George Washington Slept It Off Here

The Distilled Spirits Council is restoring the first President's still at Mt. Vernon, a neat way to blend history and image-polishing

By Marta Roberts

What's in a name? Plenty if that name is George Washington. Small wonder that the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) is ponying up a pile of dead presidents to honor Washington as one of the Founding Fathers of American whiskey-making.

Yes, George Washington operated a still at his Mt. Vernon estate in Alexandria, Va. It was a fairly large, for-profit startup, established after Washington left the White House. And on May 21, the council, representing the likes of Brown-Forman, Jim Beam Brands, and Maker's Mark gathered at George's old estate to break ground on a $1.2 million distillery excavation project, which the council has underwritten. The idea is to restore the distillery to the way it looked in Washington's day -- and create an added tourist attraction at Mt. Vernon, beginning in 2003.


  As part of the festivities, barrels full of alcohol from various manufactures were floated down the Potomac River on replicas of Washington-era boats, then rolled ashore, loaded on ox-carts, and driven down a path to the place where the distillery sat more than 200 years ago.

The barrels will remain on the site for a year, at which time there will be a tasting on the grounds. Remaining supplies will be bottled and sold by the liquor distillers as Mt. Vernon commemoratives.

Although Mt. Vernon, which is run by a private, non-profit group, won't actually make or bottle any alcohol on its premises, members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control were on hand to present permits dated 1797.


  Naturally, this being not much more than a stone's throw beyond the Beltway, there was also a lobbying angle to all the hoopla. After all, with so-called "sin taxes" on alcohol claiming greater percentages of their revenues, distillers have much to gain from partnering with our first President. What better way to polish the image of an industry than by promoting the fact that George Washington was in the same business? Declares DISCUS President Peter Cressy: "It's a celebration of our partnership with Mt. Vernon."

As part of the deal, plaques bearing the names of company sponsors will be prominently displayed, and the sponsorships will be referenced in the literature distributed at the site. "Alcohol was a major part of what was going on then," says CEO Jim B. Adams of Bowman Distillery, makers of Virginia Gentleman bourbon. Washington started distilling in 1797 as a way to diversify his farming and fishery businesses. Grain ground in the gristmill, located adjacent to the distillery, was fermented, bottled, and sold in various grades to buyers in the Virginia area. In the two years that the distillery was operational, it produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year, and brought in nearly $7,500 annually, making it the third most profitable commodity produced on the farm's 8,000-odd acres, after grains and fish.


  Today, the distilled-spirits business is a $95 billion-a-year industry. "It's a piece of our heritage," says Dave Wagner, vice-president of administration for Jim Beam Brands Co. Jim Beam, which has been in the whiskey business since 1775, is another sponsor.

More than 1 million visitors traipse through Mt. Vernon each year. When the restoration is complete, visitors to the mansion will be given the chance to shuttle to the distillery, located three miles from the main grounds. (The original Mt. Vernon estate was a huge place.)

The event ended with manufactures holding their respective beverages high in a toast led by a George Washington impersonator. By placing their names alongside the Father of Our Country, alcohol manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are buying themselves a piece of history. Yes, George Washington really did sleep here -- or at least close by.

By Marta Roberts at Mt. Vernon

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht