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Issue 15 - War, Washington Whiskey

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Whisky Magazine Issue 15
April 2001

 

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War, Washington Whiskey

Riannon Walsh uncovers the work of archaeologists rebuilding an important piece of American, and whiskey, history- the distillery owned by George Washington, celebrated General and the first President

George Washington to James Anderson, Plantation Manager, Mount Vernon Virginia, 1797: "I consent to your commencing a distillery and approve of your purchasing the stills and entering of it..."

In the early autumn of 1777, George Washington led 11,000 troops, recently battered and defeated at Brandywine Creek, across Chester County Pennsylvania toward Philadelphia. Planning another confrontation of General Wm. Howe and an attempt to reverse the recent humiliation at Chadd’s Ford, the Continentals went bravely forward. Fortunately for Washington’s weary soldiers, Howe had psychologically retired from the military and hadn’t the motivation required to muster his men. The future first President took the opportunity to turn west for the short march toward Valley Forge and spent the winter of 1777-8 training and preparing for needed victories over the British.

Exactly 20 years after that historic winter, George Washington found himself well settled as owner of the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Far from war and the politics of the country he helped found, Washington lived the life of the day’s landed gentry. Drawing on his considerable resources and business savvy, the ageing statesman had restored the bulk of the beautiful property hed inherited and now found himself unexpectedly re-engaged in tactical negotiations.

At this point late in life, Washington was the target of a campaign staged by his passionate Scottish plantation manager. Hailing from Edinburgh with a background in distilling, James Anderson had been attempting to convince Washington that building a distillery and making whiskey was a brilliant way to raise revenue for the plantation. Since his hire as manager in January 1797, Anderson had staged a relentless assault and was finally victorious. The great General succumbed and wrote of his surrender to his former aide de camp, fellow businessman and friend John Fitzgerald: “Mr. Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of increasing it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, and in Europe, that I shall find my account (sic) in it; particularly in the benefits my Stock would derive from it. The thing is new to me, in toto ... Such a house as he requires and everything except the stills I could provide at a small expenditure..." (GW, 12th June 1797).

Those of us who are currently buying, dreaming of buying or attempting to build distilleries can only shake our heads and laugh in communal pity at the quote of the brilliant but naïve Washington. It seems that even a man capable of winning a revolution was able to have his head turned and his practical nature blinded by the crooning of a passionate distiller! Clearly, some things never change – although, to Anderson’s credit, the business of whiskey production and sale was a far easier one 200 years ago than it is today. Bolstered by his friend, whose business success had included distilling molasses for rum, Washington gave the go ahead to Anderson: “...Distillery is a business I am entirely unacquainted with; but from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one,” (GW to James Anderson, Mount Vernon plantation manager; 18th June 1797).

Fortunately for the archaeologists and historians working at Mount Vernon today, Washington was both a copious letter writer and record keeper. The detailed inventories and weekly reports kept on the plantation, as well as at the progressing distillery, show he obviously expected his employees to follow this practice. Today’s exciting work of piecing together the details from the written records and the actual excavation of the distillery are being undertaken by a small group of highly experienced Mount Vernon professionals, craftsmen and academics. With the support of a generous grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, Dennis Pogue (Associate Director for Preservation) and Esther White (Director of Archaeology) have dedicated the next three years to uncovering the secrets of this unique project. It was clear from my earliest telephone conversations with Esther White and subsequent time spent with both Esther and Dennis at the distillery site, that they are first class sleuths capable of envisioning the barest stone footprint in the mud as a fully functional working whiskey operation. The design, equipment and layout of any sort of distillery was initially as foreign to them as it had been to George Washington. After I’d given them a crash course in the process and equipment that make up pot still distillation, their enthusiasm seemed to grow even greater. They are no less dedicated or excited about the Mount Vernon distillery’s existence and the planned (re)construction than were the original owner and his distillery manager. Having been introduced on a visit to Kentucky to large volume continuous distillation methods, the opportunity to learn about the ultra small batch pot still method used by Anderson was an experience they welcomed. The fact that this method is still in use and that the resulting whiskies are available, offered further inspiration!

Shortly after we first made contact, I invited Esther to Washington D.C. for her first formal single malt tasting. After an evening’s experience, there was no turning back. At this point, with thanks to GW for his excellent record keeping, I was inspired in a lovely Glenfarclas induced haze to offer Esther a chance to taste something that could very possibly resemble the original distillery’s ‘brand’. By utilising the detailed inventory lists and quantities of corn, rye and malted barley included in Anderson’s 18th century mashbill, I realised that a friend’s distillery in California had the perfect still type and set up to do a run of re-created spirit. It is highly unlikely that Washington’s whiskey was aged for any longer than it took to find buyers. In the 1790s, bottling wasn’t even a consideration. From the still to the barrel to your lips! In Washington’s own words in a letter to his nephew, William Augustine Washington: “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be (distilled and..) 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...” George Washington died in 1799
dividing his estate among a few relatives and leaving the distillery and mill to a nephew. The last physical record of an existing distillery is dated 1808. Over 100 years later, in 1932, with no above ground evidence of the distillery remaining, the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the distillery site property about three miles from the mansion and conducted excavations to uncover the distillery, mill and miller’s cottage. At that time the footprint of the distillery was outlined and the mill and miller’s cottage were reconstructed. It was another 65 years before any further chance arose for the distillery’s rebirth.

