Photo: scaredy_kat, Flickr
Not long after he wrapped up the Revolutionary War, George Washington headed back to his 8000-acre plantation known as Mount Vernon, where he hoped to further develop a self-sustaining agricultural business. A few years later, with the arrival of a Scottish plantation manager named James Anderson, ole George was convinced that in order to increase cash flow, he needed to start making whiskey. So he built a distillery.
He started distilling in 1797 and within a year his operation was one of the largest in the new nation. Distilling whiskey was a natural fit for a plantation that already milled its own grain and operated a cooper shop making barrels. In 1797 the operation produced 600 gallons of spirit; in 1798, the production grew to 4,500 gallons. By 1799, Mount Vernon had nearly 11,000 gallons flowing.
Washington died not long after, and without his leadership, business slowed considerably. In 1814, the distillery burned to the ground.
The distillery was reconstructed after ten years of research and excavation (begun in the late 1990's) of the original site. It is the only authentic 18th-century distillery in the country. Distillers, wholesalers, and various other industry leaders donated around $1.3 million for the restoration. The reconstructed buildings have been open to visitors since 2007 as an educational museum and gift shop.
Washington's whiskey recipe -- or mashbill, to use a whiskey term -- was 65 percent rye, 30 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley. While most of the whiskey made in America today is mostly corn and labeled bourbon, rye was the cheaper, more popular grain in Washington's time.
This week the public had a chance to buy rye whiskey made from the same recipe George Washington used. The first public tasting was held at Mount Vernon with bottles priced at $85 each with proceeds benefiting the estate's educational programs. Unfortunately, the few hundred bottles available sold out quickly.
Alabama-born LeNell Smothers defines herself first and foremost as a bartender, but she's been called many things -- most recently, the proprietress of Casa Cóctel with partner Demián Camacho Santa Ana. She's owned her own whiskey label, called Red Hook Rye, and has been recognized by her home state as an honorary Colonel. Other interests include gin, sin and men.