Several hundred people lined up outside a small gift shop a few miles down the road from Mount Vernon last Monday.
The draw: white-rye whiskey made at George Washington’s distillery and gristmill. Even though they cost $95 each, the 400 bottles sold out in a few hours.
The limited-edition run was produced and bottled in the reconstructed distillery according to a 200-year-old recipe, which was pieced together from careful study of Washington’s records at his Mount Vernon estate.
The grains are bought from Virginia farmers, ground on site at the mill and bottled by hand.
Despite its presidential pedigree, this form of white whiskey is not for the casual sipper.
“It’s strong stuff,” says Donna Boulter, historical interpreter at the mill and distillery. “It’s not aged, so it’s not going to be as mellow as some [other whiskeys] might, but it’s good stuff.”
The 357-milliliter bottles are sold only in the little gift shop near Washington’s estate.
Dennis Pogue, vice president of preservation at the mill and distillery, says the whiskey will never hit it big in the liquor market.
“It is what it is,” he says. “It’s unaged. White whiskey has always had a small market.”
Ironically, Washington was never that keen on the idea of a distillery.
James Anderson, a Scot who he hired to take over the day-to-day management of his estate, suggested they get into the whiskey business because it was a good moneymaker and Mount Vernon had the necessary materials: grain, water and barrels.
Washington also had a wharf near the mill, which would make distribution easy and returns quick.
Anderson had experience in the whiskey business, having grown grain for other distilleries in Scotland and having managed a small distillery for another plantation in Fredericksburg, Va.
“Washington wasn’t particularly enthused [about the idea],” Boulter says. “He was in his mid-60s and had had, you know, a few jobs and was looking to retire.”
Aside from business concerns, Washington feared a distillery would attract “troublemakers who would try to steal alcohol, drink it and then cause problems because they were drunk,” Boulter says.
In part, that’s because whiskey had a much different reputation in the 18th century, when it was primarily a drink for the lower classes.
“[Whiskey] is sort of hard alcohol, but [its reputation was] more along the lines of Budweiser,” Boulter says.
The president might have a shot of white whiskey at “the tavern with the guys” or first lady Martha Washington “might have used it instead of rum to make a punch,” but Washington was more inclined to drink a sweet fortified wine such as Madeira.
Eventually, Anderson convinced Washington by making the business case: Whiskey makes money. Ever the entrepreneur, Washington consulted a rum-making friend who agreed a distillery, if run correctly, would make good returns on investment. The former president was sold.
The first year the distillery was in business, it produced 600 gallons of whiskey. Two years later, in 1799, the distillery produced 11,000 gallons, making it the largest distiller in the country at the time.
Washington died in 1799, and the distillery was passed on to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis. The nephew didn’t have his uncle’s head for business, so after a disagreement, Anderson left.
The distillery burned down in 1814 — a claim was submitted to the insurance company after the fire, but because Lewis hadn’t kept up payments, it wasn’t rebuilt until the Mount Vernon Foundation reconstructed the building in 2005.
From the mid-1930s, the distillery and gristmill were a Virginia state park. In 1995, the state approached the Ladies Association of Mount Vernon and the Mount Vernon Foundation to take over the park.
Mount Vernon agreed to take over under one condition: It could change the mill — and eventually the distillery — from a static exhibit into a working one.
Reconstructing the distillery was a painstaking process.
Pogue and his staff of archeologists and historians first surveyed the property in 1997. It took another 10 years of intensive archeological digs and detective work before the mill and the distillery were up running and open to the public.
“We never intended to become a commercial distillery,” Pogue says. “It is just a great way to tell a interesting part of Washington’s story.”
During the July Fourth weekend, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States lent the distillery a letter — purchased for $18,800 at an auction — in which Washington discusses the operation of his distillery. It was the first time the letter had been displayed.
There is no place else in the country to see a working mill and distillery still operating as it did 200 years ago, Pogue says.
In 2010, Mount Vernon sold its first small batch of the general’s white-rye whiskey to a great deal of excitement and acclaim. Because the distillery is only open from April through October, the distillers don’t actually make the spirit until February or March, and they bottle it quickly without giving it time to age.
“In Washington’s time, they did not age it at all,” Pogue says. “His whiskey would have sold immediately.”
Still, the Mount Vernon distillery has put a small amount back into barrels to age. It plans to sell the aged whiskey later this year.