Whiskey is as American as apple pie. At least that’s what Dennis Pogue, chief archaeologist at Mount Vernon, would have you believe. Over the last several years, he’s spent much of his time making George Washington’s whiskey (our first president was a distiller, in case you didn’t know). Of course, the effort had to start with re-creating Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon. Pogue’s forthcoming book, Founding Spirits, tells the story of the project, as well as the Founding Father’s adventures in distillation and why they’re an important part of history.
What does the chief archaeologist at Mount Vernon do, exactly?
I’m the vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon. That means I look at all the historic structures and oversee the archaeology program. I get to do interesting projects like George Washington’s distillery.
Tell us about the book.
The title is Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. It started with telling the story of Washington’s distillery. Almost nobody knew about it until we started this project a number of years ago. Everybody thinks they know something about George Washington, but, frankly, they don’t know the most interesting parts. One of those is that he not only owned a whiskey distillery, but it was one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country at the time.
Did you have any interest in booze before you started working on this?
Well, there are all these unintended consequences you never really expect when you get into this stuff. I’m an anthropologist by training. I was an archaeologist and drank alcohol. I never thought that I would learn some of the stuff that I have. It’s been pretty interesting.
It seems like you’ve become quite the expert now.
If you’re interested in alcohol and you make it, you’ll learn a lot. Fortunately, through this project I’ve been exposed to master distillers, a real who’s-who list of folks. The industry’s been great to us. So, I’ve been in the happy position of being the liaison between Mount Vernon and the industry and have been able to get involved in some of the [hands-on work]. You learn even though that’s not what you set out to do.
We’ve recently heard about George Washington’s beer recipe being re-created. Why is there so much interest in the potables he drank and made?
George Washington is such an icon so, for a lot of people, they’re not used to thinking of him as being associated with these kinds of activities. He’s president and he’s general — he’s the monumental figure. The fact that he drank alcohol and made it, people find that kind of engaging. It’s more of a personalizing side of Washington, so I think people have interest in seeing the other side of these very famous characters.
Several corporations helped with the project. It must be in the industry’s interest to show that booze is such a big part of American history?
Alcohol is a normal part of America’s history and has been for a long time. Certainly one of the reasons they were interested in working with us is that they thought the association with George Washington would be beneficial. I think that he had a very modern attitude toward it. He drank himself and knew it was a part of life. [Yet] he was fully aware of the detrimental effects of it. He had several employees and officers during the war that got in big trouble. He had to either fire them or they were court-martialed for abusing alcohol. He writes in his correspondence that “abuse of alcohol is the road to ruin.”
So, he wasn’t a big drinker?
He drank. I won’t say a lot, but he drank regularly. When he was growing up, of course, whiskey was not the popular spirit. It was rum, and we know he drank rum primarily in punch form, which is what upper-class folks did. They would mix it with sugar and water and spices and citrus juice, and make a party drink. But his favorites spirits were wine, in particular fortified wines like Madeira, which was really the most popular drink for the elite.
What do you think he would think of the drinking scene these days?
It’s so hard to say. We’ve come so far in so many ways and we’re such a different society today that I think anyone 200 years ago would probably be agog at where we’ve come across the board. On the one level, I don’t know how surprised he would have been. It was part of the social scene at that time, part of life. He probably would be OK with it.
He might be surprised that it’s become so regulated. Of course, he sort of started that, didn’t he?
Washington was involved, of course, in the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. When we started this project, a lot of people said, “Well, Washington had a distillery, but what about the Whiskey Rebellion?” Washington and Alexander Hamilton were looking for revenue to support the new federal government and so a tax on whiskey is what they came up with. When folks didn’t like that idea and rebelled, he very strongly reacted. He brought out 12,000 militiamen and led them into western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion because he was so concerned of the negative precedent that might set.
So, you made Washington’s whiskey recipe and his peach brandy? What else?
We’ve made three products: the whiskey, which is the most historically accurate because we have a very good sense of what his recipe was. He made small amounts of fruit brandies, both apple and peach, so we made peach brandy. That was fun. This is all educational, of course. We’re using these tiny stills over an open fire, which nobody else in the country is doing. It’s a challenge. Part of it is replicating an old process. We also made rum a few years back. Washington didn’t make rum, but it was an important spirit at the time so we wanted to try our hand at it. We are also hoping to make apple brandy.
Will people be able to buy the whiskey?
We just make small batches of it, but we did make it available for sale all last summer — about 500 bottles. They sold out in a couple of hours. We’ve made two other batches since then and the third batch is going to be available later this summer, probably around July 4 at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, it’s the only place where you can get it and it will probably go fairly quickly. It’s $85 or $90 a bottle.
Where does the money go to?
It goes to Mount Vernon and supports our education programs. We’re completely privately funded and we don’t get any federal or government money of any kind. The whiskey project is part of how we are able to operate.