America is known for a lot of great things: the home of the internet, Wikipedia, The Super Bowl, McDonalds, Oprah Winfrey… the list goes on, really.

But for those of us in the drinks business, I think we can agree that one of America’s greatest contributions has got to be … its whiskey industry. And with President’s Day on Monday, I felt it was only appropriate to commemorate the occasion by shining a light on George Washington’s very own contribution the industry. He was, after all, the nation’s largest distiller of whiskey at the time.

A Brief History of the Distillery

It wasn’t until 1797, after his retirement from the Presidency, that George Washington decided to put up his own whiskey distillery operation in Mount Vernon. With some coercion from James Anderson (who was his farm manager back then), Washington started the distillery to complement the estate’s many other economic ventures.

Still cautious, Washington agreed to set up the distillery business but started out small, with only two stills. When the first batch provided a strong profit, the project was a “go”: Washington gave his blessing and Anderson grew the distillery rapidly. In the winter of 1797-1798, a large distillery was constructed, complete with five copper pot stills.

The new distillery produced more than 10,000 gallons of Whiskey in 1799. Upon Washington’s death in the same year, the Distillery and nearby Gristmill passed on to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, and subsequently burned down in 1814. Evidence suggests Whiskey was made at the mill from its first batch in 1797 until around 1808.

The Recipe:

The folks at the Mount Vernon Estate have done their best to re-create the recipe and process that would have been used while Anderson was distilling at the site in the late 1700’s. Watch their video to see the process in action.

Here’s their Process:

  1. Heat around 120 Gallons of water and add to a barrel.
  2. Mix in ground corn and rye and leave overnight to break down the starches, cook, and thicken
  3. Add Malted barley to the mix
  4. Allow to Ferment
  5. Pour the mash into the copper pot still and Distill
  6. Ship in clear (non-charred) wood barrels and tap upon arrival!

Anything missing?

At the time, it wasn’t common to age whiskey during the production process. The only “aging” that occurred was the time spent in the barrel for transportation purposes. As a result, the whiskey produced was clear – not the amber color we’re used to today.

An example of Pot Still, the type used at Washington’s Distillery.
Photo Credit: #Barbados #rum (license)

Give it a try:

The Mount Vernon Estate has restored the Grist Mill and Distillery, and actually distills a batch of George Washington’s Whiskey around twice a year. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try this unaged spirit, head over to the Mount Vernon Estate’s website, and sign up to be notified when the next batch is available.

An Authentic Celebration

So there’s a tribute for all of the Americans (and whiskey lovers) out there, to a man – and distiller – who paved the way. Perhaps a white whiskey cocktail might be in order?

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.