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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon
The bottom of the distillery's foundation is made up of dry laid, large river cobbles that seem to be covered with mortared, angular schist (a type of rock), and overlain by cut sandstone.
Numerous drains have been uncovered both on the interior and exterior of the distillery foundation. In addition to brick drains, there are also earthen and wood-lined drains and troughs. One of the research questions we hope to answer this summer is how did this drain system work and what liquids did the drains contain.
This is one of at least three brick piers uncovered on the interior of the distillery foundation. Are these features architectural supports for the loft or the floor, or are they related to the distilling process in some way? We hope to be able to answer this question during our excavations this summer.

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Eleanor Breen

George Washington's Distillery

George Washington was the only founding father to commercially operate a distillery, and the size of this building and volume of production rank it among the most important structures of its kind in eighteenth-century America. Mount Vernon took over the site in 1995, and an archaeological survey of the area in 1997 uncovered the "footprint" of the distillery, revealing an unusually large structure and a well-preserved site. We began an archaeological and documentary research program to find out as much historical data about the building as possible in 1999. Mount Vernon began a five-year program of archaeological and documentary research in 2001, supported by a generous grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, with the goal of reconstructing and interpreting George Washington's distillery.

The initial results of our research were both exciting and encouraging. Here are some highlights:

  • The level of historical documentation about George Washington's distillery is unusually detailed for the eighteenth century. For example, George Washington's distillery ledger documents the families who frequented the distillery and the quantities of and prices paid for the whiskey. Weekly farm reports from 1797 to 1799 also provide a detailed record of the distillery's construction and operation.

  • The archaeological evidence of the distillery is very well preserved. The ongoing work at George Washington's distillery is the first eighteenth-century distillery in North America to be systematically excavated by archaeologists.

  • At peak production, the distillery utilized five stills and a boiler and produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, yielding George Washington a better-than-average profit of $7500 in 1799. This made the distillery one of the most successful economic components of Mount Vernon.

  • The distillery is located down slope from the millrace of Mount Vernon plantation's gristmill (built in 1771 and reconstructed in the 1930s). The gristmill and distillery complex also included a cellar for storage, a malt kiln, a cooperage for making barrels, hog and cattle pens, and quarters for millers, distillers, servants, and slaves.

  • The 75-by-30-foot distillery was among the largest structures of its kind in the eighteenth century. No operating distillery from the eighteenth century exists in America.

Brief History of the Distillery

George Washington began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland and Virginia. He successfully petitioned George Washington that Mount Vernon's crops, combined with the large merchant gristmill and the abundant water supply, would make the distillery a profitable venture. In February 1797, the cooperage at the mill was converted for distilling and two stills began operating.

By the following summer, the makeshift distillery was so successful that Anderson lobbied George Washington to increase the number of stills. Construction began in October of 1797 of a stone still house large enough for five stills. The foundation was large river rocks brought from the Falls of the Potomac and the walls of the distillery were made of sandstone quarried from Mount Vernon. Anderson's son, John, managed the production assisted by six enslaved African-Americans named Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James, and Timothy. The enlarged distillery was working by the spring of 1798. Its success was immediate and George Washington commented in a letter the following year to his nephew:

Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.... (George Washington, October 1799)

That George Washington was willing to commit to distilling by building such a large structure is evidence of his desire to pursue the most innovative and creative farming practices of the day. Despite having no prior experience in distilling, he quickly became acquainted with the process. In 1798, George Washington noted that

Rye chiefly, and Indian Corn in a certain proportion, compose the materials from which the Whiskey is made.... (George Washington, February 1798)

The finished product was contained in barrels manufactured at the site and marketed to local farmers in Alexandria, and supplied the needs of the Mount Vernon plantation as well. The distillery produced a great quantity of waste and this slop was fed to over 150 hogs and cattle penned at the site.

George Washington's death in 1799 halted the brief success of the distillery and within a decade the building fell into disrepair and many of the stones were taken away to use in local construction projects.

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