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Virginians have always enjoyed their liquor, and for much of the 18th century, their preferred drink was rum. But when war and tariffs made imported rum hard to come by, George Washington saw an opportunity. Why not make liquor out of grains he was growing on his farms?
"He was a businessman and he was a very, very successful one," says Dennis Pogue, the director of preservation programs at Mount Vernon.
By 1799, Washington's distillery was the single most profitable part of his plantation. He couldn't make enough whiskey to meet demand, Pogue says. Now the distillery has been restored, and I got a chance to see what Washington's rye whiskey probably tasted like.
"This is the first bottle that we've opened for tasting. So, yeah, this is an important day," Pogue says.
Pogue has invited me and a few dozen other guests to the distillery for a preview of the first aged rye whiskey to come out of Mount Vernon since the distillery was rebuilt and reopened.
It's like being in a dark, cavernous barn. And there are the distinctive smells of smoke and fermentation. The distillers are hard at work, and the grain they're using to make whiskey is cooking or steaming in a boiler the size of a bathtub.
"You're essentially cooking the grain, and so you're turning the starches in the grain to sugar," Pogue says.
"And so the idea ... [is] to take that and put it into the still," he says. "And then after it's distilled down, the alcohol increases considerably [and] the water content is reduced."
When you distill down to 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol, it doesn't take many sips to start feeling a little woozy. And for a crowd like this one — made up of journalists, whiskey devotees and history buffs — the opportunity to taste whiskey straight from George Washington's distillery, well, you would have thought they were channeling the man himself.
"Standing exactly where he stood — being able to see the old books, see the old ledgers and come here and see the stills as though they may have been here the exact same way — it's beyond something special," says Tim Welly, who's overseeing the creation of a grain-to-glass distillery in the Hudson Valley. "It's recreating history."
"A true mark of a distiller is how easily drinkable this liquid is," he says. "Two years in the barrel softens its harsh edges and really showcases how beautiful of a product you can make."
But there is some uncomfortable history here. In Washington's day, the hard work of making whiskey fell to six slaves.
It's a fact of history that Pogue says he would never paper over. Washington was a man of his time, and the whiskey we're drinking is made to his exact recipe.
"It's 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley," he says. "I think that Washington was probably a neat guy, so I think he's drinking this neat."
If you'd like to try the whiskey, you've got to make a trip to Mount Vernon. There are only 300 bottles available — at $185 a pop.
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