The Magazine

Spirits of ’76

First in war, first in peace, and last to refuse a shot of whiskey.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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The George Washington Temperance Society was started in a Baltimore bar in 1840. Its six founders—William K. Mitchell, John F. Hoss, David Anderson, George Steers, Archibald Campbell, and James McCurley—were not raging evangelicals; nor were they dissolute gutter-loungers. They were middle-aged men who had done well in business and five of whom had families. But as John Troy, a future member, wrote,

they found themselves in the power of a monster, bound hand and foot in chains, the slaves of their own appetites. And now they frequented the public taverns; and oft at night, or during the day, and even on the Sabbath, instead of being at their business, or with their families, or at church, they were to be found at the Hotel or Grogshop.

So there and then, the sodden six drew up the society’s constitution, and pledged “not to drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider.” The society saw in George Washington a model of sobriety. Its members wore ribbons bearing Washington’s image and the slogan “We bear a patriot’s honored name, our country’s welfare is our aim.” Washington had freed Americans from British oppression; the Washington Temperance Society would liberate them from the tyranny of booze. The society’s membership grew rapidly, but it was short-lived; within a decade, many of its chapters dissolved.  

Which is probably for the better, because there was a problem with the society’s choice of mascot: George Washington was an unabashed drinker and distiller. Indeed, as Dennis Pogue’s comprehensive volume illustrates, alcohol was very much a part of Washington’s life. He enjoyed alcoholic beverages in moderation, and he took them regularly. Washington consumed a variety of distilled spirits and wines, and he was especially fond of Madeira (a fortified wine). Thus, although George Washington was exceptional in many particulars, he was also much like his countrymen: He drank.

Early Americans’ thirst for alcoholic beverages, as Pogue points out, “was boosted by the general unavailability of trustworthy drinking water.” Indeed, some colonists viewed water as positively perilous. A 1767 household guide warned against drinking cold water when one was hot:

[It] produces quinseys, inflammations of the breast, cholicks, inflammations of the liver and all parts of the belly, with prodigious swellings, vomitings, suppression of urine, and inexpressible anguish.

The belief that alcoholic beverages were both safe and salubrious was commonplace. A 1764 Virginia Almanack advised taking a teacup of rum steeped with huckleberries “night and morning” to cure dropsy. Brandy was gulped to settle the nerves and to tamp down dyspepsia and fevers. Washington himself directed a friend suffering “ague” to take three or four cups of wine at midday and one in the evening.

Politics was a wet vocation; so, too, was war. Washington provided plenty of stiff drink to voters when he ran for the Virginia House in 1758: 47 gallons of beer, 70 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, along with hard cider and brandy. All told, each of the 310 men who voted for Washington received about one-half gallon of drink. As a general, Washington implored Congress to supply booze to his troops: “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all armies, and are not to be disputed,” he wrote. He thought that government distilleries should be erected around the country. When Washington bade farewell to his officers in the Continental Army in 1783, he did so at a tavern with a glass of wine in hand.

George Washington has long had a reputation as being remote and aloof; Pogue shows the truth was otherwise. Though reserved among strangers, Washington entertained guests relentlessly at Mount Vernon. He stocked eye-popping quantities of alcoholic beverages. In 1787, he bought 491 gallons of rum. Two years later, he acquired 312 bottles of Champagne and claret. Washington also had drink accoutrements custom-made, such as a 16-bottle mahogany liquor chest and wheeled coasters on which wine bottles could be shunted about the dinner table. Fellow Virginia statesman Richard Henry Lee found Washington garrulous and “quite merry” after a few glasses.

Alcoholic beverages were integral to the operation of Washington’s sprawling estate. Laborers, artisans, and local merchants often were paid with home-brew or other dizzying beverages. Sick slaves and those giving birth were dosed with rum. The contract of Philip Bater, Washington’s gardener, stipulated that he would receive “four Doll-
ars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights.” Bater’s agreement also promised two dollars for a two-day Easter bender. Even one of Washington’s prized mules had its sore joints rubbed with brandy.

All this was not without its costs.  Washington’s miller developed a drinking problem and became “an intolerable sot” who behaved like “a madman” when drunk. Washington despaired of alcoholism, but did not blame drink itself. He saw intemperance as a character flaw, a weakness that led one to take too much of a good thing. So he had no problem considering the proposal put to him by James Anderson in January 1797 to build a whiskey distillery. Through his correspondence with other leading men of the day, Washington had come to the opinion that the young nation had a great, unmet thirst for good whiskey. Anderson, a Scotsman who had recently arrived as a manager at Mount Vernon, provided the necessary nudge. Washington acceded to a test run, and two stills were placed in his estate’s cooperage.  

Washington completed his presidency in March 1797, and, upon returning to Mount Vernon, he liked what he saw: His corn and rye whiskey was selling. In October, he began the construction of “a pretty considerable distillery,” which was actually one of the largest in America. Completed in just five months, its main building was 75 feet long by 30 feet wide, with five stills inside. The distillery was sited a few miles from Washington’s home, among a complex of buildings that served related purposes. There was a malt house where grain was prepared for distilling, a cooperage where barrels were fashioned, and animal sheds housing hogs and cows that fed upon the grain-mush discarded by the distillery. Anderson’s son John directed operations, and Washington hired a friend’s nephew to serve as an assistant.  

Washington spent big money to start his distillery, and was greatly relieved by its immediate success. It produced 4,400 gallons of spirits in its first year, mostly rye whiskey, along with smaller amounts of apple, peach, and persimmon brandies. Production jumped to 10,500 gallons in 1799. Washington’s whiskey was so much in demand that he had to buy grain from other farmers to keep up production. Ever upright, he paid his excise taxes promptly.  

Unfortunately, Washington had little time to enjoy his spirits or to share them with his many visitors: He died in December 1799. Appropriately, Pogue notes, “29 gallons of whiskey were delivered from his distillery to provide some solace for the grieving funeral party.” Washington’s distillery operated for another decade and then burnt to the ground, remaining largely forgotten for the better part of two centuries. The distillery was rebuilt in 2007 with financial support from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and the first batch of rye whiskey was produced two years later. It sold out immediately.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History.