George Washington—first US president, government leader, war commander…whiskey maker? While Washington may have seemed too preoccupied with official orders of state, he actually owned and operated a whiskey distillery, George Washington Distillery and Gristmill at Mount Vernon, that’s still in existence today.
Washington’s foray into liquor wasn’t a bootleg operation, either. Since his plantation already produced and milled the corn and rye necessary for the distillation process, his Scottish farm manager James Anderson suggested he start brewing in 1797. By 1799, 11,000 gallons of whiskey were made. At the time, it was the largest distillery in the nation and one of the most successful enterprises at Mount Vernon.
After Washington’s death that same year, the distillery wasn't kept up and eventually burned down in 1814. It would be almost 200 years before whiskey making occurred on that site again. Although archaeological surveys took place in the 1930s and the gristmill and miller’s house were reconstructed at that time, distilling whiskey didn't take place until the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) took interest and provided the funds that would recreate the distillery and gristmill. It was opened to the public in 2007.
A few revamps are in place at today’s George Washington Distillery. Documents show that Washington made and sold rye whiskey, but the modern formula is 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley. Whiskey production has also been taken one step further, now offering aged whiskey in addition to the unaged type. Apple and peach brandies are also in the process of aging. And in honor of Anderson’s part in the spirit’s story and his Scottish heritage, a group of Scottish distillers are partnering with the distillery to produce a very exclusive batch of malt whiskey that will be aged for three years before it's bottled.
The site is open for tours from April to October, seven days a week. Visitors are able to view the gristmill where the grains are ground, learn about the production of the whiskey, and see the aged barrels where it’s stored, in a tour led by people dressed in period costumes.
Spirits are available for purchase in the gift shop—the un-aged rye whiskey is strong, with a bit of sweetness from the corn, while the four-years-aged product picks up a distinct vanilla taste (along with caramel and butterscotch) from its time spent in lightly charred American oak barrels. A two-years-aged whiskey is also available.
Other draws to this experience include a movie on the history of whiskey in the distillery and an exhibit on distilling’s beginnings in general. Visitors should also stop by Hoecakes & Hospitality, Mount Vernon’s food exhibit, to enjoy the same food that Washington probably paired his self-made whiskey with. 5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Alexandria, 703-339-7200