Distilling in Mount Vernon
20 Oct 2015
David Frost, SWA chief executive
I spent 13-14 October last week in the United States to celebrate
a very special project. I joined three of Scotland's top
distillers, a representative of the Scottish Government, and our US
opposite numbers DISCUS, to launch and taste a single malt made
from Scottish barley at George Washington's Distillery at Mount
The story of Mount Vernon Distillery is an interesting one.
It was founded by James Anderson, who came to the US after a long
farming career in Scotland. He began his work by providing
grain to Scottish distillers, but moved to Virginia in 1791 when
the whisky market at home slumped. He started work for
Washington in 1797 and within a week he was urging his new employer
to start distilling, using corn and rye grown on the
plantation. Within two years he was running one of the
largest operations in North America, producing 10,500 gallons, and
described by Washington himself as 'a pretty considerable
Anderson's career is characteristic of many Scots who went to
America. Those like me who began life studying history may
know the book Albion's Seed by the great US historian David Hackett
Fischer. This changed conceptions of US history by showing
how emigration from different parts of the British Isles to early
America shaped the cultures in different parts of the new United
States. In particular it showed how Scots and Scots Borderers
came to Virginia throughout the eighteenth century and influenced
One of the things Scots brought with them was a taste for
whisky. And it was pretty widespread. The Marquis de
Chastelleux, one of the many French aristocrats who supported the
US Revolution, travelled in Virginia during the war and wrote,
reminiscing, "whisky was our only drink … we managed however to
make a tolerable toddy of it."
It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Washington ended up
building a distillery or that it should have been a Scots emigré,
James Anderson, who encouraged him.
Fischer's book also notes that the new climatic and agricultural
environment in the US required a change in distilling practice,
requiring a shift from barley to the US crops corn and rye, making
the US whiskey we know today.
But the whisky that I celebrated was made in the original style:
whisky as it would have been, from barley, when the Scots, and
whisky, first came to America. Sadly, Anderson's distillery burned
down in 1814. However, in 2000, the US distilled spirits
industry financed its excavation and restoration, and in autumn
2006 it was reopened by the Duke of York.
That enabled the start of something new and special. The
distillery began by recreating George Washington's Rye
whisky. However, a new project began in 2012, when DISCUS and
the SWA brought to the US three leading Scotch Whisky distillers:
Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling for Glenmorangie; Andy
Cant, distillery manager for Cardhu; and John Campbell, distillery
manager for Laphroaig Distillery. They used Scottish barley
and 18th-century methods to produce twenty gallons of spirit.
They were matured for three years, first in used Bourbon barrels,
and then in barrels that had previously held Madeira wine, a
favourite of Washington's.
Finally, in October, the whisky was ready to market, as George
Washington's Distillery Single Malt, "Distillers' Reserve" and
"Limited Edition". This unique single malt very limited
edition is being sold to raise funds for a range of charitable and
educational purposes, including for Mount Vernon itself. The
first two bottles were auctioned in US for $26,000 for charity on
13 October. I and the SWA were delighted to be part of this project
and even more so to have a bottle that we will be devoting to
charity ourselves soon.
Of course, the whisky produced at Mount Vernon cannot be Scotch
Whisky - that can only be produced in Scotland. But in using
Scottish barley and the methods used by the Scots who first went to
America, Mount Vernon was doing something special - going back to
our roots and reminding us of the close distilling connections
between the two great nations, Scotland and the United
States. With exports of £750m to the US in 2014, that
connection remains as important as ever.