George Washington

General, President and Whiskey Distiller

George Washington was presumably the most important American to date in the history of his country. Born as the son of a colonial farmer, he later served in the English army in the American colonies on the east coast. With the Declaration of Independence of the United States he defected to the rebels and helped achieving US independence as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783.

A picture of George Washington taking his oath
First US President and whiskey producer
Waxwork exhibition in Mt. Vernon

George Washington was born as the son of a simple farmer on a plantation at the Potomac River in 1732. Back then life was hard. The wooden houses had only few rooms, and the farmers had to pay a considerable part of their income as taxes to the British crown. George Washington died as a wealthy man in 1799, two years after his second term as president.

While the Spanish seized the gold treasures in Middle America, the British at Chesapeake Bay in Virginia could hardly contribute to the wealth of the British Empire. Only when tobacco was cultivated and shipped to Europe could the young colonies become moderately wealthy.

A picture of the Gristmill from the outside
Reconstructed gristmill of George Washington

Today we would call George Washington an innovative entrepreneur. His plantation proved to be an effective source of income - not without the important help of some 300 African slaves. With this income he financed other business ideas. One of these endeavours was the construction of a gristmill, in which the grain production of a whole county was milled. The gristmill was powered by water and, except for the millstone, was made almost entirely of wood.

The pre production at the George Washington distillery
Gristmill with water supply, water wheel and millstones

The mill had two pairs of millstones. One pair was used exclusively for producing corn flour. The others were used to mill all other grain types.

The Gearwork inside the mill of George Washington distillery
The Gears at the George Washington distillery
Wooden gears of the gristmill

The individual elements of the mill can be seen in action in our video about the distillery. (Mill 1, Mill 2, Mill 3, Mill 4)

A small version of the Gristmill at the George Washington distillery
Model of the gristmill (Mt. Vernon museum)

The winters were hard in the young state of Virginia, and the farmers had to find a way to get through the winter with their provisions. George Washington seized the opportunity and built a whiskey distillery next to the gristmill, with the help of which he could turn grain into durable whiskey. But the future president wasn't only interested in durability. Through distillation much more added value could be achieved from the mill charges the farmers had to pay.

The George Washington distillery from the outside
Distillery with cooling water supply (in the foreground)

By law, each miller - and that included George Washington - had to mill the grain of the farmers. The young state was still small and barely self-sustaining. The charges for milling were also regulated. Millers were allowed to keep 15-20% of the flour for their work. Instead of selling this flour to the highest bidder, George Washington built one of the largest whiskey distilleries of his time from 1797 to 1798. It had five copper pot stills, with which 11,000 gallons (approx. 40,000 litres) of whiskey were produced during 12 months a year.

The moonshining stills at the George Washington distillery
Three of the five stills with wood firing, copper head
and wooden cask with copper coil
The worm tub where the alcoholic fumes are condensed
Copper coil (worm) in wooden cask

In comparison, the other distilleries were very small and often produced hardly more than 100 gallons during just one month a year.

The George Washington stills from the front
Still with wood firing, chimney (at the rear left) and
cooling water supply (at the rear top)

Distillation was common in Virginia as early as 1610. However, in the beginning molasses brought by ship from the Caribbean was distilled into rum. The Roosevelt family came to early wealth this way (two Roosevelts became president later). At the end of the 18th century each bigger city in the colonies had a rum distillery. The change from British rum to American whiskey had to do with the new-found patriotism, but especially with lower production costs. George Washington was one of those who realised these relationships and acted accordingly.

The wood for the firing of the stills of the George Washington distillery
Wood firing of the stills and
stillage tap

Not only did George Washington realise the value of the grain for the domestic liquor industry, he also realised the value of an alcohol tax on whiskey for the state. During his presidency, in 1791, Congress passed a law that implemented an alcohol tax. The young nation needed this money urgently to pay the debt from the War of Independence.

The manual pump for the process water at the George Washington distillery
Well with manual pump
and water flume leading to the mash tun
The and of the water line in the building with the mashtun
Wooden water flume from the pump
to the mash tun (in the background)
Look through a glass onto the heating rods
Electrically heated mash tun

Eventually the distillery was lost in history, and the foundations weren't rediscovered until the beginning of the 1930s. Things happen! This was the period of prohibition, and nobody was really interested in rebuilding this distillery. So it fell into oblivion again until...

... until the year 2003, when all of today’s American whiskey distillers decided to rebuild the distillery according to ancient descriptions. This was an enormous task, since no 18th century whiskey distillery had survived in the Western world. It was completed with the distillation of the first white dog (raw whiskey) at the new facility in March 2007.

Unfortunately only few casks are filled in the distillery each year, since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration only allows one fire at a time in the distillery. Will individual bottles one day find their way to Europe?

This is pretty unlikely, since George Washington's mansion in Mt. Vernon, which has millions of visitors each year, sells the whiskey from its own distillery to the visitors. A visit to the mansion and his birthplace not far away is recommendable. Washington’s whiskey distillery is the only functioning distillery from the 18th century in the Western world.

The mansion of the Washington family
George Washington's mansion in Mt. Vernon