While Kentucky and Tennessee are considered the heart of whiskey country, the beginning of the American Whiskey Trail is right in Alexandria at George Washington’s Distillery at the Historic Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens.
After his presidency, Washington pursued a variety of business ventures, the most lucrative of which was distilling hooch, principally rye whiskey. In fact, Washington, with labor supplied by slaves, operated one of the largest whiskey distilleries in early America, producing nearly 11,000 gallons in 1799, the year he died.
According to historian Dennis Pogue, Washington’s distillery quickly became integral to the running of the Mount Vernon estate. As Pogue noted in “Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey,” the booze produced on site was often used as payment to laborers, artisans and local merchants, and was made available for medicinal purposes to slave and family alike. Washington’s gardener, for example, had a contract that stipulated payment of “four Dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights.”
In 1997, significant archaeological and historical research was conducted on the Mount Vernon estate, and the site of the original 30-by-75-foot distillery — destroyed by fire in 1814 — was excavated between 1999 and 2006. In 2005, reconstruction of the distillery began.
George Washington’s Distillery is fully functional, producing a small batch of distilled spirits every month (sold only on the estate), and it remains the only distillery in the nation to, as Historic Mount Vernon puts it, “demonstrate the process of whiskey making as it was carried out in 18th-century America.”
It’s a highly educational tour. The distillery — together with Mount Vernon’s farm site, gristmill and education center — teaches folks about the historical period, Washington’s business acumen and entrepreneurial side, and about making whiskey. It is easy to see why George Washington’s Distillery is an excellent starting place for exploring the American Whiskey Trail.
If you’d like to venture farther afield, you might enjoy the organic and kosher certified (under the Star-K) Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, Va. (catoctincreek.com), or One Eight Distilling in Washington (oneeightdistilling.com) or the Lyon Distilling Company in St. Michaels, Md., on the Eastern Shore (lyondistilling.com).
I recommend a glass of Catoctin Creek, Roundstone Rye, Distiller’s Edition, 92 Proof 46 percent abv; $53): A punchier, more intense version of their regular Roundstone Rye, this is open, sweet and fruity on the nose, but with some lovely roasted nuts, gingerbread, caramel, maple and spice flavors. It is medium-bodied, offering a satisfying tingle on the palate. Overall vibrant and tasty. L’chaim!
Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].