Distilling the Past at Mt. Vernon

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Matthew Pembleton, a lecturer at American University and a history consultant at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. He and I traveled to Mt. Vernon in September of this year to see how the plantation and living museum is recreating Washington’s drug-related history. A second post from our visit, about the farm’s cultivation of hemp, will run in January. Text by Pembleton, photos by me. Enjoy!

The turn of the seasons brings many changes to George Washington’s former estate at Mt. Vernon. Visitation winds down, the grounds crew prepares for winter and for the spring planting, and then the crowds return.  But one change stands out: late autumn and early spring is whiskey-making time.

On a drizzly fall morning, intrepid Points editors Emily Dufton and Matthew Pembleton ventured to George Washington’s former estate at Mt. Vernon to learn about the site’s first hemp crop in 200 years and the former plantation’s historic whiskey distillery.  Both products were important to the operations of Mt. Vernon at different points in Washington’s life and each reveals a new side of the nation’s first president—a savvy businessman and entrepreneur with an eye toward innovation, rather than a figure from American legend.  

And not surprise to readers of Points, both whiskey and hemp continue to draw visitors and the curious today.

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Exterior of the distillery building

The distillery sits alongside a restored 18th century mill (which you can see operate here) a few miles down the road from the main estate, on what was once an outlying farm of the original plantation. We met with Steve Bashore, who oversees the site and wears a lot of hats: manager of historic trades, historical interpreter, master miller, and—increasingly—craft distiller. (We were also joined by Marshall Scheetz, a traditional cooper out of Jamestown, Virginia, who gave us a crash course in the art of barrel-making.)

Bashore is one of the principle historical interpreters at the gristmill and distillery and he happily walked a couple of drug history nerds through the basics of distilling and the operations of the restored still house. You can watch a brief video here to get a sense of things, but that doesn’t do justice to the site.

The still house stands almost exactly as it did in Washington’s time and is a delightful sensory experience. Stepping through the door immediately transports you to another time—a cliché but still true. Just over 800 square feet of rustic wood beams, brick, and stone embrace the visitor. Whiskey ages in dozens of barrels stacked along the back wall, which lend their woody aroma to the pleasant smokiness from five commanding copper pot stills and fireboxes arrayed across the house. Shafts of light from the open door cut the gentle haze and water from the nearby creek gurgles merrily through the condensers attached to each still.  All in all, it’s a charmingly earthy vibe.

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Interior of the distillery

The restoration of Washington’s distillery is a fascinating chapter in the larger redevelopment of Mt. Vernon. Back in the late 1990s, the estate added a pioneer farm near the main house to showcase Washington’s innovative agricultural practices. That, Bashore says, led, “interpretively, to looking at more of the records and [the question of], well, where did the grain go? It went to the mill.” Once the mill (then held by the state of Virginia in a state of disrepair) was reacquired and restored over the course of several years, it raised yet another question: where did the processed corn, wheat, and rye go?  Much of it was sent off to market—wheat was Mt. Vernon’s number one product—but some those grains stayed on site and wound up in whiskey barrels.

Archaeology on the mill site, together Washington’s copious records, revealed a hitherto neglected part of the story at Mt. Vernon—that Washington was briefly one of the nation’s largest distillers. The distillery was rebuilt on the footprint of the original building between 2005 and 2007 and financed by a $2 million dollar grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The original plan for the site, Bashore says, was “really going to be just for tours, but we decided maybe why not try to make a little bit of whiskey?”  

Mostly just for fun, a group of professional distillers from across industry got together while the building was being restored and made a few pilot batches using a replica of a 1790 still held by the Smithsonian.  They auctioned off the results and were encouraged by the demand for such a novel piece of American history. Those first few batches of whiskey, Bashore says, “sold so well [that] we realized this could really underwrite education and everything we do here at Mt. Vernon.”

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Hand-cooped barrels of rye whiskey and apple brandy age in a corner of the distillery.

For the most part, that means telling the story of one of Washington’s more profitable business ventures. The tale begins in late 1796 as Washington planned his transition back to private life in the last several months of his presidency and hired a Scottish immigrant named James Anderson to help manage the farming operation back at Mt. Vernon. After taking stock of the existing facilities, Anderson suggested that Washington add a distillery to accompany the gristmill at nearby Dogue Creek. With good access to water and the nearby mill, it was an ideal set up. Washington, of course, famously put down the Whiskey Rebellion when settlers in the Pennsylvania frontier refused to pay excise taxes only a few years earlier—so he knew the value of the burgeoning market and recognized the opportunity.  But he was also reportedly somewhat cautious.

