This fall, a team of archaeologists, architects, carpenters, and stone masons are authentically recreating George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon using late-18th century building techniques and historically appropriate materials.
“This project presents a unique opportunity to do something no one has ever done in this country,” Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s chief historian.
The building will be dedicated on Sept. 27, and next April, when it opens to the public, will be the only operating 18th-century one in the country.
Located three miles from the Mount Vernon, Va., estate, the distillery is being recreated on the footprint of the original foundation Washington built in 1797, after his presidency, making the 2,250-square-foot structure among the largest whiskey distilleries in early America. Upon Washington’s death in 1799, the complex was passed down to a relative who apparently was not equipped to run it, and he rented it to a local operator. The distillery ceased operating in 1814, when the building burned. Six years ago, with a grant from the distilled spirits industry, Mount Vernon began the excavation and restoration of the distillery.
“This will not simply be an interpretation of the historic distilling process, but of historic building crafts, too,” says John O’Rourke, Mount Vernon’s head restoration carpenter.
Prior to beginning the reconstruction, Mount Vernon’s team of expert restoration builders, including O’Rourke, did extensive research on similar Colonial-era agricultural and industrial sites in order to integrate 18th-century distillery design with construction techniques of the same period.
“One of the biggest challenges was that this building is going to be a working distillery,” says architect James Thompson of Quinn Evans Architects, the Washington, D.C.-based architectural firm working with Mount Vernon on the project. “As the project was developing, the ongoing archaeological investigation at the distillery site was continually informing us as to how the building worked.”
George Washington’s distillery will be a national distilling museum and the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail, which encompasses historic distilling-related sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The reconstructed distillery will make Mount Vernon the only historic site in the country that shows the distilling process from crop to finished product. The distillery is located next door to the site of George Washington’s gristmill, which has been reconstructed and operates as an 18th-century mill.
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