A Mixed History of Alcohol and Alexandria
by ©2022 Sarah Becker
How do lawyers and historians pass their respective bar exams? Lawyers mostly study hard. Spirited historians sip booze.
The American Whiskey Trail, championed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States includes both distilleries and historic sites, sites such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. GW’s favorite alcohol drinks: sweet, fortified wines like Madeira and Port; rum punch, and porter [dark beer].
Reconstructed as of 2007 Mount Vernon’s “whiski distillery” was originally built in 1797: the same year John Adams succeeded George Washington as President. Two years later the distillery was one of the country’s largest 18th century facilities, producing approximately 11,000 gallons of whiskey annually. Whiskey sold for $.50 a gallon and a federal Excise Whiskey Tax was due. The 1791 tax was used “to offset a portion of the federal government’s assumption of state debts.”
Mount Vernon’s distillery was a spinoff—born of Washington’s want “to simplify his farming operations.” It generated a substantial profit, thanks mostly to the efforts of Scottish farm manager James Anderson. The Estate produced ample grain; the gristmill and water system were previously installed, and enslaved labor was cheap. Better still, the remaining slop—distilled grain—was recyclable. The distillery was home to 150 pigs and 30 cows.
The “demand,” Washington wrote, was “brisk.” Alexandria merchant and leading surveyor George Gilpin was among the distillery’s earliest customers. The un-aged whiskey was made from 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 85.6% of Americans ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 69.5% reported that they drank in the past year. The top alcohol drinks, in descending order: 12-oz. of regular beer, 1½-oz. of distilled spirits, and 5-oz. of wine.
Today the beer industry produces an amazing $100 billion in annual sales. Craft beer accounts for $26.8 billion. Alexandria’s Port City Brewery’s Optimal Wit, a craft beer brewed in the Belgian Wit Bier tradition is a favorite. As are Whiskey & Oyster’s rare whiskeys, whiskeys like Colonel E.H. Taylor and Eagle Rare.
The first U.S. University to offer a major in brewing science: Colorado State. The curriculum includes biochemistry, microbiology, physics and organic chemistry; beverage fermentation, production and quality control. U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper [D-CO], one of TIME’s top five 2015 mayors, established the Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988—Denver’s first brewpub since Prohibition.
“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us happy,” Benjamin Franklin said. In truth the beer industry co-opted the phrase as part of a marketing campaign.
“You have often enlivened me, my dear friend, by your excellent drinking songs; in return I beg to edify you,” Franklin wrote French economist Abbe Morellet in an undated letter. “We hear of the conversation of water into wine at the marriage of Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!”
“To confirm, still more your piety,” Franklin continued, “reflect upon the situation which it has given to the elbow…man, who was destined to drink wine, must be able to raise the glass to his mouth.”
Not that many years ago alcohol consumption was illegal. For 13 years—from 1920 until 1933—America said no to liquor. “The temperance movement hijacked Washington’s persona in a flagrant attempt to rewrite history by portraying him a non-drinker,” former Mt. Vernon Vice President of Preservation Dennis Pogue said in 2012.
The temperance movement reached its zenith in the early 20th century, the result of anti-lobbying activity which began in the 1830s. Alcohol use was associated with social ills, social reform, and German and Irish immigrants. Prohibitionists couched their middle class message in conformity and, as with any morality play, the ending was prescribed.
Prohibition exhibited many of the characteristics inherent in progressive reforms. Dr. Benjamin Rush, as early as 1784, argued “that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to health.” In 1789 two hundred Litchfield County, Connecticut, farmers swore off alcohol during farming season.
The nation’s first temperance group formed in 1789; Virginia’s in 1800. Over time Rush’s call for drinking in moderation morphed into a religious cause. In Boston, in 1826, an all-male gathering of clergy and laymen founded the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance. Mark Twain was a Cadet of Temperance from 1846-1850; the Prohibition Party formed in 1869, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874. Tired of enduring drunken behavior at home, many of the early temperance advocates were women.
Maine, in 1851, became the first State to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages except for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.” Although patent medicines were well-known for their alcohol content, such products remained protected. For example Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was a liquor-laced, herbal remedy sold to women with female complaints.
Although Maine’s abstinence law eventually failed, temperance education did not. Temperance was the panacea for poverty, crime, and domestic violence. Abolitionists and suffragists eagerly joined the temperance movement. Advocates like Carrie Nation sometimes resorted to violence, physically destroying bars with a hatchet.
In 1917—perhaps timed to coincide with America’s entry into World War I and the country’s anti-German sentiment—the country’s Prohibition amendment passed. On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified by the States: “After one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
Congress repealed the Amendment in 1933. Moderate alcohol consumption was again the public’s behavior of choice. The stock market had crashed and Americans were thirsty for change.
Former President Donald Trump—an alleged teetotaler—once promoted “T&T,” Trump and tonic. The brand: Trump Vodka. The slogan: “Success Distilled.” Unsuccessful the Donald now owns the largest winery on the east coast: Charlottesville, Virginia’s Trump Winery.
Mount Vernon Estate’s distillery is open seasonally—Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., April-October. The fully functioning distillery is located 2.7 miles from the Estate’s main entrance.
George Washington first attended John Gadsby’s Birth Night Ball, an Alexandria tavern party given in his honor, in 1798. Today the Museum hosts the event. New York City’s Fraunces Tavern Museum celebrates not only General George Washington’s first tavern visit, but also his on-site December 4, 1783, Farewell speech to the Continental Army.
“[W]ho has before seen a disciplined Army formed at once from such raw materials?” General Washington asked. “Or who that was not on the spot can trace the steps by which such a wonderful Revolution has been effected….? Tavern owner Samuel Fraunces “served as steward of Washington’s New York City  and Philadelphia [1790-1797] presidential households.”
Cumberland, Maryland’s Allegany Museum remembers Washington annually—with a Whiskey Rebellion Festival. On August 7, 1794, President Washington ordered all those violently opposed to the Whiskey Excise Tax, southern and western farmers especially to “put down their arms and return to their homes.”
“[W]hereas, it is in my judgment necessary…to take measures for calling forth the militia,” President Washington proclaimed, “I have accordingly determined so to do, feeling the deepest regret for the occasion, but withal the most solemn conviction that the essential interests of the Union demand it.” Washington rallied thirteen thousand troops.
“The first mention of Washington imbibing in whiskey was in October of 1794, as he planned an excursion into Pennsylvania to put down the Rebellion,” Mount Vernon said.
The weather is cooling and the leaves are changing color. Take a Covid-safe break and travel the American Whiskey Trail. [https://americanwhiskeytrail.distilledspirits.org] The Puritans knew the value of alcohol. They loaded more beer than water for their voyage to the New World.
Or—make Martha Washington’s favorite dinner drink at home. Excellent Cherry Bounce: “Extract the juice of 20 pounds well ripened Morrella cherries. Add to this 10 quarts of old French brandy and sweeten it with White sugar to your taste—To 5 Gallons of this mixture add one ounce of spice such as cinnamon, cloves and Nutmegs of each in Equal quantity slightly bruised and a pint and [a] half of cherry kernels that have been gently broken in a mortar—After the liquor has fermented let it stand close-stopped for a month or six weeks then bottle it remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.”
Enjoy fall; the Trail and Halloween!
About the Author: Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org