Making Washington’s Whiskey: Living and Working at Mount Vernon

Those who have been following this page probably know that I spent the past fall semester working at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. I did this after receiving a three-month fellowship offered by the library (you can learn more about the fellowship program and how to apply here), which provided me with ample time to conduct research, write chapter drafts, and enjoy the events held at Mount Vernon. It would be an understatement to say that it was a remarkable experience, especially as I was there in the midst of the gorgeous Virginia fall weather.

The Fred W. Smith National Library from the back.

Many of the events held at Mount Vernon seemed to be a perfect fit for my research. The whiskey and beer dinners were not only fun, but these events helped me get in touch with the folks who worked at the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery. The distillery offers tours to the public through the end of October – after that point, the distillery goes into operation. Therefore, the first two months of my fellowship were largely focused on manuscript research and writing. This was a true pleasure, as it included working with the original manuscript of James Anderson’s ledger for Washington’s distillery.

Distillery Ledger
With Anderson’s distillery ledger.

The size of the book surprised me, especially as the enterprise was a new one for Washington only agreed to the construction of a distillery after Anderson, his Scottish farm manager, convinced him to give it a shot (and after Washington conferred with John Fitzgerald, a rum distiller, to see if it actually was worth trying).

“Mr[.] Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing [sic] it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, & in Europe, that I shall find my acct in it, particularly in the benefits my stock would derive from it. The thing is new to me, in toto; but in a distillery of another kind (Molasses) you must have a good general knowledge of its profits, & whether a ready sale of the Spirit[s] is to be calculated on from grain (principally to be raised on my own Farms) and the offal of my Mill. I, therefore, have taken the liberty of asking your opinion on the proposition of Mr[.] Anderson.”
– George Washington to John Fitzgerald, June 12, 1797

Fitzgerald responded to Washington’s inquiry affirming Anderson’s knowledge of distilling and claim that whiskey production would result in profit.

Washington ended up funding Anderson’s plan for a distillery, and once the distillery began operation, Anderson kept careful notes on its operation in the ledger pictured above. The distillery only operated for a short time. It began production in October of 1797, and by 1799 the distillery produced around 11,000 gallons of whiskey. Following Washington’s death at the end of 1799, though, the distillery never matched that output again. Anderson left a few years later, and in 1814, the distillery was destroyed by a fire. Between 1999 and 2006, archaeologists excavated the site, and a reconstructed building now stands in the spot of Washington’s original distillery.

The reconstructed distillery.

People can visit the distillery, though not while it is in production. Distilling involves many hazards, and it is simply too dangerous for tour groups to mill around while the distillers are at work. Lucky for me, though, Steve Bashore, the Manager of Historic Trades and head distiller (also a UTA alum!), invited me to join them while they worked on a batch of rye whiskey.

Production began November 1, and I visited about four or five times throughout the month to see how the overall process of distillation operated. The distillers take great lengths to preserve the eighteen-century distilling methods, which provided me with a unique opportunity to wrap my head around early modern methods for producing spirits.

Steve Bashore shows how the process works in the reconstructed distillery in this video:

The few days I stopped by the distillery, I developed a great sense of admiration for the people who run the place today. I also gained a new perspective for the amount of labor that seventeenth and eighteenth century distillers – many who were enslaved – endured to keep the great rum industry running (whiskey production would match the scale of rum production in the nineteenth century).

The people who worked at the distillery were all incredibly kind and patient as I asked an unending stream of questions. Before seeing the process in action at Mount Vernon, I had only read about the distilling process in both modern and eighteenth century accounts and guides. I read about it, but I didn’t completely understand it. It was like trying to read a cookbook without having ever cooked a meal. But seeing distilling in action completely changed the way I understood the process.

A still and condenser in the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery.

Terms that I had read became physical actions; cautionary guidelines became clear warnings against spoiling a batch. Words like “puke,” “worm,” and “break” took on new meanings. I was like a child attending school for the first time, and I took frantic mental notes throughout each day.

The distillery, when in operation, is a busy place. The water boiler and the smoke from the stills makes the air hazy and difficult to see through. Heavy buckets of mash, burning fires, and boiling water all present hazards that threaten injury. The distillers all take careful precautions to avoid hurting themselves or others, but it seemed that each person I spoke to had their own story of ways the distillery ‘bit back’ as they navigated the production process. Luckily, I managed to escape unscathed, but I also did a lot more hanging back and observing than the rest.

The haziness caused by the boiler and the smoke from the stills makes visibility difficult at times.

I did participate at times, and I did my best to follow instructions. Goodness knows, I did not want to be responsible for ruining a batch of whiskey (though, I was assured by everyone there that such an outcome was highly unlikely – still, I remained cautious). Because the distillers try to preserve eighteenth-century methods, many of the steps that are now mechanized in modern distilleries are carried out by hand at Mount Vernon. Literally – by. hand.

Bags of rye, barley, and malt are poured into the fermenters by hand. Boiling water is carried from the boiler to the fermenters in buckets by hand. The mash is raked, you guessed it… by hand. The entire process is remarkably labor intensive, and I will admit I was not quite prepared for physical demands the first day I visited.

Raking the mash
Raking the mash.
Adding the malt
Adding the malt.

