Alexandria Friends Helped Launch George Washington's Whiskey Business, Profits Soared
After his presidency ended in 1797, George Washington returned once again to private life at Mount Vernon. Finally, he could get back to running his farms and building his businesses. As a businessman, Washington was innovative. He thought outside of the box, adapted to changing markets, and took calculated risks.
In 1797, Washington's vision was tested by the proposal of his farm manager, a Scotsman named James Anderson. Anderson had an idea to develop a portion of Washington's property at Dogue Creek into a distillery. Since 1771, Washington had operated a gristmill at the the location known as Dogue Run Farm.
It was an intriguing proposal, yet Washington was not totally sold on the idea. He didn't know the whiskey business. It seemed like a big risk. Anderson must have told him that the ample supply of water from the creek made it an ideal location. Furthermore, Washington could use the leftover mash to feed his livestock.
With Anderson's proposal in mind, Washington decided to consult his good friend John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a Revolutionary War veteran, and a former aide-de-camp to Washington throughout multiple campaigns during America's fight for independence. After the war, Fitzgerald returned to private life as a merchant in Alexandria. He also helped start the first Catholic Church in Virginia, which is known today as the Basilica of St. Mary's.
As we have discussed in previous posts, Fitzgerald bought a piece of property that is currently at the foot of King Street. On the property, he built a large warehouse, which is still visible in Alexandria to this day. Washington wrote a letter to Fitzgerald in which he asked about Anderson's proposal. A portion of the letter reads as follows:
Mr Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing 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.
One can imagine Anderson pitching Washington Shark Tank-style on his distillery idea. Perhaps he made his case in front of a skeptical Washington by saying, "Trust me, I know what I am doing. I did this for years in Europe!" Anderson tried to sell Washington not only on his experience and whiskey producing acumen but also on the previously mentioned collateral benefit to Washington's livestock. Furthermore, as Washington pointed out, the supply chain issue of grain was not a problem because it could be procured from his own farms.
The question was whether there was a market for the whiskey. Could the spirits of Mount Vernon fly off the shelves in Alexandria? Washington turned to Fitzgerald as part of his market research. He trusted Fitzgerald's knowledge and experience with the rum business, which is what "molasses" alludes to. Fitzgerald wasted no time responding with a letter dated the same day as Washington's inquiry. A portion of the letter reads as follows:
As I have no doubt but Mr Anderson understands the Distillation of Spirit from Grain I cannot hesitate in my Opinion that it might be carried on to great advantage on your Estate—considering that the Grain will be chiefly if not entirely raised on your land & the amazing benefit your Stock of Cattle & Hoggs will receive⟨.⟩ as to a Sale of the Whiskey there can be no doubt if the Quantity was ten times as much as he can make provided it is of a good Quality.
Fitzgerald loved the idea! He vouched for Anderson's experience and confirmed the fact that the distillery would provide additional feed for the livestock. He then went on to say that he had "no doubt" a "good quality" would sell. Fitzgerald had a lot of confidence in Anderson's plan because he knew there was a market for Washington's whiskey.
Washington was convinced by his friend. A week later, he wrote to Anderson and gave him permission to begin distilling. On the business of running a distillery, Washington conceded his ignorance and wrote, "I am entirely unacquainted with [it]." However, he gave the greenlight by expressing his trust in Anderson. He wrote, "But from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one."
Now Washington was in the whiskey business. Years before the Discovery Channel made a series about it, our nation's first president was one of the original Virginia Moonshiners! He had his supply chain worked out with a source of corn, wheat, and rye from his own property. This also speaks to Washington's ability to adapt as a businessman and farmer. For many years, Washington had been a tobacco farmer. However, tobacco depleted the soil and was much more labor intensive. Thus, like many Virginia planters, Washington made a shift to wheat and corn.
At this point, Washington had also tested the market and done his research. Where would he get all of his customers? Where was the market for his whiskey?
Once again, he looked to his friends in Alexandria. Mount Vernon was Washington's home, but Alexandria was his hometown. It was where his friends, business partners, fellow church members, and Revolutionary War veterans lived. They were his neighbors who had helped Washington throughout his entire adult life.
