View Full Version : George Washington, Whiskey Entrepreneur

02-21-2007, 07:41
from todays wall street journal, in honor of Washington's birthday:

February 21, 2007; Page D8

Mount Vernon, Va.
Although George Washington was born 275 years ago tomorrow, most Americans think they know a great deal about him. He led American soldiers in winning our independence from Britain. He was the nation's first president. He adorns our dollar bill and a new dollar coin. But how many people know he was also a leading businessman, probably the No. 1 whiskey producer in all of colonial America?

Indeed, Washington was a prosperous farmer and entrepreneur throughout his life. "He thought like an American businessman," says Jim Rees, the executive director of Washington's Mount Vernon estate. "He was a true disciple of the free enterprise system, and he sensed that our new system of government would encourage people to think creatively, take chances and invest."

Mr. Rees is proud that Mount Vernon is helping showcase our Founding Father's business career by opening a complete reconstruction of his 75-by-30-foot distillery, which at its peak turned out 11,000 gallons a year of corn and rye whiskey along with fruit brandy. (The distillery and accompanying museum open to the public on March 31.) James Anderson, a Scot who was convinced making whiskey was a growth industry, pitched the idea to Washington just weeks before he retired from office. Import taxes had reduced the consumption of molasses-based rum and made home-grown hooch popular. At the time, the average American consumed five gallons of distilled spirits every year, compared with only 1.8 gallons today.

Washington admitted in a letter he wrote to Anderson that liquor was "a business I am entirely unacquainted with," but the advice of a rum distiller friend of his persuaded him to invest in two stills that produced an initial 80 gallons of whiskey. Sales were brisk enough that within months Washington decided to build a distillery on the site of one of his unprofitable farms. The building housed five copper stills, a boiler and 50 mash tubs.

I sampled the re-created product -- made of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley -- during the recent dedication of the rebuilt distillery. Truth to tell, while the color was a pleasing amber with reddish tones, the taste was more reminiscent of moonshine than today's bourbons. In Washington's time, "quality" was a term that referred to the alcohol content far more than the complexity of the distilling process.

For all of Washington's success in selling liquor, Mount Vernon guides are quick to note that he was a light drinker who refused to tolerate alcohol abuse among his employees or soldiers. "He appreciated the benefits of drink and also recognized the need for moderation," says Peter Cressy, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council, which put up $1.5 million toward the distillery restoration. The council views the Washington site as the crown jewel in a new "American Whiskey Trail," a collection of whiskey-related tourist sites that dot Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
But for all of Washington's commendable belief in moderate alcohol use, he very much appreciated its utility. Esther White, a Mount Vernon archaeologist, told me Washington once lost a 1755 campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates because he didn't treat prospective supporters to a drink. Two years later, he rolled out 144 gallons of refreshment. He won with 307 votes, a return on his investment of better than two votes per gallon. He never lost another campaign.

During the Revolution, Washington was also convinced of the salutary effects of alcohol on his troops: It kept them feeling warm and upbeat and discouraged desertions. In 1777, he instructed the purchasing officer of the Continental Army that "there should always be a sufficient quantity of spirits with the army." He noted in a letter to John Hancock that the "benefits arising from moderate use of liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed."

But when he became president, Washington found liquor to be at the center of the biggest rebellion his young government faced. Southwestern Pennsylvania, where a fourth of America's stills were located, rose up against a 7.5-cent tax on every gallon of whiskey that was imposed by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Historian Bernard Weisberger notes that distillers were furious not so much at the tax but that "it allowed collectors to snoop in barns, closets and cellars" to catch evaders. The farmers formed their own army, marched on Pittsburgh and captured it. Washington had to send 15,000 militiamen to suppress what became known as the "Whiskey Rebellion."

When it came to his own future career as a distiller, Washington paid careful attention to the business. Mount Vernon owns the original financial ledger for the operation. This was no retiree's hobby; the ledger shows many important local families were customers and made the distillery very successful. The good times ended after Washington's sudden death in 1799 at age 67. His distillery passed into the hands of other owners and by 1814 had been dismantled to provide construction materials for nearby homes.

Had Washington lived longer, who knows how big his infant whiskey operation could have grown? At the dedication of the rebuilt distillery, Mr. Rees spoke of what might have been: "If Washington had lived another five or maybe 10 years, I think one of his descendants would be sitting right there, in this audience, right next to the other CEOs of the nation's best distilleries."

But today's whiskey barons have nothing to fear from a new Mount Vernon-sponsored whiskey line. Mr. Rees says he plans to limit the new output of Washington's brew to a few commemorative bottles that will raise money at auction for Mount Vernon's educational programs -- which attract over a million visitors a year to the historic site and the new museum complex next to it.

"We have no plans to enter the high-stakes liquor business," says Mr. Rees, "even though it's tempting, given that the name of George Washington would certainly provide us with a sensational marketing advantage: We could say he was First in War, First in Peace and First in Smooth Libations."

02-25-2007, 21:29
Mr. Rees spoke of what might have been: "If Washington had lived another five or maybe 10 years, I think one of his descendants would be sitting right there

Except that Washington had no descendants. You'd think that the executive director of Mount Vernon would know that.

Of course, I suppose that if he'd lived longer he might have fathered children, although not by Martha, that's for sure.


02-26-2007, 13:32
I have been struck a couple of times by Jim Rees' tendency to draw very broad conclusions and make very sweeping statements, to the point where it hurts his credibility with me. He's definitely not the careful academic. In fairness, though, George did have two adoptive children, Martha's by her first husband. But that doesn't quite cover it. Not sure what Rees was thinking, because surely he knew Washington's familial situation.

It was originally believed that the distillery shut down shortly after Washington's death but subsequent scholarship shows that James Anderson, Washington's estate manager and the driving force behind the distillery from the beginning, continued to operate it with his son for some years thereafter, a fire being what finally put them out of business.