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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Washington letter on loan to Mount Vernon describes whiskey business

July 4, 2001

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— Mount Vernon officials are celebrating a key addition to their collection of George Washington memorabilia: a rare letter in which the nation's first president describes his thriving whiskey business.

"Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call," Washington wrote to his nephew, Col. William A. Washington, "and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk."

The letter will be on permanent loan to Mount Vernon, the northern Virginia estate that was home to Washington for more than 45 years.

The Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States purchased the October 1799 letter for $18,800 during a recent auction at Christie's in New York.

Peter Cressy, president of the trade group, said there was no better spokesman for the industry than Washington, though Cressy said distillers weren't planning on using the founding father's image in ad campaigns. "Understanding George Washington, and his life and times, I think puts a perspective on the use of spirits in society in Colonial times," Cressy said.

In the letter, Washington requested assistance in procuring additional grain for his distillery. He also told his nephew, "Mrs. Washington has got tolerably well again, and unites with me in every good wish for you and yours." Washington died just six weeks later; his wife, Martha, died in 1802.

The letter was written on cotton rag paper with homemade ink in a clear, artistic script.

"He had wonderful penmanship. We're all grateful for that," said Linda Ayres, director of collections at Mount Vernon.

Archeologists are excavating the site of the distillery, about two miles from the Mount Vernon house. Officials hope to reconstruct the distillery with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the liquor industry.

At the time of its construction in 1797, Washington's distillery was one of the largest in the country, according to Mount Vernon Executive Director Jim Rees.

In one year, it produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey and yielded a $7,500 profit, he said.

"So we're not talking about a hobby," Rees added. "We're talking about a major business."

But Washington's whiskey, which was made of corn and rye, would probably not be up to today's standards, Rees said.

"It would not have the great flavor and smoothness, because it wasn't aged," he said. "We've come a long way."

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