Washington's Whiskey

George Washington’s retirement venture had a high alcohol content. Mount Vernon’s Director of Preservation, Dennis Pogue, leads us on a tour through Washington’s whiskey distillery.

Learn more: Whiskey Mount Vernon


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. After George Washington left the presidency, he retired to Mount Vernon to live out the rest of his life as a farmer.

We're here today on the site of George Washington's whiskey still with Dennis Pogue, who is director of preservation here at Mount Vernon, and he's going to take us through the still. Dennis, thanks for having us on the tour today.

Dennis Pogue: Well thanks for coming, Harmony. It's a great story to talk about.

Harmony Hunter: Let's talk about Washington and whiskey. Those might not be the first two words that you'd associate. How did Washington get into the whiskey business?

Dennis Pogue: Well you're right, if anybody knows about Washington and whiskey, usually it's because of the Whiskey Rebellion that happened during his presidency. Some folks are surprised to hear that Washington then later on had a distillery, but the whiskey rebellion wasn't about the propriety of drinking, it was all about getting revenues for the new federal government, and then protecting the right of the government to collect those revenues.

So when Washington came back at the end of the presidency, he hired a Scotsman by the name of James Anderson to be his plantation manager, and Anderson almost immediately lobbied Washington and said, "I have experience distilling." Apparently all Scotsmen know how to make whiskey from birth, I don't know, and, "If you will pay for this, I can make you a lot of money by distilling the grain that's grown on the plantation and turning that into another stream of revenue."

Harmony Hunter: Yeah, how does that compare? How much money is Washington going to make off of whiskey versus how much he's going to make off of that raw crop of corn?

Dennis Pogue: The economics of it are really good. If you can afford the capital investment and buy a still and all those kinds of things, then you can make a considerable profit. You can make probably four times the value in whiskey of the actual grain that you're using to make that. So it's a real profit maker. And Anderson was right, it made Washington a lot of money.

Harmony Hunter: And you've reconstructed not only the building, but the process. Let's describe for people who are just a listening audience, what are we looking at in this room, and how does that represent the process of 18th-century whiskey making?

Dennis Pogue: That really was our goal, was that you would walk in here and see what it looked like and then you could also understand exactly how it was done 200 years ago. And whiskey making is the same now as it was 200 years ago. If you go out to Kentucky, and go out to see one of those fine distilleries out there, they're doing the same thing, but their process is kind of on steroids.

They're making thousands and thousands of gallons per day. But they're doing the same steps, and those steps include that you have to have grain, and we know Washington's recipe. It was 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and five percent malted barley, which was a very typical mixture of the day.

So he was making what would be technically called rye whiskey. So you needed to take those grains, and you'd cook them. And you would do that by putting the grains in this large barrel, and this is called a mash tub.

Harmony Hunter: So we're standing next to a gigantic wooden barrel that comes up to my waist, higher; a great big wooden barrel.

Dennis Pogue: Yep, 120 gallons, and so this becomes the receptacle that you put the grain in, and again we have examples of the three different grains here, rye, corn, and malted barley, they're dumped in, they're ground in the gristmill next door, brought over here, dumped into here, and then this big copper boiler that's right next to it.

Harmony Hunter: And this looks like a giant copper bathtub, like a frontier hot tub, up on a brick pedestal.

Dennis Pogue: Right, and there would have been a fire under here to heat this, and so you would dip the boiling water out of this, and bring it over here and put it in with the grain, and you would do that in several steps.

You'd start off with the corn, you'd bring the boiling water in, you'd dump it in together. Then you'd take this long paddle and then you'd mix it together, and you'd keep doing that with all the different grains until it gets up to the top, get it all thoroughly mixed, and then the last step in the process is to throw yeast in there, and then you let it sit there for three to five days. And what you're doing is that you're cooking the grain, so you're turning the starches into sugar.

And then the little yeasties eat the sugar and they produce alcohol. And so after that goes through that process, then all of this has been fermented. So you're ready for the next step.

Harmony Hunter: What do you call this brew here that you've made in the barrel?

Dennis Pogue: Well as this is being made it's called mash. Once it's done, and it goes to the still, then it's called wash. And so the mash is transferred in buckets over here to one of these stills. And again, they're set in this large masonry mass. They're copper, and they've got two parts to them. They've got the body that's set into the masonry over the fire, and then a head that you can take off.

