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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.