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George Washington isn’t just one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He is also credited with being a Founding Father of American entrepreneurship. Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia served as the bustling hub of his enterprises: not just farms and fisheries, but also an on-site cooperage, blacksmith, and gristmill. Washington also had an affinity for whiskey, and his knack for finding business success helped the first president become one of the country’s preeminent distillers.
His entree into distillation came just three years after he rode to Pennsylvania with 12,950 soldiers to put down the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion—drinking plenty of local whiskey along the way. Washington opened a distillery at the Mount Vernon estate in 1797, sparking the region’s longstanding tradition of craft distilling and forever linking the area to Scotland.
Washington’s farm manager, a Scotsman named James Anderson, encouraged him to pursue the venture. By 1799 he was operating the largest distillery in the country, with sales of 10,942 gallons of whiskey.
“I don’t think Washington would have ever gotten into whiskey had he not hired James Anderson,” says Steve Bashore, director of historic trades at Mount Vernon. “The Scottish influence is the key point that led Washington to get into it, and I think he trusted James Anderson’s opinion as a farmer and as a distiller.” In Scotland, Anderson had supplied grain to local distilleries and even served as a merchant in the whiskey trade.
After Washington’s death in 1799, the distillery met a swift demise. Mount Vernon was divided between three of Washington’s nephews, and Anderson left by 1804. “Without the Scottish expertise, it didn’t do as well,” Bashore says. In 1814, the distillery burned down.
Nearly two centuries later, after years of excavation and reconstruction, George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill reopened in 2007, bankrolled by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
Last October’s limited release of George Washington Single Malt Whisky—a collaboration between Mount Vernon, DISCUS, and the Scotch Whisky Association—celebrated the Scotland connection. The project began in 2012, with several notable Scotch distillers—Bill Lumsden of The Glenmorangie Co., Andy Cant of Cardhu Single Malt Distillery, and John Campbell of Laphroaig Distillery—joining forces with Mount Vernon and master distiller consultant Dave Pickerell.
“That project was a really great way to culminate that history, by working with those three gentlemen, and tying the history into a full loop together,” Bashore says. The whiskey was produced using Mount Vernon’s traditional techniques and equipment, but with malted barley provided by Scotland’s Glenmorangie distillery. In his day, Washington predominately used a mix of rye and corn, both of which were grown on his farm.
Mount Vernon isn’t the only place in Virginia making whiskey with a direct Scottish tie. Lovingston’s Virginia Distillery Company opened in November 2015 with one of the larger and more unique operations found anywhere in the country, exclusively producing single malt whiskey made from Scottish malted barley. They use a Scotch-style double distillation with massive, shiny Scottish-made copper pot stills that dwarf those found in the majority of today’s craft distilleries.
From the type of stills being used to how they are utilized, Virginia Distillery Company bridges Virginia and Scotland. “We’re trying to take a traditional route,” says CEO Gareth Moore. The operation isn’t Scotch-traditionalist just for novelty. “Our understanding is it makes better whiskey.”
Moore and his team are well aware of the roots the first president laid down, as they showcase an exhibit on his history of whiskey production during a tour of their distillery. Though Virginia Distillery Company wisely tailors their process to Virginia’s climate and their specific equipment, they also follow the time-honored techniques that the Scots have honed over hundreds of years. “History doesn’t lie,” Moore says.
For yet another Scotland-meets-Virginia distilling connection, consider the Bowmore distillery in Islay. It was founded in 1779 and is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries still in operation. Copper Fox Distillery Founder Rick Wasmund interned there, gaining first-hand experience he later brought home to his own venture in Sperryville, Virginia.
Wasmund has a longtime relationship with the Founding Farmers group of restaurants, producing proprietary spirits for the company. He’ll play an even bigger role as Farmers & Distillers readies to open in downtown D.C. because the restaurant’s on-site distillery, Founding Spirits, pays homage to Washington and Mount Vernon.
Wasmund is collaborating with beverage director Jon Arroyo and distillery manager Bob Vanlancker. Even after the first Founding Spirits whiskey is available—potentially in as little as six months—Copper Fox will continue to produce rye whiskey and gin for their restaurants.
“It really struck me that the more I studied George Washington, I looked at him as the founder of American entrepreneurship,” says Founding Farmers owner Dan Simons. “The thing that we took from Washington was really his decision-making approach. The lens with which he viewed an opportunity. What would he do if he was sitting around the table with us today. What decisions would he make?”
Washington made a business decision to become a distiller, putting his gristmill and crops to better and more profitable use while capitalizing on a market shift favoring American spirits in nascent post-Revolution America. The Founding Farmers team has taken a similar approach, using existing connections and capacities to move in a new direction. “Washington would look at the experience he’d have, and we have this experience in the spirits business, we have these relationships with the farmers,” Simons says.
The local whiskey boom owes more toasts to its Scottish ties and the entrepreneurial gusto of the nation’s first president than can be swallowed in one sitting. The rise of craft distilleries across the United States has been meteoric, with DISCUS reporting a growth of well over 700 percent between 2010 and 2015. If only Washington could see how far the nation has come since he began making liquor nearly 220 years ago.CP
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