He was first in war, first in peace and the first and only president to operate a commercial distillery. Friday through April 1, the folks at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate will officially open the father of our country’s distillery.
Washington was a self-made man. He parlayed a successful marriage and contacts into thriving farm and real estate holdings. The president was what would be called an entrepreneur today.
Farm manager James Watson, a native of Scotland, in February of 1797 suggested a distillery would be a perfect compliment to Washington’s gristmill. A large still house with five boilers was completed by March of 1798.
Dennis Pogue has been overseeing the archeological site and the construction of a building based on the original distillery’s dimensions for the past 10 years.
‘‘Everything is positioned where they were in the 18th century,” Pogue said Wednesday morning at the distillery. He explained how the rye, malted barley and corn were mixed with boiling water to make a mash in 120 gallon barrels.
The starch would be turned into sugars and the yeast would be added to consume the sugars, which would ferment the mash into a 4 percent alcohol mass. The mash would then be cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees, at which point the alcohol would turn into a vapor, Pogue explained.
Visitors will be able to see the copper coils immersed in cool water. This bath would condense the alcohol into a 40 percent alcohol solution or 80 proof. The liquid would then be done a second time and come out 60 percent alcohol or 120 proof.
George Washington’s whiskey would be put into barrels and sold for 60 cents a gallon, Pogue said. Whiskey was not aged in those days.
‘‘It was only kept as long as they could sell it,” he said. ‘‘Aging in barrels gives color and flavor. Washington’s whiskey would have been everclear.”
The first president’s whiskey would not have been moonshine since Washington paid the taxes and his whiskey was high quality for the day. The whiskey would have been stored in barrels of various sizes, the most common one being of about 31 gallons.
Washington’s stills made a solid profit of $1,800 in 1799, Pogue said. The distillery burned in 1814.
The state of Virginia purchased the Gristmill property in 1932 and reconstructed the mill and the miller’s cottage. Mount Vernon archeologists and historians conducted research on the site in 1997. The distillery site was excavated between 1999 and 2006.
The reconstruction began in 2005, financed by a $2.1 million gift from the Distilled Sprits Council of the United States. The distillery will be the only one in the country and possibly the world to demonstrate authentic 18th century methods.
People in period costumes are all part of the experience. Ken Johnston, playing the role of the assistant manager of the distillery, Peter Bingle, helped to make the mash Wednesday. He is the director of first person interpretation at Mount Vernon.
‘‘It’s a combination of theater skills and historic skills,” he said. ‘‘Surveys have shown people visiting historic sites want to meet real people.”
Visitors can watch the interpreters engage in idle banter and maybe even play a little with period-piece dice on their breaks from making whiskey.
The Gristmill and Distillery is located on Route 235, three miles south of Mount Vernon. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children.