“Washington was very smart with his money,” Bashore says. In an arc that would be repeated on a smaller scale just over 200 years later, Washington allowed Anderson to proceed with a few small batches. Over the course of 1797, Anderson produced 600 gallons of unaged rye whiskey, most of which was sold and consumed in nearby Alexandria. When that went well, Washington ordered the construction of a dedicated distillery. Built over the winter of 1797, the new still house was up and running in March 1798 and produced another 4,500 gallons by year’s end. The real “banner year,” as Bashore describes it, was in 1799—the year of Washington’s death—when the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, bringing in a profit of approximately $7,500—about $120,000 today.

That volume made Washington one of the largest distillers in the young nation, a leader in a booming industry. An indication of Washington’s interest in best practices, the distillery was fully integrated into the larger farm operation, situated next to the gristmill which provided the grains for fermentation. Spent grains went as slop for Washington’s well-fed pigs, which were reportedly so fat they practically dragged their bellies on the ground. Also worth pointing out is that six slaves worked in the distillery under Anderson’s supervision—a fact readily acknowledged by the estate.

Production slowed dramatically after Washington’s death in 1799 and the whole estate fell into disrepair in the years that followed. Washington left no heirs and ownership bounced around between various distant relatives until the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association bought and started to restore the estate in 1858. The distillery burnt down in 1814—and remained, essentially, a pile of overgrown rubble until archaeology began in the late 1990s.

Encouraged by the response to those first few pilot batches between 2004 and 2007, Bashore and his small team made their first real commercial batch in the fully restored still house in 2009, producing about 100 gallons. But they were essentially practicing a lost art, using traditional (and profoundly labor intensive) methods and tools to boil, mash, ferment, and finally distill the whiskey. “It about killed us, it was so hard,” Bashore recalls ruefully. But excitement for the idea of George Washington’s whiskey was real and the whole batch sold out in “about three hours.”

The next year, 2010, was even more challenging as the team began to scale up and ran into a steep learning curve. Washington kept excellent records and Anderson left detailed logs—but left nothing like a manual on how to distill using now archaic techniques and equipment. “That was the toughest run altogether,” Bashore says, and the final product, he admits, left some room for improvement. “The early unaged batches were rough because we were learning.”  

But, he adds, “I’m proud of what we’re making now.” That learning curve vanished over the last several years with a little help from Mt. Vernon’s friends in the industry. The distillery hosts occasional get-togethers with professional distillers and has employed consultants from major whiskey labels to periodically come in and review the operations. But even for them, it’s a learning process to figure out how to meld old techniques and equipment with modern best practices. Bashore says the collaborative element has been key. “All these different people come in, they enjoy it, going back in time, and we enjoy learning.  And then we get knowledge from them that helps us do it ourselves.”

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Mt. Vernon’s manager of historic trades and craft distiller, Steve Bashore, poses with some of the ingredients used to make whiskey in Washington’s time – and today

Bashore says that collaboration—a literal dialogue between past and present—now has the distillery producing “the best unaged rye whiskey we’ve ever made.” And sales have been strong. “It moves, it’s amazing,” Bashore says. Unlike what you’d find in most liquor stores, “you’re buying a handmade product, and it’s good whiskey.” In addition to unaged rye whiskey, the distillery’s staple product, Bashore and company have also made a variety of brandies, including many that were popular in Washington’s time, and has begun to experiment with aged whiskey. “Now that we’re this far in, we have a lot of neat choices that we can make,” he tells us.

The distillery only runs twice a year, in November and March, and currently produces around 1,500 gallons annually—a far cry from the output during Washington’s time. But, as Bashore is quick to point out, that’s not the point. “Our main job here is to give tours and tell the story and educate people, and we can’t run five stills while we’re giving tours.” These tours are well worth the price of admission, and give a unique insight into one of the more interesting stories in Mt. Vernon’s past and present.

Before we leave, Bashore assures us, “We do know, because we have the records, Washington paid his tax.”

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