Whiskey’s origin lies somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 AD when traveling monks migrating across Europe, introduced the distillation practice into Scotland and Ireland.  Because of the lack of vineyards in these countries, the monasteries turned to fermenting grain mashes and then distilling them into whiskey.  For the next 400 years, whiskey spread throughout the Celtic countries.  In 1536, when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the monks turned to wholesale production of whiskey in order to make a living for themselves.  As European settlers arrived in early America, they also brought the art of distilling whiskey with them During the American Revolutionary War, distillers used whiskey as a common form of currency as it was highly valued in the newly formed country.  

George Washington began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland and Virginia. He successfully petitioned George Washington that Mount Vernon’s crops, combined with the large merchant gristmill and the abundant water supply, would make the distillery a profitable venture.  At its time Washington’s distillery was one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country. Washington’s Distillery operated five copper pot stills and produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey each year, valued at over $7,500 (approximately $120,000 today).

In what would ultimately be named the Whiskey Rebellion, farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania protested a federal tax on whiskey tax enacted by the new congress in an effort to pay off the debt from the revolutionary war.  On September 11, 1791 excise officer Robert Johnson was riding through his collection route in western Pennsylvania when he was surrounded by 11 men dressed as women. The mob stripped him naked and then tarred and feathered him before stealing his horse and abandoning him in the forest.  Johnson recognized two men in the mob. He made a complaint and warrants were issued for their arrest. A cattle drover named John Connor was sent with the warrants, and he suffered the same fate as Johnson. He was tied to a tree in the woods for five hours before being found. In response, Johnson resigned his post, fearing further violence.

George Washington presented evidence of the violence to Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, who ruled a military response was justified under the auspices of the Militia Acts of 1792. Washington assumed emergency power to assemble more than 12,000 men from the surrounding states and eastern Pennsylvania as a federal militia. Washington met first with the rebels, who assured him the militia was not needed and that order had been restored. Washington opted to retain the military option until proof of submission was apparent.  The large and well-armed militia marched into western Pennsylvania and was met with angry citizens but little violence. When a rebel army didn’t appear, the militia rounded up suspected rebels instead.  However, the rebellion’s instigators had already fled, and the militia’s prisoners weren’t involved in the rebellion. They were marched to Philadelphia to stand trial regardless. Only two men were found guilty of treason, and both were pardoned by Washington.

Making Whiskey

As mentioned in the previous post on rum, Federal law states that it is legal to own a still of any size. … However, be advised it is illegal to distill alcohol without having either a “distilled spirits permit” or a “federal fuel alcohol permit.” It does not matter if the alcohol is for personal use only or for sale.  What is presented here is not recommended.  The Colonial Brewer only does this under an authorization for chemical research.  We are discussing history and research into history.

George Washington’s distillery makes whiskey using the following processes and recipes at at Mount Vernon.  It all starts with a mixture of malted grains (60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley).  This is made into a wash or “beer” in the same manner with rum but the fermentation is longer, about 2-3 weeks.    Like rum, it is then distilled and the “hearts” collected.  The distilling process is not creating the alcohol, it is simply separating it from all of the other substances in your whiskey mash water. Therefore, distilling it down to a purified spirit.  The alcohol was already created during the fermentation step.

The whiskey that comes off the still is not the rich amber fluid we are familiar with.  It’s a strong harsh grain alcohol.  In order to give this whiskey character, color, and smoothness, it is aged in oak barrels.  George Washington’s distillery did not (still does not) age its whiskey. That whiskey was shipped out fresh to homesteads and taverns across the nation but eventually it did age.  Most modern whiskey producers keep their whiskey in oak barrels for 8-30 years to improve the flavor of the beverage.   Aging whiskey in a charred oak barrel, gives the whiskey its golden coloring and an oaky flavor.  Since the process of distillation is not perfect, a young whiskey sometimes has a harsh taste from impurities that are not easily removed in distillation.  These are drawn out through the barrel’s wall as the spirit ages diminishing the amount of spirit in the barrel, the “angel’s cut”, but also resulting in a smoother overall spirit.


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Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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