Explore the Virginia Distillery created by the first US President George Washington

A slight musty smell tickles and rivals the distinct smell of alcohol, especially whiskey. Everything around screams vintage, copper stills, old barrels, wooden tools, dirt floors and stone walls. Large windows let in pools of light, but the rest of the large room is hidden in shadow.

Even the guide explaining the process, dressed in a chasuble and a bonnet, is a throwback to another era. Precisely, the time of George Washington and the end of the 18th century. And she talks about when America’s first president set up a distillery to make whiskey on his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, about 30 miles south of Washington DC.

Mount Vernon hosted a special screening of the newly produced educational film, George Washington and the Pursuit of Religious Freedom, at the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center, which brought back memories of this statesman and his love for spirits.

For most people, it is surprising that the founding father is a distiller. But it turns out that’s Washington’s retirement plan. Shortly after leaving the White House in 1797, he was looking for things to occupy his time. His Scottish farm manager convinces him to create a distillery. It was so successful that at the time it became one of the largest distilleries in America, producing 50,000 liters of whiskey each year.

Mount Vernon Distillery

Although the distillery closed after the death of America’s first president, it has been restored and produces whiskeys based on Washington’s own recipe, using 18th century distillation methods. Currently, the distillery produces four whiskeys, rum and apple brandy.

As fascinating as the distillery is, even more interesting is the flour mill nearby. Although the original mill predates Washington and was created by his father, it had fallen into disrepair, until the illustrious son restored it and began operating again in 1770. The mill is built almost entirely of wood with massive circular grinding wheels, but only a few metal parts; it can be seen from a wooden platform above.

The most fascinating part of the mill is that it works thanks to a turbine and runs water from a small stream. Its thumping and creaking sounds reverberate through the structure. Then operated by slaves, the mill at its peak produced 2,250 to 3,600 kg of cornmeal and wheat flour per day.

Records show that it was profitable and continues to produce flour using the same method. While the distillery and mill offer a small glimpse into the politician’s business acumen, it’s his magnificent estate at Mount Vernon that paints a bigger picture of the man. Currently spread over 500 acres, it once occupied a staggering 8,000 acres when owned.

At the heart of the estate is a magnificent, sprawling Palladian-style mansion that stands on expansive grounds on the banks of the Potomac River, in front of a lush bowling green. Inside are richly colored rooms with exquisite ceramic tiles. On the walls hang family portraits and paintings. The dining room and the kitchen have been redesigned. Washinton’s private office and other trinkets make the man look better. The river is clearly visible from the windows on the ground and upper floors of the estate.

Washington’s dark legacy, shared by other former presidents and wealthy men, can be seen in the slave quarters he owned, with men and women housed in separate buildings. During his lifetime he owned and rented over 570 slaves who lived and worked on the estate, with various reports of how he treated them.

But stray a little further from the mansion and outbuildings and it’s possible to banish
worry. The upper garden is a corner of tranquility, landscaped with beautiful bright decorative gardens with box trees and flowers. The vegetable garden seems to have been transplanted 200 years ago; it abounds with herbs and vegetables whose aromas fill the air even on a hot afternoon.

After the death of Washington and his wife Martha, the estate passed to their descendants but fell into disrepair. The story goes that Ann Pamela Cunningham, who passed the estate on a steamer on the Potomac in 1853, was saddened by its decrepit condition and wrote to her daughter, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected heroes to fall into ruin, why can’t American women unite to save it?

Enthused by these words, she founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, raised funds and bought the estate in 1860. She continued to maintain the estate.

Kevin E. Boling