One of his friends and veterans was a merchant named George Gilpin. Gilpin first entered service with General Washington during the siege of Boston from 1775-1776. Since the war ended, Gilpin was a big time mover and shaker in Alexandria. He helped "bank" out Alexandria's shoreline as the Director of Paving and Grading streets. He owned a substantial amount of land on the southside of Prince Street's 100 block. He was a member of Christ Church and served on the vestry. Gilpin was the go-to guy for Washington. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Gilpin would was also one of Washington's pallbearers on December 18, 1799.
Over the next two years, Gilpin became the number one purchaser of Washington's whiskey. Mount Vernon's website writes the following, "Washington’s whiskey was sold to neighbors and in stores in Alexandria and Richmond. His best customer was his close friend George Gilpin. Gilpin owned a store in Alexandria where he sold the whiskey. Other Alexandria merchants also bought large quantities to resell."
What was the net effect of Washington's sales? How did this venture which his friends helped him get into work out? Mount Vernon writes the following:
At peak production, the distillery utilized five stills and a boiler and produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, yielding Washington a profit of $7,500 in 1799. This made the distillery one of the most successful economic components of Mount Vernon.
Sounds like a lot of cash flow. What would $7,500 be in 2023? A CPI inflation calculator computes the total sum at $186,396.95 in today's dollars. This is reportedly the profit. Not too bad. Washington was lucky to have a manager like Anderson, whom he described as an "honest, industrious, and judicious Scotchman." High praise from the father of our nation!
Beyond Washington's talented manager and his distribution network in Alexandria, Washington also had six enslaved workers that helped run the day to day operations of the distillery. They were doing the grunt work and providing the sweat equity that could make the business thrive. Mount Vernon explains, "As the work and the output of the distillery rapidly increased, Washington assigned six of his enslaved men—Hanson, Peter, Nat, Daniel, James, and Timothy—to work with Anderson in the production of whiskey and other spirits." It was also likely that the enslaved workers slept on the second floor of the distillery during busy times.
If you drive three miles south from the Washington's Mansion on the Potomac River, you will see the Gristmill and Distillery on the right. Both locations are open to visitors. Tours are conducted on the weekends from April through October and included with a grounds pass to Mount Vernon. The Mansion is about 9.5 miles south of Alexandria and the Gristmill and Distillery are 12.5 miles south of Alexandria as you drive down the George Washington Parkway. It is a scenic drive along the tree lined banks of the Potomac River and will take slightly over 20 minutes from Alexandria's Visitor Center at 221 King St.
For five Saturdays in September 2023, there will be a whiskey tasting in the afternoon from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors will be able to taste Washington's whiskey! Washington's distillery was fully reconstructed in 2007 on its original location near Dogue Creek where it sits adjacent to Washington's Gristmill. It is an active distillery producing whiskey using the same formula from the 18th-century. At the same time, Mount Vernon sells aged whiskey ranging from 2 years for straight rye and 3-4 years for premium rye. The September 2023 whiskey tastings will also feature 5-year premium whiskey for the first time. This is different from Washington's whiskey, which was sold unaged.
There are many fascinating details about Washington's life from his early career as a surveyor and later service as America's first president. In between, he helped win a war for America's independence and built a highly successful business. Washington is a remarkable man, whose life should be studied and emulated.
When it comes to his innovation and skills as a businessman, his distillery offers additional insight into Washington's life and legacy. A visit to Mount Vernon is special, and guests should take advantage of the opportunity to see the Distillery and Gristmill.
With this trip, the city of Alexandria offers a critical component of Washington's distilling operation. At Alexandria History Tours, we highlight multiple locations associated with both John Fitzgerald and George Gilpin. At least two of these locations are near the foot of King Street where people can see Fitzgerald's warehouse. To the west on the 200 block of King Street is the Gilpin House. Visitors can see the home and business of George Gilpin, who played a major role in developing Alexandria into a prosperous port city. And what better way to toast Alexandria's prosperity than a drink of George Washington's finest distilled whiskey.
From George Washington to John Fitzgerald, 12 June 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0147
To George Washington from John Fitzgerald, 12 June 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0148
From George Washington to James Anderson (of Scotland), 7 April 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0059
All images are from the author