Explore the distillery in Virginia set up by first US president George Washington

Explore the distillery in Virginia set up by first US president George Washington

author_img Anita Rao Kashi Published :  07th August 2022 02:21 PM   |   Published :   |  07th August 2022 02:21 PM
Kitchen adjacent to the mansion

Kitchen adjacent to the mansion

A faint musty odour tickles and competes with the distinct smell of alcohol, specifically of whiskey. Everything around screams vintage, copper stills, old barrels, wooden implements, packed mud floor and stone walls. Large windows let in pools of light, but the rest of the large room is hidden in shadows.

Even the guide explaining the process, dressed in pinafore and bonnet, is a throwback to another era. Precisely, the time of George Washington and the late 18th century. And she talks of the time when the first US president set up a distillery to make whiskey on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, about 30 km South of Washington DC.

Mount Vernon has 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 the spirits.

To most people, it comes as a surprise that the founding father was a distiller. But it turns out to be Washington’s retirement plan. Soon after he left the White House in 1797, he looked around for things to occupy his time. His Scottish farm manager convinced him to set up a distillery. It was so successful that it became one of the biggest distilleries in America at that time, producing 50,000 litres of whiskey every year.

The distillery on Mount Vernon
The distillery on Mount Vernon

Although the distillery shut down after the first US President passed, it has been restored now and produces whiskies based on Washington’s own recipe, using distilling methods from the 18th century. Currently, the distillery produces four whiskies, rum and apple brandy.

As much as the distillery is fascinating, even more, interesting is the gristmill nearby. Although the original mill predates Washington and was set up by his father, it had gone into disuse, until the illustrious son restored it and started to function again in 1770. The mill is built almost wholly of wood with massive circular grinding stones, but only a few metal parts; it can be viewed from a wooden platform above.

The mill’s most fascinating part is that it operates through a turbine and flows water from a tiny stream. Its thumping and grinding sounds reverberate through the structure. Then operated by slaves the mill at its highest point produced 2,250-3,600 kg of cornmeal and wheat flour a day.

Records show that it was profitable and still continues to produce flour by the same method. While both the distillery and the gristmill offer a tiny glimpse into the politician’s business acumen, it is his magnificent estate at Mount Vernon that provides a larger picture of the man. Currently spread over 500 acres, it once occupied a staggering 8,000 acres when he owned it. 

At the heart of the estate is a beautiful and sprawling Palladian-style mansion that stands on expansive grounds on the banks of the Potomac River, fronted by a lush bowling green. Inside are lavishly coloured rooms with exquisite ceramic tiles. On the walls hang family portraits and paintings. The dining room and kitchen have been reimagined. Washinton’s private study and other knick-knacks give a better picture of the man. The river can be seen clearly from the windows of both the ground and upper floors of the estate.

Washington’s dark legacy, shared by some other old presidents and men of means, can be seen in the quarters of slaves 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 varying reports of how he treated them.

But wander a bit further from the mansion and outbuildings and it is possible to banish 
the disquiet. The Upper Garden is a patch of tranquillity, landscaped with beautiful decorative gardens bright with boxwoods and flowers. The kitchen garden seems it has 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 was passed on to their descendants but went into ruin. The story goes that Ann Pamela Cunningham, who was passing the estate on a steamboat on the Potomac in 1853, was saddened by its decrepit state and wrote to her daughter, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?”

Enthused by these words, she set up the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, raised funds and bought the estate in 1860. It continues to maintain the estate.