While my parents were in town, we decided to visit George Washington’s Gristmill and Distillery outside Alexandria, Virginia. It is just a few miles south of his estate, Mount Vernon. The original structures were destroyed sometime around 1850, but the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association have reconstructed the operation.
As a farmer, George Washington operated a gristmill that ground wheat and corn into flour and meal. The mill was powered by a huge water wheel with water diverted from the Dogue Run Creek. The mill machinery is enclosed in a huge frame of heavy oak and pine beams that is built directly onto the building’s foundation and not connected the walls. This protects the structure from the machinery’s potentially damaging vibrations.
It is a terrific working example of the Oliver Evans Automated Milling System. This system connected all machines in the mill in a continuous process, greatly improving the production of flour and meal.
The 16-foot water wheel provides power to run all the machinery in the gristmill.
Raw grain is stored in bins and fed into the rolling screens for cleaning. The rolling screen is a grain cleaner which removes any chaf or other debris so only clean grain drops to the millstones.
The millstones grind the wheat into flour or the corn into meal.
After milling, the flour/meal travels up to the hopper boy where it is spread and cooled.
From the hopper boy, flour/meal drops into the bolter, where it is sifted through bolting silk and graded into superfine flour, fine flour, and bran.
Once the gristmill was well established, Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, suggested building a whiskey distillery. Anderson, who had experience as a distiller in Scotland, pointed out to Washington that all the key components for making whiskey were already in place: an abundant supply of grain, a gristmill to grind the grain, and a water system to operate the stills. Once it was complete it was one of the largest distilleries in the United States. In its most profitable year, 1799, it had become Washington’s most successful enterprise, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey. A variety of whiskeys were produced at the site along with different types of fruit brandy.
With our country’s teetotaler history, the distillery was not a priority for rebuilding for many years. Further, because there was no surviving examples of eighteenth century distilleries, the reconstruction required extensive archaeological and documentary study before an authentic structure could be built.
Beginning in 1997, excavation archaeologists uncovered the original foundation stones and the location of five stills and boilers, and found many objects related to the distilling process. The distillery was reconstructed in 2007. To ensure an authentic reconstruction the wood was finished by hand and the construction used hand-made nails and hardware. There were some compromises necessary to meet modern building codes and safety requirements. Even though, we were surprised to see open flames in the same room as the stills. That seems like kind of a no-no when dealing with flammable substances like grain alcohol…
But, back to present day. The distillery is back in operation and with five copper stills, produces rye whiskey using George Washington’s original recipe (60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley).
The grain mixture is ground and placed in a mash tub. Hot water is poured over the grain to convert starches to sugar. And, it is stirred by hand with the implement you see below.
Yeast is added to the mash to turn sugar into alcohol. Then, after it sits for a bit, the liquid moves to distillation in the pot stills.
It is distilled at least twice to bring the alcohol up to 80 or 90 proof, the level at which Washington sold his common whiskey.
Limited numbers of bottles of whiskey distilled using this method are available certain times of the year at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure a bottle during this visit.
Stone ground cornmeal produced on site is always available in the Gristmill Shop, however.
Lucky for me, my dad treated me to a bag of this special product. Here’s the first thing I made…
Hot Water Cornbread
Makes 12 to 18 pieces, depending on size
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal (maybe more)
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp shortening (maybe more)
Bring water to a boil. Add cornmeal to boiling water. Stir constantly with wire whip to prevent lumping. Stir in baking soda and salt.
Remove from heat. The mixture will thicken quickly. You want it to be stiff so it will stick together in a little cake. If it is still a little drippy, add more corn meal, whisking with a fork to smooth out the lumps.
Heat shortening in a cast iron skillet. The amount will vary to the size of your skillet.
Once it is nice and bubbly, scoop out the cornmeal mixture to make a little oval flat cake and drop into the hot grease. Fry the cakes, browning slightly on each side.
Drain on paper towels, and repeat until all cornmeal mixture is used.
Serve right away.