Harmony Hunter: And this is where the science happens. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the process is that alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. So you heat this wash, the alcohol begins to evaporate, and then it's caught in what you call the worm, and then it's cooled again in another wooden barrel full of cool water and re-condensed?

Dennis Pogue: Absolutely, you've got this down. So yeah, the fire goes under here as you said, it heats up, the alcohol vaporizes, and then begins to travel through the arm, the barrel's got cool water in it that is let in. We have a trough that brings water down from the millrace.

The spigot up at the top there, we'd open that up, the water would flow down through here and into the barrel, and then because the water is cool, that's helping the alcohol condense back into liquid form. The arm goes into this spiraling tube, it goes all the way down the barrel, and comes out the backside. And when it's all working right, then the distillate will come out here and dump into a container here.

Harmony Hunter: So do you have whiskey at that point?

Dennis Pogue: You've got first-run whiskey. And Washington has common whiskey, most of the whiskey he made he would distill twice. And so you gather that all up, you put it into a keg, you go through all of this. And they would've gotten all these mash tubs ready to go at one time, and then they would've gone into distilling, and they would've gone all the way through their first run, collected that back up, and then they would need to reintroduce that first run distillate into these stills again, and do it again. And after the second time through of course, it's got a higher proof.

Washington's whiskey would've been somewhere between 60 to 70 percent alcohol when it was all done. And he did actually distill very small amounts at even higher proof, up to four times, and that was more expensive. But the cheap stuff went for 60 cents a gallon, and the expensive top drawer stuff went for a buck a gallon.

Harmony Hunter: And this probably does not compare at all to the whiskeys we're familiar with today because his whiskey was not aged.

Dennis Pogue: Exactly, the whiskey that comes out here is clear, and again, all whiskey does that. It comes out clear, and if you're a bourbon drinker, you know that bourbon is sort of a reddish brown. That reddish brown comes from being stored in oak barrels for several years, and not only barrels, but barrels that have been charred on the inside, because they figured out a long time ago that the charring gives the whiskey some special flavors, sort of more refined. So Washington's whiskey would not have been aged, and so it would have been clear, and so it would've been kind of a sharp, kind of a spicy flavor profile.

Harmony Hunter: Now you had a lot to go on when you were doing this reconstruction in terms of the written record and the archaeological exploration that you did on this site. Tell us about those discoveries and how that informed what you reconstructed here.

Dennis Pogue: Well historians had always known that Washington had a distillery, but it wasn't until we got into the project that we really began to understand the richness of the evidence that was available to us, and the archeology was crucial.

The general location of the site was known, but the actual placement of the building had not been determined. So we came out here with our archaeologists back in 1997, I believe it was, and we surveyed the area, we knew it was in this general location, and came up with evidence for it. And so we found structural remains, nails, and especially stone fragments and brick fragments and domestic remains as well. So we knew pretty much where it was, and then set about excavating it.

So over the next five years, we completely exposed the foundation of the building, which was very large, 75 feet long by 33 feet wide, which again, makes it one of the largest distilleries that we know about at the time. So the archeology was crucial, and that told us exactly where the stills were located because we found the remnants of the bottoms of the furnaces, and burned soils marking exactly where they were, we found remnants of the mashing floor where the mash tubs are placed, we found the base of the boiler, we found evidence for the drains under the floor for carrying the water away. So lots and lots of great archaeological material.

Then we went to the plantation records, and again, very fortunate, we have Washington's correspondence where he talks about it, but then we've got the weekly farm reports, and then we've got ledgers that document the transactions that were occurring when the distillery was being built. And then after it was here, we've got records of people coming and buying whiskey, and we know how many gallons they're buying, and what they're paying for, and all of that information.

So, we pulled that all together, and then there are manuals from the period that talk about how you distilled in the late 18th century. And so that's where we found specific evidence on how the mashing occurred, and the different steps. So combination of the archeology, the other documentation from Mount Vernon, and then these other sources, brought it all together for us to tell the story.