After completion of a comprehensive survey of the site in 1977, systematic archaeological and historical work began on the distillery in 1999. The original 1797 foundation was discovered and uncovered revealing the startlingly clear 75 x 30 ft. base of a one storey stone building. An
intricate system of brick, earthen and wooden floor placement and drainage became apparent and written records made clear that an attached malting house and kiln later became part of the group of structures. The distillery plant was originally housed in the plantation’s existing cooperage in January and February of 1797. In October 1797 construction began on what was to become: “...a pretty considerable Distillery at my mill” (GW to Samuel Davidson 2nd March, 1798). Plantation records show the distillery to have been an operation of significant size for its time producing 11,000 gallons of spirit per year. It is clearly stated that perhaps 95% of the whiskey available at a given time was a single distillation of ‘common’ whiskey. The remaining spirit appears to have been double distilled (‘rectified’) and was possibly sold at higher price to wealthy customers.

The distillery began production with two small stills, one recorded as being 50 gallons in volume. They may have been originally used to produce apple brandy for the plantation occupants. These stills were joined a year later by three copper stills whose sizes were recorded on invoice as 110, 116 and 120 gallons. The new stills were crafted by George McMunn of Alexandria, Virgina, and were purchased on 6th January, 1798. Most distilleries of the time ran between one and three stills making Washington’s an extremely ambitious operation. The whiskey was stored in a collection of barrels, hogsheads and kegs ranging in size from 140 gallons to less than 10 gallons. The barrels employed for whiskey storage at Mount Vernon are understood to have been uncharred and would have been toasted lightly to allow adequate bending of the staves. Three African American slave coopers constructed all the needed barrels on site. One white miller, assisted by two slaves, ran the adjacent grist mill. By January of 1798, Washington’s earlier perspective on the distillery had run headlong into reality: “...I have encountered a considerable expence in building a large distillery...providing stills...Yet as I must purchase Corn and Rye, or let my Distillery (now it is erected) stand idle.” (GW to Henry Lee 25th January, 1798).

In a letter to Robert Lewis, 26th January 1798, Washington wrote: “I have been induced, by the experience and advice of my Manager, Mr. Anderson, to erect a large Distillery at my Mill; and have supplied it with five Stills, Boilers &ca.,which,with the (Stone) House, has cost me a
considerable sum already...”

The two and a half year operation of the distillery prior to Washington’s demise in 1799 were filled with periods of struggle between his and Anderson’s strong personalities. At one point, irritated with Washington’s concerns, Anderson, whose son was overseeing distillery operations while the father ran the whole of Mount Vernon agribusiness, threatened to leave Washington’s employ and work on a neighbouring plantation owned by a Mr. William Fitzhugh. Wrote Washington in frustration: “...I had, as he has been informed, no intention of parting with him; especially as he has run me into a very considerable expence (contrary I may say to my intention, or wishes) in erecting a Distillery which I shall not know what well to do with.” (GW to Wm. Fitzhugh, 30th May, 1798).

It would seem that Washington gave in altogether to Anderson’s plans when in November and December of 1798, a malting house and kilns were constructed alongside the distillery. The week after the completion of the new maltings, 15 bushels of barley were sent to the distillery. The issue of malted barley is a perhaps the only vague point in the otherwise excellent records. This is due to Washington’s frequent lack of differentiation between the terms malt and (unmalted) barley. With the addition of the malting floors and kiln, malted barley was certainly added to the mashbill after 1798.

The malt (be it barley or rye) used at Mount Vernon would have been dried with wood smoke rather than peat. Early on in the operation, some wheat was also employed in the recipe. It is known that whatever the mashbill at given times, Washington’s brand was known as Mount Vernon Rye. Washington states, in a February 1798 letter: “...rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain proportion, compose the
materials from which the Whiskey is made...”

Time has been extremely kind to the ruins of the Mount Vernon Distillery. Walking down into the excavation site, I could clearly 'see' the distillery as it stood 200 years ago. The small stone building had two wooden doors held closed with forged hooks. Four windows were known to have existed on the main level and two dormers in the loft. The foundation of the distillery was constructed of large river rock boated down from the Falls of the Potomac. On top of the ditch laid cobbles, sandstone quarried at Mount Vernon was mortared, creating the one story building. There was also a loft, with multiple rooms, accessed by a stair with brick foundation and handrail. The distillery walls were plastered and a cellar for whiskey storage was known to exist. Records show that a bed, table and writing desk were all made for use in the distillery.

Even to an eye completely untrained in archaeology, the laid brick platform and dirt floor that held the stills show signs of charring from the fires built to heat the wash. The hand dug troughs that carried the spent lees and pot ale out of the distillery building are easily recognisable. The placement of the distillery building downhill from the water source reveals the gravity flow utilised in the original design. This same burn (stream) powered the grist mill which is being painstakingly restored to original working condition, replete with gargantuan wooden gears turning the millstones. Outside the distillery, about 100 feet down the gentle slope from the grist mill, a well and pump assisted the water flow into the works. The successful enterprise of the distillery was noted by Polish statesman Julian Niemcewiscz in his diary of 4 Jume 1799: “Just nearby is a whiski (sic) distillery. Under the supervision of the son of Mr. James Anderson, they distill up to 12,000 gallons a year (they can distill 50 gallons per day if the weather is not too hot) each gallon at 4 Virginia shillings; that alone should bring in up to 16,000 doll (sic). I do not know how Mr. Anderson maintains that the distillery produces only 600 pounds. If this distillery produces poison for men, it offers in return the most delicate and the most succulent feed for pigs.”

Over the next two and one half years, the team at Mount Vernon will carefully reveal and restore the historical treasure that was George Washington’s whiskey distillery. While the archaeologists conduct their hands on work, the many interns and students of the department will continue the task of transcribing and analysing the ledger and records. There’s opportunity for the discovery of new detail every day.

By the project's archaeological completion in 2002 and the proposed rebuild completion in 2005, many details and secrets will have surfaced. Through the commitment of the small group at the Mount Vernon Department of Archaeology and Preservation we shall all have an opportunity to raise our glasses to an uncovered piece of true American distilling history.
 

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