Presidents in a Package
(The idea behind this group, eventually groups, of articles is to study the presidents of the United States and their families and friends from a different angle - not so much biographical as human and individual. I start of course, with George Washington and will continue to the present day. Please bear with me. This is an ongoing project, perpetually under construction!)
George Washington's Whiskey Legacy from the Whiskey Rebellion to NASCAR
George Washington's reconstructed distillery.-Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Along with his other talents, George Washington was a skilled distiller and entrepreneur and according to his military aide an enthusiastic consumer of his own creation.
George Washington’s Distillery and Museum is located about three miles from Mount Vernon and he and his horse likely wore a deep rutted path between the main house and the distillery. According to museum records, his distillery and grist mill served as the focal point of economic operations at Mount Vernon. In 1799, at its production peak, the distillery and grist mill featured five stills and a boiler that produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey with an estimated value of $7,500. He helped transform distilling from small local operations into today’s national industry
The fact that George Washington, the first president of the United States, established a distillery on his property testifies to the prominent part that whiskey played and still plays in American history. It also illuminates his double sided relationship with whiskey- distilling it with one hand and enforcing a tax on whiskey during the Whiskey Rebellion with the other.
George Washington Wasn’t the First Whiskey Distiller in America
Illegal, untaxed moonshine can trace its history long before the booming Prohibition years in the United States. People living in the Appalachian mountain regions including East Tennessee, Southern Kentucky and Western North Carolina have been moonshiners since before the American Revolution.
As settlers pushed west and south across the Appalachian Mountains, they used surplus grains like corn to make whiskey. When the British tried to stop importing sugar and molasses to the Colonies, the Americans substituted whiskey for rum to use as part of the Revolutionary Army rations.
Early New England settlers established distilleries throughout the colonies, including a rum distillery in Boston that began operating in 1657. Rum became New England’s largest and most profitable industry within a generation.
Moonshine is as American as Resisting Taxes
Scots-Irish immigrants arrived in British North America complete with generations- honed knowledge of distilling techniques and the determination to practice these techniques in their new country. The enterprising and flinty Scots-Irish helped fight the Revolutionary War to liberate themselves from what they considered oppressive British taxes and when the new government passed an excise tax on whiskey and spirits, many of them moved to remote mountain areas to produce their products by moonlight and sell them by stealth.
The home brews that Early English smugglers and distillers in the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains and even as far as Atlantic Canada produced most often illegally was called moonshine because it was often distilled by the light of the moon. It didn’t take long for mountaineers in Tennessee, Kentucky, among others, to establish a national reputation for consistently rebelling and refusing to pay taxes on their moonshine
Geographic and financial necessity also steered them toward building and maintaining stills. The ups and down of mountainous terrain made transporting corn crops to market a tedious, time consuming process. Distilling the corn into whiskey for easier carrying in jugs and barrels provided to be a better and more profitable alternative.
George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
For two hundred years small family owned distilleries had made whiskey without regulation from the British or American governments. Then in 1791, shortly after George Washington became President of the new born United States of America, the government decided to levy an excise tax on whiskey. These independent, small business distillers immediately resented the excise tax on whiskey and they took out their resentment on the tax collectors. Rebellious farmers and distillers rioted, protested and even tarred and feathered tax collectors.
Despite his own distilling background, President George Washington believed that the federal government must be strong enough to keep state and regional interests from seizing power. To underscore this belief, he ordered approximately 13,000 militia to squash the “rebellion,” and the militia crushed the rebellion without any bloodshed. The “Whiskey Rebellion” that new American citizens fought from 1791 to 1794, left a lasting imprint on American history. Paradoxically the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated the will and ability of the new national government to quell violent resistance to its laws while illustrating how citizens could demonstrate against government policies they disagreed with without being imprisoned or otherwise punished.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington again emphasized his point that the federal government had to maintain enough clout to overrule regional and state interest and political parties.
Some of the Rebels Flee to Southern Indiana and Kentucky
After the Whiskey Rebellion, many of the rebellious Dutch and Scots-Irish farmer and distillers moved farther west to escape the tax collectors. Many found the right kind of water for whiskey distilling in Southern Indiana and Kentucky. Historians say that Reverend Elijah Craig distilled the first Kentucky whiskey at Georgetown in Bourbon County. He used corn for his whiskey because it was more common than rye and his whiskey became known as Bourbon County whiskey. The name Bourbon has evolved to identify whiskies that are made from a corn mash.
The new United States government discontinued the excise tax on liquor in 1817, but the mountaineers didn’t slow their production of corn mash whiskey. By 1860, the 207 distilleries in Kentucky had produced whiskey worth $1,446,216 annually. and the Union government reinstated the excise tax on whiskey in 1862 to help finance the Civil War. Back in the hills, the battles between revenue agents and moonshiners increased and stories on both sides produced legends of famous escapades. The pendulum of public opinion began to swing toward the side of the tax collections instead of the moonshiners.
By 1891, Kentucky distilleries alone had produced 142,035 gallons of whiskey or 34 percent of all of the distilled spirits in the nation. Kentucky continued to produce its signature bourbon whiskey and other states like Tennessee and Virginia continued to produce whiskey as well.
In 1920, when Prohibition became the law of the land moonshiner blockade runners easily outran lawmen with newer and faster cars. According to the Oscar Goetz Museum of Whiskey and the Bardstown Museum, these customized cars motivated their owners to establish stock car racing which in turn developed NASCAR Racing.
In 1933 when public works programs were an important part of the Depression Era economy, the state of Virginia decided to restore George Washington’s grist mill. The excavation and George Washington’s records revealed that as well as the grist mill, he also operated a whiskey distillery and the Virginia authorities of the time quickly reburied its foundation.
Possibly the Virginia authorities remembered with a twinge of conscience that National Prohibition instituted by the 18th Amendment of the Constitution banned the sale of all alcoholic beverages. They also could have been painfully aware that the Washington Temperance Benevolent Society founded in Baltimore in 1840, a forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous, identified with George and Martha Washington. The Washington Temperance Benevolent Society vehemently opposing alcoholic consumption and revered George Washington as did many ordinary Americans. Authorities weren’t certain how his admirers would feel about George Washington if they discovered that as well as drinking whiskey he also manufactured it.
More than eight decades later, George Washington’s reconstructed Distillery and Museum is restored and demonstrating its operations and history to visitors. George Washington’s reconstructed Distillery and Museum provides a fascinating window into his practical and entrepreneurial side as well as an indirect connection to NASCAR.
Ellison, Betty Boles. Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine, 1st Books Library, 2003
Kellner, Esther. Moonshine: Its History and Folklore. Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
Maurer, David W. Kentucky Moonshine, The University Press of Kentucky, 2nd edition, 2003