Alexandria: Home to G. W.'s Distillery Print E-mail

Delaware County Times
September 13, 2009

You know him as a military hero and founding father of our country. How about as a Master Distiller?

In 1797, George Washington and his Scottish overseer John Anderson built a distillery located a few miles below the first president’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. They sold corn and rye whiskey straight from the barrel. Two years later it was the largest distillery in the country producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey that year, earning Washington $7,500- roughly $120,000 in today’s market. The business was inherited and managed by his nephew Lawrence Lewis until the distillery burned down in 1814.

But after ten years of research, excavation and reconstruction, Washington’s Distillery is back in business. Located on the southern portion of Washington’s 8,000-acre Virginia plantation close by the Dogue Run Creek, the whiskey distillery and a water wheel powered gristmill are open to the public. Historic interpreters lead the distillery tour-- operating five massive copper stills-- stirring mash tubs and managing the boiler as they demonstrate 18th-century distilling in the two-story stone structure.

“A lot of farmers owned stills and produced whiskey,” says Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director of preservation. “Washington’s was different because of its scale. It was a major commercial operation.”

The building also features a storage cellar with barrels, an office, and two bedrooms where the site manager and assistant would have lived. On the second floor you can watch a video called "George Washington's Liquid Gold" and a “Spirits of Independence” museum exhibit that tells the story of whiskey at Mount Vernon and its history in America.

Believed to be the only authentic, working 18th-century distillery in the world, starting in September the public will be able to purchase George Washington Rye Spirit and Presidential Reserve Whiskey made in the distillery, following Washington's own recipe.

A dozen miles north lies the “Old Town,” Alexandria’s vibrant historic district which extends about a dozen blocks westward from the Potomac River. Visitors wander down shady, cobblestone streets with bricked sidewalks headed to the bustling two-mile waterfront anchored by the sprawling Torpedo Factory. Initially built to churn out torpedo casings for World War I and II, today, it’s divided into 84 studios that display the world of upwards of 200 artists in all media from across the country and abroad.

Once a one-stop shopping for “medicinal remedies,” among the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop’s famous customers were George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Now a gem of a museum, it boasts a rich collection of 8,000 objects such as pill rollers, mortars and pestles, even a note from Martha Washington requesting caster oil before she died. The last owners never cleaned anything out when they left in 1933 so potions, elixirs and herbs-- like dragon’s blood and hemlock-- still remain in wooden boxes that line the walls.

The Morrison House, a 45-room inn, is a striking reproduction of an 18th century federal manor house. A pair of curving brick stairways takes visitors up to the inn’s entrance that overlooks a sculpture fountain. Stepping inside the parquet and marble floors, vibrant coral and pastel colors showcase warmth and comfort. Just off the lobby the Grille’s classic piano bar features superb local musicians on the weekend.

On Friday evening we visited the nearby Birchmere, a world-famous music hall to the catch “The Fabulous Thunderbirds,” known for their musical hybrid of rythym blues via such barnburners as "Tuff Enuff." Everyone from the Dixie Chicks and Mary Chapin Carpenter to Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill are among those who have played the 500-seat venue on their way to the top.

Founded 1n 1894 as “streetcar suburb of Washington,” the cozy neighborhood of Del Ray is known its charming bungalows and parades of kids and canines. Residents and visitors alike stroll the sidewalks, supporting an eclectic mix of antique shops, boutiques, health food stores and restaurants spread out along the main drag, Mount Vernon Avenue.

Artfully Chocolate/Kingsbury Confections is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Creating artwork using translucent acrylics and mylar, co-owner Eric Nelson’s bright art hangs on the walls and adorns the cafe tables. Ever since President Obama and his daughters stopped by The Dairy Godmother in early June business has been thriving at the custard shop. The president chatted up patrons and ordered custard with chocolate chips and marshmallow and took home some puppy treats for the family's dog.

Saturday evening we ventured over to La Strada. A family affair, the restaurant is owned and operated by the Scott family. Chef Stephen commands the kitchen; sister Courtney oversees the wait staff while father Stephen and mother Diana Balboni make sure everyone feels at home.

First up was the fresh house-made mozzarella with basil and heirloom tomatoes. Favoring his true Northern Italian heritage, waiter Armando recommended the squid ink pasta with clusters of savory shrimp and scallops and the Saltimbocca, veal cutlets wrapped in baked prosciutto-- submerged in puddles of sage, butter and white wine. Coffe and a luscious sampler of coconut ice cream, caramel custard and tiramisu closed out the evening. Bellissimo!


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