MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- With his wooden teeth, powered wig and staid expression, George Washington is not remembered today as a party animal. But both he and fellow Founder Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a good drink and used their gorgeous Virginia estates to make
Washington's wooden teeth, as you soon learn on a stroll through the expansive, modern visitors' center at Mount Vernon, is a myth, but Washington's whiskey, which the first president hand-crafted in a stone distillery that was rebuilt and opened to the public just last year, is no myth. Jefferson's love of elegant wine is no myth, either. But, although he failed to make wine after many frustrating attempts, our bon vivant third president's restored vineyards are a prime reason for visiting Monticello.
Both estates, lovingly maintained by nonprofit foundations and long popular with visitors, have recently begun to seriously talk about the two national heroes' relationships with drink. Alas, actually sampling modern versions of presidential whiskey and wine on-site is not easy -- unless you visit Mount Vernon or Monticello on special occasions, in which case you may literally get a taste of history.Viewing Washington and Jefferson through a glass, clearly, is another way of seeing them. It humanizes these long-ago sages and makes them seem more like real people.
Certainly that's what I thought when I learned on a recent visit that prim and proper George Washington was America's largest, richest maker of commercial whiskey at his death in 1799. Washington was persuaded to use his creekside grist mill and new distillery to make whiskey by a Scottish-born associate, James Anderson, who thought high-octane hooch could fuel a thriving business. He was right. At its peak, Washington's distillery made 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year.
Located on route 235, three miles south of Mount Vernon and its stunning views over the Potomac River, Washington's distillery is a handsome, two-story replica rebuilt for $3 million and opened in March 2007. The distillery, open from March through October, carries a separate admission charge ($4 adults, $2 children) from the rest of Mount Vernon, with its stately manor house, cluster of work buildings and working farm. All are run by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association , which has maintained the estate since 1858.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States ponied up $2.1 million of the cost of rebuilding the distillery, using 18th century construction methods and patterning the building on discoveries made by archeologists who excavated the site.