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Book Review: Founding Spirits—George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry

Posted on by Eric Burke

In February, my wife and I made a trip to Virginia to meet some friends, spend some time sightseeing with my uncle and generally check out if I liked the state. One of the sights we saw was George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon. If you are into early US history, you should check it out. I was there at open and stayed long enough to have a late lunch. In fact for spirits fans if you go in the summer, you can visit the recreation of George Washington’s distillery. If you go in winter, like I did, you can pick up the book about it. Like I did.

Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry

Author: Dennis J. Pogue

Purchase info: $24.95 at the gift shop of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon

This book is a nice overview of the history of the American whiskey industry as seen through the lens of George Washington. As the subtitle states, the book starts with George Washington, giving an overview of his life before, during and after his Presidency. 

In the first part of the book, the author examines Washington’s relationship with “spiritous liquors.” He shows us how Washington, as was the custom at the time, bought votes by supplying alcohol to the voters. How he diligently practiced the customs of hospitality and made sure his guests had something to drink even leaving instructions on what to serve while he was away being President. The book even details Washington’s complicated views on alcohol by telling us how Washington believed in both the “healthsome” benefits of alcohol and recognized the dangers of continual overindulgence. And, of course, the book discusses both the fact that Washington led troops against whiskey distillers who didn’t want to pay their taxes and then opened up one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the early days of the country. Rightly showing that there was no hypocrisy there.

The second part of the book details the business of running Mt. Vernon. Which, to me was made much more interesting by having just visited before reading the book. This portion describes the many ventures that Washington tried to make his lovely plantation profitable, fishing, planting, dairy cattle, milling and, yes, the production of whiskey, rum and brandy. It also talks about Washington’s views on the evils of slavery. It’s a sad thing to say, that in this case, the economics of running a profitable business overcame the fact that he seemed to hate even the idea of slavery. He did eventually free his slaves, but in his will and only after his wife had also died. There is also a brief chapter describing the distillery itself. This includes both historical records and archeological information that the author uncovered while digging at the distillery site.

The third part of the book is the topic of the second part of the subtitle. It is an overview of the history of the whiskey industry from the death of Washington, through Temperance, Prohibition and Repeal, then up to the modern day. It’s mostly things you may have read before if you’ve read books on the subject, but there are a few tidbits in there as well. 

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The book finishes with the story of how the modern rebuilding of the distillery at Mt. Vernon, and it’s whiskey, came to be. Overall, I found the book to be well written and very interesting. It had just the right amount of detail for me. Digging deep for the parts that needed it and speeding past those that didn’t. I liked it a lot and recommend it to fans of American history and the history of American spirits.