for the liquor-laden barge.
The barrels are brought ashore under Washington's supervision.
Actor William Sommerfield played the first president.
Loading the barrels onto an ox cart.
George hams it up for the cameras.

Photos by Eric A. Powell. Click on images for larger versions.
by Eric A. Powell

Celebrating Washington's Distillery

It's a gray morning at Mount Vernon, George Washington's grand estate overlooking the Potomac River. As a thin drizzle falls, the general's field hands grumble and stomp their feet, shivering despite their heavy homespun breeches. The men stand ready to grab barrels of liquor floated ashore from a barge moored just off the plantation's wharf. It's an important delivery--the general likes his whiskey (and the Caribbean rum in Martha's punch).

As the barrels hit the water, the men wade into the frigid Potomac and drag the liquor up to waiting carts. Washington himself gravely supervises, issuing orders that his workers mostly ignore.

Martha is also there. So are representatives of the national media, on hand to record the event, as well as executives from 11 major American liquor companies who congratulate Washington (actually actor William A. Sommerfield) on a job well done. Once the barrels are loaded onto carts, and the media are herded onto buses, all embark on a three-mile pilgrimage to Washington's distillery.

The historical reenactment of a routine whiskey and rum delivery celebrates renewed attention to the first president's least known business venture. In 1797, a Scottish farm manager named James Anderson convinced Washington that distilling whiskey would be a great way for the former president to make a fast buck. Washington admitted in a letter to Anderson that liquor was "a business I am entirely unacquainted with," but the Scot's enthusiasm for the distillery persuaded him to give it a shot.

After a successful trial run with one still, Washington and Anderson broke into the big-time liquor business with the purchase of three additional copper stills. By 1798, Mount Vernon was the site of the second largest distillery in the mid-Atlantic region, churning out 11,000 gallons of corn and rye mash whiskey and earning Washington $7,500 dollars in one year.

The distillery continued operating after Washington's death until at least 1808, when an advertisement for Mount Vernon whiskey appeared in a local Alexandria paper. Recent excavations at the site by Esther White, director of archaeology at Historic Mount Vernon, indicate that the distillery was carefully dismantled sometime in the early nineteenth century, probably to provide building materials for neighboring houses.

Now, thanks to White's efforts, one of Mount Vernon's most profitable enterprises (along with fishing and growing wheat) is poised to make a comeback. Using archaeological evidence, Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens, the nonprofit foundation that runs the historic plantation, plans to rebuild the stillhouse as a museum to educate visitors about the role of liquor in early America.

A faithful reconstruction of the distillery will be no small task. The 75-by-30-foot building was solidly constructed of local sandstone. At its peak, it was packed with five copper stills, five worm tubes (copper tubes that collected condensed distillate), a boiler, and 50 mash tubs.

Eager to play up their industry's links to the first president, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents the manufacturers and distributors of spirits, has ponyed up $1.5 million for the project. Plaques from liquor companies sponsoring the reconstruction will be prominently displayed; literature given out at the site will also credit corporate donors.

The barrels of rum and whiskey that arrived most recently at the Mount Vernon wharf represent Big Liquor's largess--every big distillery in the country had a barrel floated down the Potomac for the occasion. Once reconstruction is complete, the barrels will be opened and sampled.

Remaining liquor will be bottled as Mount Vernon commemoratives: Mount Vernon Bacardi Rum and Mount Vernon Maker's Mark, to name just two. Mercifully the liquor is restricted to beverages Washington would have imbibed in his own time, limiting the prospect of say, Mount Vernon Kahlúa, or even worse, Mount Vernon Beefeater.

The celebration continues with a lavish luncheon. Washington offers a simple toast punctuated by a hearty "huzzah!" The dignitaries then dutifully down Martha's famed rum punch, a trifle on the weak side.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms director Brad Buckles presents James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, with a federal permit authorizing production of spirits at the plantation. Buoyed by the excitement (and maybe the punch), Rees says he relishes the thought of Mount Vernon competing with the assembled distillers. The whiskey magnates roar their approval, welcoming George Washington back to the business after a 200-year absence.

Associate editor Eric A. Powell's article was originally published as a Forum column in the September/October 2001 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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