Harmony Hunter: There are so many stories woven into this one site. You've just got the biography of the first president. You've got this story of the technology of whiskey making, you've got this story of American commerce. What's your favorite part of the story that you get to tell here with this building?

Dennis Pogue: Well, there are two. One is that, and people ask us, "Why did you do this?" it's because it allows us to tell a side of Washington's story that people just don't know about. And everybody knows a little bit about George Washington, but what they tend to know are sort of public career and frankly a lot of half truths, and so being able to tell this story is a way for us to engage people about Washington in a way that they just had no idea would've been there. And people find it fascinating, the fact that our first president was a whiskey distiller. And so it's really something that brings people in and engages them.

But the second part is the personal story, because people did all of this. And Washington is the brains behind it, or he's the money man behind it, but then there's James Anderson, the Scottish plantation manager. His son John, and his assistant were the ones who were working here on a daily basis, and then there was six enslaved workers here. Six young black men, who are doing all this work.

And so they are the ones who are mashing and carrying the grain around, and working the stills, and all of that, and then you have the people that came here. And we know their names, and a lot of them we can relate to specifically where they came from. So knowing what they'd bought and how they interacted with it sort of a personal people dimension that I think is hugely important to these stories.

Harmony Hunter: We had a couple questions from listeners. We had a listener who asked, "Was George Washington a whiskey drinker?"

Dennis Pogue: Yes. The answer is yes, but it was probably not his favorite spirit. Whiskey as you talked, it's not aged, it's a little bit rough, it was incredibly cheap. Whiskey becomes the most popular distilled spirit in the country after the Revolution. But it is sort of the commoner's drink to be quite honest.

And Washington, early on, we know that he preferred Madeira and Port and various imported wines, which is pretty typical of sort of upper-class folks at that time. But we know from records that he did drink whiskey, there are accounts of him doing it, and at the mansion we know that there was whiskey and brandy transferred from the distillery here to the mansion to be used by the Washington household.

Harmony Hunter: Another listener question was, "In your research, did you come across any 18th-century hangover cures?"

Dennis Pogue: Well not specifically from Mount Vernon. None that Washington talks about or anybody from the family talks about. But certainly there were issues and as time went on, by the early 19th century, the rate of consumption of alcohol in this country was really phenomenal. It was up to five gallons per capita by the 1820s, and of course per capita means everybody. So that includes women and children. So if you throw them out, that means the guys are really, really, really drinking.

So drinking to excess was a real common problem. Hangover remedies, I think hair of the dog has been around for a long time and especially if you're a heavy drinker, just get back into the fight the next day and have some more. And I think that's the one that I'm most familiar with.

Harmony Hunter: That sounds like great advice. We know that whiskey in the 18th century or alcohol in general is used medicinally, antiseptically, and as a beverage. What is Washington's whiskey being used for?

Dennis Pogue: Well, all three of those. And again, one of the reasons why alcohol is so readily consumed is that folks thought it was good for you. They thought it was healthy. It's coming from grain and fruit. Those are good things, so obviously the alcohol that's produced must be good for you.

And doctors of course, they prescribed alcohol for just about anything, and we know that Washington went along with that. We know that he was dosed with alcohol at different times in his career and he dosed other people with it. There's several references to people coming and they're not feeling well and Washington prescribes several glasses of Madeira or whatever. It will be good for what ails you. So I think Washington was basically following along in that same line.

Harmony Hunter: I'm sure people are going to be wondering if they can come and buy this whiskey.

Dennis Pogue: We've made small batches over the years, and for the first time last year we were able to make enough to actually sell it to the public. It sold out within two hours and so we've made two more batches since then. One of them has been offered and sold, and the third one is going to be made available later this summer. So keep your ears open and hopefully you'll hear about it. You can buy it here, we are an ABC store, licensed by the commonwealth and this is the only place where you can come and get it, so you'll need to come here.

Harmony Hunter: When and where can people come visit Mount Vernon and the whiskey distillery?

Dennis Pogue: Well Mount Vernon is open 365 days of the year, so you can come at any time. The distillery is open from April through October, and we have costumed interpreters here, again seven days a week. So anytime from April through October, come on down.

Harmony Hunter: Dennis, thanks so much for having us.

Dennis Pogue: It's been a pleasure.

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