Drunk on George Washington

You won’t catch many modern-day presidents confessing a love for hard liquor. But the Founding Fathers were hardly 12-Steppers, George Washington included. In fact, a few years before the first president died, he even got into the whiskey-making business. (Ironic, considering that as president, he put down the Whiskey Rebellion.)

Recently, the stillhouse at Mount Vernon was rebuilt, and put to use. A group of master distillers from whiskey companies like Maker’s Mark visited (pictured above), fired up the stills, and created a few batches of booze based on Washington’s original recipes.

In honor of the Fourth of July, CHOW spoke with Dennis Pogue, director of preservation at George Washington’s estate, to find out more about this spirited piece of American history.

How did Washington get into the liquor-making game?

He served as president for eight years, and came back to Mount Vernon in 1797. At 65, he was looking for different, easier revenue streams than being a farmer. [His Scottish farm manager,] James Anderson, lobbied George Washington, and said, “I know all about distilling.” Washington actually wrote to at least one friend of his who was a rum distiller and asked his opinion, and he said, “If he knows what he’s doing, there’s gonna be a market for it.” So he hired him.

Was it successful?

We were surprised to learn that this was one of the biggest whiskey distilleries in the country at that time—a major commercial venture. Most [of the competitors] were small scale with a few stills that produced a few hundred gallons a year. By 1799, the last year Washington was alive, his distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of spirit.

What kind of liquor was he making?

Almost all rye, with smaller amounts of brandy. Washington’s whiskey recipe is 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley. That was a fairly typical recipe at the time. It wasn’t aged, and it wasn’t bottled. It was sold by the barrel, or if you wanted a smaller amount, you brought your own container and they put it in there.

Did Washington drink?

Sure. He had a kind of modern attitude towards alcohol consumption. He knew it had some problems: He had more than one employee [whom] he had to discharge because they couldn’t hold their alcohol. But in the military during the Revolutionary War, we have letters he wrote where he talks about the need to supply the troops with alcohol because it’s expected and good for morale.

Was whiskey really popular back then?

Before the Revolution, most people drank rum that came from the West Indies. After the war, whiskey-making was very cheap, and it became the most popular spirit. Rye was most common because it was cheapest to make. Madeira and port were also very popular at this period, and Washington imported those products.

Did you catch any flak from anybody for resurrecting and operating the stillhouse?

We have TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] licenses and ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] licenses, so everything we’re doing is legal. I got a couple phone calls that people [were angry that] we were associating Washington with alcohol. As we told them, we’re not making this up. It’s historical fact.

What kind of stills are you operating?

Washington had five stills, but we only operate one. They’re old-fashioned copper pot stills that were built by Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky. We know Washington’s ranged from 110 to 135 gallons. These are slightly scaled down, because we would have had to have made the furnaces bigger to meet modern fire codes with stills that big.

What have you made so far?

We made the first batch of rye in 2003, we made a batch of rum in 2005, then more rye in September of 2006, and another batch in March 2007. Dave Pickerell from Maker’s Mark, Jerry Dalton from Jim Beam, Jimmy Russell from Wild Turkey, Chris Morris from Brown-Forman, Joe Dangler from A. Smith Bowman, and several more master distillers have come at various times [to help us make it]. They dressed up in period garb when they did it.

Did they have fun?

It was a definite learning curve. These guys are used to making thousands of gallons of whiskey a day, and here they spent three days and made eight gallons.

Is it any good?

The stuff that’s right off the still, you know, it’s pretty flavorful. Probably wouldn’t be what I choose to sit down and sip on an evening. The rye we made back in September, on the other hand, has been aging, and it’s very drinkable. But frankly, we never went into this thinking we’d become an operating distillery. It’s an educational facility.

Last question: Did Washington have false teeth made out of wood?

He did have false teeth, but they were not made of wood. They were made out of ivory and animal bone and all kinds of crazy stuff.