Still, they let me participate in almost all aspects of the process, and the experience is one I will never forget. After spending a few days at the distillery, I returned to my eighteenth-century distilling manuals, and they made sense in a way they never had before. This experience showed me how diving into the history and engaging with the actions captured within the text of primary sources can completely change the context of those words. It also underscored the difficulty historians face every time they try to recreate and understand such activities, like distilling or cooking in the early modern era. While I have gained new knowledge of distillation, it is important for me to remember what I participated in is a reconstruction and an interpretation of eighteenth-century distilling. Is it exact? Certainly not. But it was about as close as I am going to get.


To all those who worked at the distillery during my time there I wish to offer my deepest thanks. Special thanks goes to Steve Bashore for inviting me to participate in the first place. You all have no idea what an impact your time and knowledge has had on my own work. Thank you.


Working in the Archives

Work in the archives – it’s something historians will do at some point in their career. Even with the increasing number of documents becoming available in digital formats, there is still so much material that remains tucked away in individual archives. Recently, I began a one-month fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and while this is not the first archival research trip I’ve done, this is still a process that takes time to adapt to. Beginning this most recent trip, I’ve been reminded of all the little details that go into the preparation process. I have also been thinking back on how frustrating it was for me to learn this process from the outset. Naturally, I talked to faculty members about such trips, but I remember wishing someone would just tell me what to expect.

Unfortunately, that is difficult to do. People who made such research trips before told me this, but I was dissatisfied with the information. I wanted to know what it was like to walk into an archive and work with original documents. There were no clear guidelines, but I will try to convey some of the details I now know here.

Docs - NA UK
Working with some documents at the UK National Archives.

First: Every archive/library/special collections, etc. is different. Not simply in the sense that they are located in different areas or have different materials, but each place has its own way of doing things. It is important to familiarize yourself with these details before you leave. Does an archive allow photography? When is the last call to submit documents? What exactly can you carry with you into the reading room? Each place should have this information available online, but if you can’t find it, then give them a call. It is better to be prepared than caught off guard.

For example, in my first major research trip I visited four archives in London, and each place had different requirements before I would be allowed to work there. Every place will require some form of identification, but make sure you have the right kind (this should be stated on the archive’s website). Some places, like the UK National Archives, required two forms of identification, other places only required one. Some places, they will take your picture and print out an I.D. card that you have to use to scan your way in and out of the reading room, other places, like Lambeth Palace Library, require you bring a passport-style photo with you (to attach to your library I.D. card).

The National Archives, UK (aka, Kew or PRO, Public Record Office).

So, each place has its own way of doing things, and for a number of procedures, you simply have to learn as you go. Also, don’t feel embarrassed if you feel confused or lost! My first day at the UK National Archives was the first time I worked at an archive, period. I was wandering around unsure of where to go when a security guard asked, “First time here?” It was pretty obvious, but that was ok. Archivists, reference librarians, and archival security guards are very nice people who can help you  navigate the building, the process of requesting materials, etc.

Second: Know what you are going for. This isn’t as crucial as making sure you have the right materials to enter the archive, but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to request. Browse the archive’s catalog, if it is online, and build a list of materials you wish to look at while there. It is possible you will have to request these materials a few days in advance, so, again, get in touch with the archivists and learn the procedure.

Organizing this information can be tricky, and you will have to find what works best for you. For me, I like to have a Word file that lists all the materials I plan to request.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.24.36 PM
Here are two examples.

This way I know what I want to look at, what form it is available in, and roughly how big the collection is before I even get started. As I request and send back the materials, I strike through the call number so I know I don’t have to request it again. When you really begin to work through these documents, it becomes difficult to keep track of what you have and have not looked at.

For each archive, I also set up a separate file simply for taking notes. The graduate advisor in our department, and one of my committee members, suggested doing this, and it is a truly excellent idea. Keep that file up the entire time you are there to jot down any notes, questions, quotes, or any other details that may be useful to you later. It’s an easy way to help you keep track of a lot of information.

My work station at the Kew. These tables had tripods built-in for cameras. This was very handy, but also not a common option at other archives.

FinallyDress and act professionally. This is a personal point for me, but I think it is an important one. You are at an archive to work, so dress accordingly. That being said, I have noticed people wearing jeans and t-shirts at almost every place I’ve worked at so far, and it is rarely a big deal. The archives certainly won’t turn you away (though double-check that point on their website just in case). It has been my impression that most people working at archives tend to dress in a professional manner, and I prefer to match that standard. Bring a light sweater or pull over with you – reading rooms can get pretty chilly after you have been in there for several hours. Each archive typically offers lockers to stow away bags, computer cases, and other materials not allowed in the reading room, so you can keep the sweater there if you don’t need it. I learned rather quickly that it is better to have that option available.

Working at The Wellcome Library, London.

Ultimately, a trip to the archives is a wonderful experience. It can be tedious at times, sifting through page after page of a collection, just hoping something that applies to your project will appear. However, it can also be remarkably exciting. You get the opportunity to look at the remnants of lives, in some cases, long ended. You can read a letter from an 18th century merchant apologizing to a client for losing their purchased goods because of a pirate attack, or the first impressions of the “New World” by bewildered European explorers.

So have fun, be prepared, and good luck!

This is the advice of a young historian who is still learning the ropes, so if anyone else has their own piece of advice for archival research trips, please share them in the comments!