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Monday, August 14, 2006

George Washington Distilled Here

A team of architects, carpenters, archaeologists and historians are busy with a project in Virginia that covers a chapter of the life of George Washington that few people know. It has nothing to do with George Washington the President or George Washington the Revolutionary War hero. There is no tale about chopping down a cherry tree -- unless the wood was sent to a cooper for barrel making. It's all about George Washington the distiller. That's right, the Father of our Country was a whiskey maker from Virginia who operated one of the largest distilleries in America at the time of his death.

The ex-President built the 2,250 square foot distillery at Mount Vernon in 1797. Always a leader, Washington's distillery was among the largest in the U.S. at the time. In 1799, the year he died, Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, worth $7,500. Washington's relative who inherited the distillery leased it to a local operator and the facility was in use until 1814 when it burned to the ground. This piece of early American history would have been lost to the world without the liquor industry's efforts.

With the support of the Distilled Spirits Council and a number of whiskey makers, historians in Mount Vernon excavated the site of Washington's distillery in 2000. A dream team of master distillers gathered at Mount Vernon in October 2003 and, using a replica 18th Century pot still over an open flame outdoors, made whiskey from a recipe Washington used that called for a grain bill of 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent barley. The whiskey made that day is currently aging in Mount Vernon and will be sold to raise funds for the historic reconstruction project.

Distilleries have already donated $1.5 million towards the project and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars more through the sale of special commemorative bottles of spirits. The distillery sits next to a reconstructed grist mill, so visitors to Mount Vernon will be able to see how grains were ground and turned into whiskey at the site during the 18th Century.

"We're resurrecting George Washington's distillery with the highest degree of authenticity," said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's chief historian and director of preservation. "In marrying our goal of authenticity to the requirements of modern building regulations, we're faced with a unique opportunity to do something no one has ever done in this country. The craftsmanship and detail that go into making this historic site come alive is truly original."

The reconstructed Washington distillery, which is three miles from his home, is slated to be dedicated on Sept. 27, 2006, and open to the public in April 2007. The facility will be a national distilling museum and the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which encompasses historic distilling-related sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. When completed it will showcase to everyone from tourists to school groups the fact that Washington viewed whiskey making as a legitimate business and a key component of the nation's agrarian economy, allowing farmers to convert grain into a marketable commodity. That certainly flies in the face of neo-prohibitionist propaganda about the evils of the alcohol industry. It also makes you wonder if Washington had retired from public life immediately after the Revolution and went back to Mount Vernon instead of serving as president if he would be more recognized for having his name on bottles on liquor store shelves next to Jack Daniels, Elijah Craig and Evan Williams?

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