Mount Vernon (Virginia), June 24 (Reuters): George Washington made whisky here.
As America’s first president and one of its canniest early entrepreneurs, Washington liked a sip of cinnamon whisky — and he distilled his own. More than that, he started a thriving business selling a raw, clear liquor made from rye and corn.
“Two hundred gallons of whisky will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk,” Washington wrote in a letter to his nephew in October 1799.
At its peak, the distillery produced 50,010 litres of liquor, which fetched the then-astronomical sum of $7,500. After Washington’s death late in 1799, the distillery passed to his nephew Lawrence Lewis, who appeared to have less success with it. By 1815, the building was gone.
Folks around Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon always knew there was a distillery on the property when he was alive, and archaeologists uncovered its location in 1932.
Now scholars are digging at the site of the liquor-making operation, hoping to learn enough to rebuild it and start making whisky there again.
About 4.8 km from Washington’s elegant, idiosyncratic mansion at Mount Vernon, workers in shorts, T-shirts and thin coatings of mud have been scraping the dirt around the distillery’s old foundation stones. “We are connoisseurs of dirt,” said Laura Seifert, one of the project’s crew chiefs, on a recent sweltering day. Around her, a dozen or so diggers use sharpened trowels to pare away the layers of earth, one bucket at a time, until they get down to the layers that would have been in place around 1799.
Of particular interest are patches where the dirt appears burned or scorched, which could mean they were just beneath a spot where one of five stills sat in Washington’s day.
The dirt that is scraped away is sifted for any significant objects — an amber-coloured bottle from the 1930s was a prized find — before being carted to a mound at the side of the site, waiting to be redeposited during reconstruction.
That could be fairly soon, according to Mount Vernon’s chief archaeologist, Esther White. Investigation of the site began in 1999 and is expected to conclude this November, with findings expected to be presented to architects so they can work out how to rebuild the place.
Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director for preservation, said reconstruction might be completed by 2006. “If you build a stone building and you get five copper pot stills, where are you going to put them'” White asked rhetorically.
“Those are the kinds of details that...the restoration staff need in order to be able to put the building back, and that our interpreters will need to be able to go into the building in costume and start distilling.”
The spirits they expect to distil, if the required permits are approved, would not be for sale but serve as part of a living history exhibition. More on the distillery dig is online at www.archaeology.org/interactive/mtvernon/index.html.
Still, there is prime liquor ageing in barrels even now at Mount Vernon.
The Distilled Spirits Council, a US liquor industry group that has donated $1.2 million to the distillery project, arranged to have barrels of whisky and rum aged on the premises and bottled. Not for sale to the public, a batch of these liquors brought a total of $107,000 at auction last year, with this amount added to the Mount Vernon distillery effort.
The industry group got involved in part to celebrate George Washington the entrepreneur, according to its president Peter Cressy.
“In the history books, he too often pales beside the lasting legacy of (Thomas) Jefferson, when in terms of all the interesting entrepreneurial things, Jefferson was almost a dilettante compared to Washington,” Cressy said.
The location of the modern liquor barrels is secret, but some of these liquors were offered to visitors recently to be savoured on the mansion’s piazza overlooking the Potomac River as a ferocious thunderstorm moved into the area.
After ageing in charred barrels, these rums and whiskys took on a mellow golden colour and a smooth taste despite their high alcoholic content, up to 128 proof in one case.