Distilleries were very common in early America. In the 1810 census, there were more than 3600 distilleries operating in the state of Virginia alone. At its time, George Washington’s distillery was one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country. It measured 75 x 30 feet while the average distillery was about 20 x 40 feet.
George Washington’s Distillery operated five copper pot stills for 12 months a year. The average distillery used one or two stills and distilled for one month. In 1799, Washington’s Distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey, valued at $7,500 (approximately $120,000 today). The average Virginia distillery produced about 650 gallons of whiskey per year which were valued at about $460.
The Distillery had five copper pot stills that held a total capacity of 616 gallons. We know that the three stills made by George McMunn, an Alexandria coppersmith, were 120, 116, and 110 gallons. We do not know how the remaining 270 gallons were divided between the final two stills. Fifty mash tubs were located at Washington’s Distillery in 1799. We think only about half were used at a time to mash or cook the grain. These tubs were large 120-gallon barrels made of oak. In Washington’s day, cooking the grain and fermenting the mash all happened in the same container. The boiler, where the hot water would have come from, held 210 gallons. (from mountvernon.org)
Whiskey – America’s Beverage
The most common beverage produced at Washington’s distillery was a whiskey made from 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley. This rye was distilled twice and sold as common whiskey. Smaller amounts were distilled up to four times, making them more expensive. Some whiskey was rectified (filtered to remove impurities) or flavored with cinnamon or persimmons. Wheat was also distilled when rye was scarce. Apple, peach and persimmon brandies were produced and also vinegar.
Prior to the American Revolution, rum was the distilled beverage of choice. But after the war, whiskey quickly grew to displace rum as America’s favorite distilled beverage. Rum, which required molasses from the British West Indies, was more expensive and less easily acquired than locally grown wheat, rye, and corn. Whiskey was also easier to produce than rum, requiring relatively simple processes and equipment.
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