George Washington had led the army that defeated the world’s superpower of the 18th Century. He’d served as the first president of a newborn country. And then, after eight years in power he did the unthinkable. He left the office to another man and went home.
So what does one of the greatest leaders in American history do when he returns to Mount Vernon?
He builds a distillery and makes whiskey. He didn’t do it all himself, of course, but he assembled the team who would build the distillery, fire up the boiler and the stills and produce a clear unaged rye.
Washington’s distillery produced a product so popular he needed a bigger distillery. In the year of his death, 1799, his stills produced 11,000 gallons of white lightning (I’ve tasted it.) Washington’s was the largest distillery in America at that time.
The building burned down in 1814 but nearly a century later archaeologist found its footprint while they researched the adjacent gristmill. Ironically, it was during Prohibition so the distillery didn’t get its chance to live again until 2007.
Visitors to Mount Vernon can see the dimly lit barn-like building located about three miles from the main estate. Drive yourself or take the free shuttle on Mount Vernon’s property. We took the shuttle but next time I’d drive so we could take our time visiting. The shuttle schedule allows for 45-60 minutes of touring.
That was plenty of time for a quick look at the grist mill — where visitors see the water wheel and grinding stones turn grain into flour — and a stop in the distillery to learn how Washington’s distiller, a Scotsman named James Anderson, and his staff of enslaved workers turned grain into alcohol.
But it really is a quick tour. I’d have liked a little more time to enjoy the bucolic surroundings, peruse the gift shop and poke around in the restored buildings.
There is no tasting room here, darn it. But this isn’t a place where the still are going year round. Since the rye is made in the 18th century method (by hand, no electricity), a staff of experts and volunteers brew the stuff twice a year when the distillery isn’t open to visitors. They also create apple brandy during visiting hours in October (Check the estate’s calendar.) and peach eau de vie in the early summer. I’ve marked my calendar to see the apple brandy being made.
Though quantities are limited, the gift shop on the distillery property keeps some on hand. The rye costs $95. The brandy is even more expensive. I didn’t learn until after we’d left that you can taste the rye at the restaurant at Mount Vernon. I wish I had known. But I whipped out my credit card and brought a bottle home.
I am already a fan of rye. When Under Armour founder Kevin Plan’s Sagamore Spirit released its first batch earlier this year, I made sure I got some.
But this is different. It isn’t aged — in Washington’s day they didn’t age whiskey. It’s clear. That means: Sorry no oaky notes, hints of vanilla or spice. Think fire water tearing down your throat leaving burn marks in its wake. At 43 percent alcohol it has a nice kick.
But that wasn’t why I bought it. I wanted to savor history. That, I certainly, did.
ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman