"Whiskey," said Peter Cressy, "has played a very important role in our national history."
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.
Tuesday at Mount Vernon, Cressy ceremoniously cracked open one of those barrels and extracted some of its precious brown liquid. He took a sip. He rolled it on his tongue. He smiled.
"Who knew rye whiskey could be so good?" he said.
"It's surprisingly good," agreed Jerry Dalton, the master distiller from Jim Beam.
Chris Morris, the master distiller of Woodford Reserve, was impressed at how much the whiskey had improved in a year. "It's a drier whiskey now," he said. "It has some spice notes still but they've become longer, less sharp, more prickly."
It's impossible to tell how much this whiskey resembles Washington's firewater, Morris said. But one thing is certain: When it came to whiskey, Americans of Washington's era cared more about quantity than they did about quality.
Between 1790 and 1830, Americans went on what historian W.J. Rorabaugh termed a "spectacular binge." In those days, America was young and free and its citizens were, as often as not, besotted, pickled, three sheets to the wind or just plain drunk. Washington himself complained that booze was "the ruin of half the workmen in this Country." His successor, John Adams, worried that Americans were exceeding the rest of the world in "this degrading, beastly vice."
In the early 1800s, Americans consumed more booze than at any time in our history -- more than five gallons of distilled spirits per person per year. (Today's figure is 1.8 gallons.) And that doesn't even count the most popular alcoholic beverage of the era -- hard cider, which was consumed almost all the time by almost everybody, including the aforementioned John Adams, who drank a tankard at breakfast every morning.
"Americans drank at home and abroad, alone and together, at work and at play, in fun and in earnest," Rorabaugh wrote in his classic 1979 book "The Alcoholic Republic," from which this information was shamelessly stolen. "Americans drank before meals, with meals and after meals. They drank while working in the fields and while traveling across half a continent. They drank in their youth, and, if they lived long enough, in their old age."
But all good things must end, and by 1840, America, urged on by a growing temperance movement, began sobering up. Since then, this new, sober America has experienced the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the rise of the robber barons, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Watergate, a divorce epidemic, the Persian Gulf War, the rise of reality TV and the invasion of Iraq, among other ills.
Whew! Contemplating the catalogue of catastrophes that followed America's turn toward sobriety is enough to drive a man to drink.
Fortunately, on this day, DISCUS's master distillers have broken out their own best booze -- special stuff aged in an undisclosed location here at Mount Vernon. Ten distillers are standing behind a long table in the back of the room, pouring shots for all comers.
Soon the room takes on a warm glow, and so do the cheeks of its occupants, who begin to experience a calm sense of well-being, accompanied by pleasant feelings of brotherhood toward the whole human race. Gentle peals of laughter ring out. A chilly rain falls outside, but it's cozy in here.
Frank Coleman, DISCUS's VP for PR, announces that a shuttle bus has arrived to ferry folks to the site where Mount Vernon's archaeologists have uncovered the stone foundation of Washington's distillery, where the reproduction will be built next year.
About a dozen souls tear themselves away from the whiskey table and dash through the rain to the bus. At the distillery site, two miles from Washington's house, the drizzle has become a deluge, but that doesn't stop Esther White, Mount Vernon's director of archaeology, from leading a tour.
Fortified by whiskey, the pilgrims shuffle cheerfully through the soaked grass. The site is entirely covered in black plastic to protect it from the rain. White points to a spot of wet plastic that covers the place where one of Washington's stills might have been located two centuries ago.
"It's right about there," she says, "under that puddle."
Back on the bus, one of the drenched pilgrims stands up. He has an announcement.
"Did you know," he says, "that Washington wasn't just a distiller?" He pauses dramatically. "He was also a president."
That gets a laugh. Apparently, the whiskey's still working.