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Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2003 / 19 Adar I, 5763

Robert L. Haught

Robert L. Haught
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Consumer Reports

Distilling the truth about George | Americans dutifully honor the country's great leaders, and so it is that about this time each year we pay homage to George Washington: courageous military leader in the War for Independence, chairman of the Constitutional Convention, first president of the United States, maker of fine whiskey.

Wait a minute! The father of our country a producer of demon rum? Whoever heard of such a thing. That's almost as jarring as if we had learned that George W. Bush was running a still on his ranch in Texas.

Historians say it's true -- they cannot tell a lie. Washington not only was a soldier and a statesman but also a distiller. In fact, he could be credited with fathering the nation's $40 billion liquor industry.

(Parents, please tell your children George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree to make whiskey barrels. Nor was he busy bottling booze while running the country.)

Washington didn't get into the liquor business until 1797, after he left office. It seems that a new manager for Mount Vernon, his plantation on the Potomac River south of the nation's capital, convinced the retired president and gentleman farmer that grain alcohol could make him lots of money.

Despite his puritanical image on the dollar bill, Washington was not prudish about drinking. He was a light drinker and promoted moderation. But he also recognized the practical aspects of tippling.

As a general, he commanded that his troops have a "sufficient quantity of spirits" in the Revolutionary War, saying it was "very refreshing and salutary" and "essential to the health of men."

According to Dennis Pogue, associate director of preservation at Mount Vernon, Washington once lost an election because he didn't follow a Virginia custom for politicians to treat voters to liquor at the polls. Pogue said that from then on, "he always treated ... and he always won."

With the urging of his farm manager, James Anderson, a Scot with experience in distilling grain, Washington built a large distillery with five copper stills and 50 mash tubs. It opened in 1798 and at its peak produced 11,000 gallons a year, netting about $7,500 a year -- a substantial sum in those days.

Historical records show that America's first president not only was "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen," but also "first in distilling." At least that's how he is viewed by the liquor industry, which does not hesitate to demonstrate pride in "its own rich, cultural heritage," to quote a spokesman.

To help introduce citizens to a different side of Washington, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) pledged $1.2 million to pay for reconstruction of his distillery, which had been torn down in 1815. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association is in charge of the restoration project.

Speaking of ladies, while George did not imbibe frequently, his wife, Martha, enjoyed a daily toddy, said Beth Davies of DISCUS. In the 1790s, "happy hour" began at 3 p.m. and cocktails continued until dinner, she said.

Perhaps that had something to do with George Washington's popularity.

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JWR contributor Robert L. Haught is a columnist for The Oklahoman. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Robert L. Haught