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.


Upcoming Talk

Next Monday, September 15, I am giving a presentation on my research project, “John Barleycorn vs. Sir Richard Rum:  Alcohol, the Atlantic, and the Distilling of Colonial Identity, 1650-1800,” at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon. The talk will occur in the Rubenstein Leadership Hall from 12:00-1:00 pm.

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Decompressing after the Archives

A few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on navigating the archives based on my still limited (but growing) experience. The feedback I received was wonderful, but now I find myself left in the sometimes bewildering state of post-archival decompression. One month is both a short and yet still extended amount of time to spend working at one archive. The four weeks I spent at the Massachusetts Historical Society could not have gone any better. The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and I found more resources than I ever anticipated from the outset of my trip. Having a full month to work with, I took the time to read through the documents, which allowed me to think through the ways I can make use of them.

Working in the Reading Room at the MHS.

One thing that continually caught me off-guard, however, was just how draining a full day of research could be. A month of steady research was incredibly fruitful – but the question remains:  what to do now? The easy answer is to go back and look at the sources I acquired and begin to fit them into the dissertation narrative. Some answers are easier said than done.

Research can wear you down, but how does one move forward and keep their eyes on the prize (as my colleagues and I like to tell each other)? While I certainly welcome any advice some might have, here are my thoughts. Of course, everyone has their own methods, but if you find yourself stuck in the quagmire of research and writing, these steps may be of some help.

1.)  Write something – anything – related to your research. Yesterday, when I couldn’t seem to get my head in gear, I sat down and began scribbling notes and sketching out a new outline for a chapter that has been giving me trouble.   For some, freewriting is a productive technique. I have yet to move completely into the realm of writing free of that nagging editor in the back of my head, but it is important to keep writing, even when stuck in a funk.

2.) If writing just isn’t clicking, and it happens, then try reading a book related to your work. Writing a dissertation involves more work than anyone will ever be able to explain to you, and part of that work is mastering the literature that exists on your topic. While you may not get to every single book published in your area, because let’s face it – you have a dissertation to write – it is good to continue to read through those sources. I found myself missing my books while away for a month. Make use of these sources while you have them handy.

3.) When all else fails, pull a Monty Python and do something completely different. If the weather is nice, take a walk. Since it is currently 500° in Texas*, I like to listen to music. Whatever it is that helps you free your brain and shake it loose from any mocking blank pages or disinterest in reading – take twenty or thirty minutes and don’t think about your work. When that time is up, though, be sure to get back to it.

Writing a dissertation is tough. People say it, but it’s hard to know until your are in the thick of it. Still, it is only one part of completing your degree. It took a lot of work just to get to this point – there is no reason to stop now.

It is time for me to follow my own advice. Please leave any further suggestions in the comments below, or send them my way on Twitter (@KristenDBurton). For those on Twitter who would like to reach out to communities of PhDs, PhD students, and scholarly writers, check out these hashtags: #phdchat, #gradschoolproblems, #writingpact, #acwri, #amwriting.

May be an exaggeration.

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.

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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!

D-Lab and really expensive liquor

This past week I attended a three-day program that focuses on regular dissertation writing from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. This program is called Dissertation Lab (or D-Lab), and it is held every summer at UTA for PhD students who are at the writing stage of the dissertation process. It was an intense three days, but the overall experience was remarkably productive, and I accomplished more than I anticipated.

A picture taken by my colleague, Mylynka Kilgore Cardona, of the D-Lab group diligently working (with me peeking in on the far left).

While working on the chapter, I had a chance to work with some fun sources I gathered while working at The Wellcome Library in London last summer. The Library holds a wealth of cookery and physick (medical) books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which include countless recipes involving alcohol. There was one recipe in particular that I wanted to share, given its wonderful extravagance.

A mid-to-late seventeenth century recipe to make “Orange Watter” – distilled spirits were often known as ‘waters’ – appears common enough at first. Many of the recipes for such spirits were costly, and the addition of two quarts of brandy, as well as thirty ‘civil oranges’ (both imported goods to England), put this recipe out of financial reach for most. However, added on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the recipe there is an intriguing note. It suggests the addition of saffron to the mixture “for colour.” Saffron has long been one of the most desired, and most expensive, spices. A trip to the grocery store today proves that saffron is still quite expensive (an extravagance for graduate students like myself).

Saffron threads.

Saffron was certainly a luxury item in the seventeenth century, but that was not the final addition to this special liquor. The recipe continues: “[add] a small quantity of leafe Gold, Musk and Amber greace [ambergris].” Reading that last line – jotted down with apparent ease, centuries ago, by an unclear contributor to a family cookery book – brought my progress to a halt. First, the gold leaf; the addition of actual gold to the recipe may not be as impressive today, given the inclusion of gold leaf in not-so-expensive liqueurs like Goldschläger, but it was a clear sign of opulence at the time.

The final two ingredients, musk and ambergris, would bring strong aromatic, perfume-like qualities to the recipe. Both ingredients, though, originate from animal sources. Musk was obtained from the musk deer – a species nearly hunted to extinction. Ambergris was (and still is) obtained from sperm whales. In the seventeenth century, both musk and ambergris were extraordinarily expensive. The ingredients were also believed to be aphrodisiacs, placing this recipe for a orange-flavored liquor in a very interesting category.

Unfortunately, this recipe did not offer any description of the use for this ‘Orange Watter.’ Was it medicinal? Many of the recipes for spirits in these sources were intended to be used as a cure for all sorts of ailments. The inclusion of musk could hint at medicinal properties, as it was used as a restorative at that time. Was it simply an enjoyable, luxurious beverage – one that I am sure (or hope) was consumed in very small quantities? It isn’t clear what the purpose of this beverage was, or if the person who documented this intriguing recipe had any particular interest in that aspect. Such is the frustration historians encounter time and time again. We read through these preserved sources, such as these recipe books, to find enticing insight into the behaviors of those who lived in the past, without the contextual framework to give it meaning. I suppose, though, that is my job.

While I continue to mull over what to make of this particular recipe, it was a surprising and amusing find in the midst of the three-day writing grind. At the very least, I know that every liquor I buy from now on will likely appear rather dull in comparison.

Sidecar Cocktail
What, no saffron?