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America's First President Made Whiskey at Mount Vernon


George Washington was not just a Revolutionary War general and the first president of the United States. He was also a farmer, businessman and whiskey distiller. For two years after his presidency and until his death, Washington produced more than 41,000 liters of whiskey near his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. That distillery recently was rebuilt and has resumed operation. Producer Zulima Palacio prepared the story, narrated by Mil Arcega.

More 200 years after George Washington's death, the American hero's colonial-style distillery is back in business making his specialty -- rye whiskey. The man in charge comes with his own pedigree.

Jimmy Russell is the master distiller for Wild Turkey Distillery in Kentucky, and he is making use of more than 50 years of experience to help rebuild Washington's operation the way it was in the late 1700s.

"This is our [copper] pot still, where you put in your fermented mash in the still and then you have wood fire underneath of it," explained Russell. "The fire is heating up the fermented mash that forms vapor. The vapor is rising to the top, come in to the coils, and down into the barrel where the [cold] water is flowing in, to condense it back into a liquid. And this is your finished whiskey coming out from the fermenting mash."

From the bucket of fresh whiskey, the liquor is moved to a barrel where the distillers plan to let it age for two years. Back in Washington's day there was no waiting. Drinkers drank their whiskey fresh from the still.

Steve Bashore manages the Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill. "Whiskey or spirits were consumed quite a bit back then," he explains. "A lot of estimates indicate that people probably drank three times more spirits than they do today. One of the reasons for that was that water was often suspect. Having good clean drinking water - you didn't always get it."

Bashore said Washington's whiskey recipe is 60 percent rye, 35 percent cornmeal and 5 percent malted barley. He produced whiskey only in the last two years of his life. "In 1799 at this site, Washington made almost 11,000 gallons [41,000 liters] of rye whiskey. That's a huge amount. The value of that whiskey was $7,500, and I believe the profit he made on it was about $1,500."

A few steps from the distillery is a mill, also re-built. Washington also had a milling business and exported flour to Europe. Today, some corn meal is sold at the tourist shop, together with souvenirs. And two years from now, small bottles of whiskey will have a place on these shelves.

Back in George Washington's times, this was the largest whiskey distillery in the country.

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