"Whiskey," said Peter Cressy, "has played a very important role in our national history."
Smith Bowman distiller Joe Dangler celebrates the planned $1.5 million reconstruction of the 1797 Mount Vernon distillery with a barrel of whiskey.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, was at Mount Vernon, standing next to a copper whiskey still and two wooden barrels labeled "George Washington Distillery," explaining his historic mission.
"This is about more than the distillery," he said. "It's about bringing George Washington to life."
Whiskey makers love George Washington. To them, the Father of Our Country wasn't just America's first president, he was also the first ex-president to get into the whiskey-making business in a big way. And the folks at the Distilled Spirits Council think America ought to know a lot more about that.
That's why DISCUS, as the council calls itself, is funding the $1.5 million reconstruction of Washington's 1797 Mount Vernon distillery, to be completed in 2006. It's also why DISCUS summoned the history- and/or whiskey-loving media to Mount Vernon on Tuesday to announce that Washington's distillery will be the crown jewel of the new "American Whiskey Trail," a loose collection of whiskey-related tourist sites in several states.
"What better place to serve as the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail than George Washington's distillery!" Cressy said.
Washington's distillery was "one of the largest distilling operations in the country," Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director, told the gathering.
When Washington left the presidency and returned to Mount Vernon in 1797, his plantation manager, a Scotsman named James Anderson, suggested that his boss use the farm's excess grain to make whiskey for the local market. Washington agreed reluctantly, Pogue says, but the whiskey sold so well that in October 1797 Washington had his slaves build a 75-by-30-foot distillery.
The distillery's five copper stills churned out about 4,000 gallons of rye whiskey the next year. In 1799, Washington did even better, selling nearly 11,000 gallons and earning about $7,500 -- an enormous sum in those days.
"The cheap stuff sold for about 50 cents a gallon," Pogue says, "and the more expensive stuff went up to about a dollar a gallon."
Last year, DISCUS gathered 13 "master distillers" from America's most famous whiskey producers -- Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, among others -- and they used a reproduction of an 18th-century copper still at Mount Vernon to make 20 gallons of whiskey from Washington's own recipe: 607 parts rye, 357 parts corn, 57 parts malted barley. They stored the hooch in two 10-gallon barrels and let it age for a year -- something Washington never bothered to do.