Wednesday, September 28, 2005

George Washington did more than pace the grounds of his Mount Vernon estate pondering how to be the first president of the United States. He was also becoming one of the country’s first successful entrepreneurs, building a whiskey distillery that made the equivalent of $300,000 in two years.

“George Washington was really quite an entrepreneurial president and businessman — and quite a farmer,” Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council said yesterday.

Mr. Cressy was at Mount Vernon in Virginia, where Washington lived and died more than 200 years ago, to mark the restoration of the distillery.

In 1999, archaeologists uncovered the foundation of the 206-year-old distillery and discovered its blueprints in Washington’s meticulous records.

The new distillery is being built on the site of the original, and the completion date is scheduled for spring 2007.

Jim Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, said Washington starting a distillery was “bold, adventurous and quite risky.”

He said Washington also was a successful fisherman and an innovator whose harvesting and selective-breeding concepts changed the face of 18th-century farming.

“He was an absolutely cutting-edge businessman who was experimenting with things long before anyone else,” Mr. Rees said.

Yesterday’s event was highlighted by cannon fire and a rum-making demonstration by actors dressed in period costumes.

Master distillers and public officials, including former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, toasted the new distillery and discussed the old one.

Washington was infamous for supplying his troops with rations of rum, which was safer to drink than the contaminated water on the battlefields.

After Washington left the presidency, he returned to Mount Vernon, where his farm manager, John Anderson, a master distiller from Scotland, suggested building a whiskey distillery to make use of grain in danger of either rotting or being eaten by mice.

Washington created his own recipe for rye whiskey and, by the time of his death, sold nearly 11,000 gallons.

“It’s awesome to know that over 200 years ago, George Washington was standing over in this same area distilling whiskey,” said Mike Sherman of Vendome Copper and Brass Works, a family-owned distillery company based in Louisville, Ky., that created the 18th-century replica pot still used yesterday in a rum-making demonstration.

He stood in a Colonial costume near the open flame of the still, which is based on a replica of Washington’s still on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute. An actor dressed as Washington gave a speech on the history of the distillery.

A limited-edition whiskey — made from a blend of 11 brands, including aged Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey — was hand-bottled in replica 1778 case bottles and made available to attendees yesterday. The remainder was auctioned for at least $250 a bottle, with proceeds benefiting Mount Vernon’s educational services and Hurricane Katrina relief. The relief fund will be matched by companies belonging to the spirits council in hopes of raising at least an additional $150,000.

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