- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

The story of George Washington has been told over and over, from his time as commander of the Continental Army to his tenure as our nation’s first president, from Mount Vernon to crossing the Delaware.

Washington’s short but prosperous retirement years often are left out, however. George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmil, located just down the road from the sprawling Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens south of Alexandria, gives visitors a living-history picture of Washington’s businesses in his later years.

Washington opened a state-of-the-art grain mill in 1791, when he was still president. At its peak, the mill, powered by a 16-foot waterwheel, produced as much as 100,000 pounds of flour a month.

Washington was looking for a moneymaking idea in 1797 when his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, persuaded him to try making whiskey. A year later, the distillery was the largest in the country.

Both the distillery and the gristmill have been restored to working order, so Washington’s story is more complete, says manager Steven Bashore.

“People are now starting to learn about George Washington as an entrepreneur and farmer,” Mr. Bashore says. “At that time, flour was a big moneymaker. It was exported to the West Indies, Portugal, England and other places. George Washington was thinking on a big scale — he wanted America to be the granary to the world. He saw that in the 1780s and was ahead of his time.”

The mill was restored by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and reopened to the public in 2002. Visitors can see millers at work turning wheat into flour and corn into meal on the complex machinery, which includes French buhrstones, grain elevators and flour sifters as big as a sofa.

Mr. Bashore points out that the story of a mill is the story of progress for America.

To be able to mill grain was “critical,” he says. “Without it, people could not have fed themselves. It is part of America’s story as an agricultural nation.”

The move from grain to alcohol was natural. Anderson, Washington’s employee, knew the process of turning grain into spirits and taught the rest of the farm crew the complicated recipe.

Until the past decade, the distillery was mostly legend. The ledgers and operational notes were part of Washington’s writings, but because the original building burned down in 1814, the stills and building were gone.

Archaeologists mapped the spot where they thought the distillery had been and spent 1999 through 2006 excavating it. A display at the property shows the process as the archaeologists found the stone foundation, the location for the five stills and artifacts such as drinking glasses and teacups.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, gave Mount Vernon a grant of $2.1 million to aid in the reconstruction of the distillery, which had its grand opening early this month.

A tour of the distillery gives visitors insight into how whiskey was made in the 18th century.

Mr. Bashore says it is the only distillery in the country that authentically demonstrates the process as it was in Washington’s day.

Though the distillery operates daily, on most days it is re-creating the process — boiling, fermenting, heating and cooling — rather than producing actual whiskey.

At its peak, the distillery was busy and profitable. In 1799, it produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year, valued at $7,500 — about $120,000 today. At the time, the average Virginia distillery produced about 650 gallons per year.

The second floor of the distillery features a historical timeline of whiskey in America and the archaeological process at the site. Before the Revolutionary War, rum was the major drink in America, the materials explain. After the war, whiskey became the more popular drink.

“They were not going to buy Britain’s drink,” Mr. Bashore says.

Also upstairs is a short film, “George Washington’s Liquid Gold,” which re-creates the action at the distillery. The best part of the movie, produced by the History Channel, is the narration by an actor playing Anderson, charming Scottish brogue and all.

WHEN YOU GO:

LOCATION: GEORGE WASHINGTON’S DISTILLERY & GRISTMILL ARE ON ROUTE 235, THREE MILES SOUTH OF MOUNT VERNON.

DIRECTIONS: TAKE GEORGE WASHINGTON MEMORIAL PARKWAY PAST OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA. AT THE MOUNT VERNON ESTATE, TAKE 235 SOUTH AND FOLLOW SIGNS TO THE GRISTMILL.

HOURS: OPEN FROM 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. DAILY, FROM APRIL TO OCTOBER. THE DISTILLERY IS HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE AND HAS AN ELEVATOR.

ADMISSION: $4 FOR ADULTS, $2 FOR CHILDREN AGES 6 TO 11. CHILDREN AGES 5 AND YOUNGER ARE ADMITTED FREE. WHEN COMBINED WITH ADMISSION TO MOUNT VERNON, TICKETS ARE $2 FOR ADULTS AND $1.50 FOR CHILDREN AGES 6 TO 11. PURCHASE TICKETS AT MOUNT VERNON’S FORD ORIENTATION CENTER OR AT THE GRISTMILL SHOP ON-SITE.

PARKING: PLENTY OF FREE PARKING.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide