The Whiskey Making Was Hard, But the Government Was Easy

Our first president might be shocked at the regulatory machinery imposed on distillers.


George Washington's rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a team of master distillers from around the country producing a commemorative rye whiskey using the old-fashioned methods of Washington's time.

When Mount Vernon farm manager James Anderson pitched the idea of opening a whiskey distillery to Washington in 1797, it was hardly a novel idea. Many early Americans distilled alcohol and whiskey surpassed rum as the young nation's spirit of choice after the Revolutionary War.

Despite a somewhat saturated market, Washington quickly distinguished himself in the whiskey business—his distillery would become one of the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons during its peak years.

Washington's success should not obscure the fact that making whiskey at the turn of the 18th century was hard. Everything about the whiskey-making process—from milling the grain, to stirring the mash, to firing the stills—was an order of magnitude more difficult than today's mechanized and streamlined process.

What stood out about this process was the intense amount of manual labor it took to run Washington's distillery. Nearly a dozen members of the Mount Vernon Historic Trades team were on hand on anniversary day to re-enact firing the pot stills, loading the mash pits with grain, and monitoring the temperature of the fermenter. One historical re-enactor spent all day chopping firewood with an ax. Another demonstrated how mash barrels were made by hand in that era.

After a long day of work, the distillers and re-enactors produced the equivalent of 40 liquid gallons of 50 percent alcohol rye whiskey. Even mid-sized whiskey distilleries today can produce more than 2,000 gallons a day or more than 1 million gallons a year. An expert cooper during Washington's time would have been able to produce a single barrel in a day. Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, currently pumps out 2,500 a day.

Entrepreneur that he was, Washington would be awed by the technological advancements in distilling capitalism has created—advances that, ultimately, have resulted in the wonderfully consistent and smooth whiskeys we enjoy today.

His awe would surely turn to disgust if someone tried to explain to Washington the modern-day nightmare that is the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission. For all of the hard work to produce liquor in his time, dealing with the government was easy.

Washington was never forced to sell his alcohol exclusively through government-run liquor stores. Or send all the revenue from his sales at Mount Vernon to ABC headquarters, and receive a paltry 46 percent in return. Or pay the nation's third-highest liquor tax.

Washington's customers would have been just as frustrated. ABC allows visitors at distilleries to sample no more than three ounces of spirits (served in half-ounce pours), even though they can drink as many IPAs as they want at the local brewery. Virginians often pay significantly more for a bottle of booze than consumers in neighboring states, with the state's high mark-ups and liquor taxes.

Virginia's liquor laws are among the worst in the country, but almost every state in the Union has its share of outdated and backward booze laws. These laws survive largely from the post-Prohibition era, when states rushed to fill the federal void. States adopted something called the three-tier system, mandating the separation of producers, wholesalers and retailers of alcohol, something not required of the vast majority American industries.

Within this artificial structure, producers of alcohol are forced to sign away their sales rights to third-party distributors, rather than being able to freely sell their spirits directly to consumers. The three-tiered system also produces a patchwork of irrational and competition-inhibiting laws at the retail level, like Indiana prohibiting gas stations and convenience stores from selling cold beer.

To be fair, were he alive today, Washington might have supported some distilling regulations. After all, he signed the Whiskey Tax of 1791 that touched off the notorious Whiskey Rebellion. It bears noting, however, that the tax itself was largely the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who advocated for it rather than a direct tax to pay off the young country's federal debt.

Still, I think Washington would be stunned at just how intertwined the government has become—especially in his home state of Virginia—with the business of booze. Our nation's "original craft distiller" may even have started his own whiskey rebellion.

For more on distilling in Washington's day, please see this Reason video:

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  1. “His awe would surely turn to disgust…”

    Maybe, but he *did* use troops to put down a tax revolt – and the tax was on whiskey.

    1. Exactly. A tax specifically designed to squash small distilleries making quality products so large distilleries making rot gut didn’t have to compete with them.

      1. I’m not sure…I think it was more a question of “what can we get away with taxing?”

        1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

          This is what I do…

      2. No really. They just found it cheaper to transport a barrel of booze than several wagon loads of corn.

        1. That is why the western farmers were the ones rebelling since they were hurt the most, they had to transport corn over the mountains to get it to market on the east coast.

    2. The only thing I know from this article: Washington felt a lot of different emotions.

  2. ABC allows visitors at distilleries to sample no more than three ounces of spirits (served in half-ounce pours), even though they can drink as many IPAs as they want at the local brewery.

    True fact: the correct number of IPAs to drink is 0.

    1. Finally something we can agree on.

    2. Way to light the Zeb signal*, bro.

      *It’s a silhouette of a man Bill Clinton (he has terrible taste – get it?).

      1. Or, just of Bill Clinton. Dang, yo.

    3. “True fact: the correct number of IPAs to drink is all 0f them.


      1. In this comment, “FTFY” stands for Fixed That For Yucky tasting beer.

    4. Agreed.

      If I wanted to drink something bitter, I would just drink my tears after copulation.

    5. Agreed.

      If I wanted to drink something bitter, I would just drink my tears after copulation.

      1. Damn squirrels!

    6. 2 is usually enough, if you order the 22 oz. glass.

      1. Here’s what you do with a 22 oz. glass of IPA:
        1. pour it out
        2. replace it with a beer that doesn’t taste like garbage
        3. drink that instead

        1. And what if you have no standards? asking for a friend.

          1. That’s what “American lite beer” is for.

        2. Ah, it doth seem you have not explored the world of IPS’s sufficiently to have come across a truly good one. I generally do not like them, but have indeed come across a half dozen over the years that were worthy of note. The single one by far the best was back when Bert Grant still owned and operated his brewery and pub, operating out of the old downtown train station in Yakima Washington. First IPA I’d had I could drink, it was so good I had to have more. Bert himself was pouring that night, too. SO glad the place I was staying was only half a dozen blocks away, as I was NOT fit to drive, at all.

          Word on the street was that he’d figured out how to replicate the action and effect of the long voyage by square rigger round the Southern Cape of Africa and on to India, during which voyage the excessive amount of hops used in the brewing would mellow and lose much of their bite. Bert’s IPA was strong but smooth and mellow.
          Sadly when he sold the business the new owners were only interested in his good name. The IPS’s made under that label now are barely worth the price of the bottle they occupy.

    7. Well, I’ll try anything once… but only once if its an IPA… and only if it’s free.

    8. IPA only exists because the Brit’s couldn’t figure out any other way of getting wasted in India. Even they didn’t like it, but when it’s your only option to get black out drunk in a foreign nation you do what you must.

      1. Regular, fine-tasting beer brewed in England went bad en route to India, so they had to add so much hops that even bacteria didn’t want to drink it.

        1. NO beer brewed in England is “fine-tasting”.

  3. And let us not forget the jack-booted thugs that are the ABC enforcement division, those mental midgets that couldn’t get a glorified security job at GSA yet think they’re the State Police, beating up college students for buying water.

    1. Under-age drinking paraphernalia. Water is especially insidious, as it’s both a mixer and a chaser.

      1. Everyone who’s an alky got their start on dihydrogen monoxide. Terrible stuff.

  4. If I were a drinking man, and residing in VA, I would resort to the time-honored American tradition of smuggling.


    1. The states around it are not much better. Between its alcohol laws and utterly barbaric traffic laws, including being the one state in the union that outlaws radar detectors, Virginia is as bad as any of the worst blue states. In some ways, it is worse. The state is run by an unholy alliance of the worst sort of busybody suburbanite Progressives and their more Southern Christian conservative doppelgangers.

      1. May not be that way soon. MD Comptroller just released a report trying to de-reg the alcohol industry in MD. It’s title “Maryland Craft Beer: A World Without Limits” is promising. Haven’t read it yet but it is up on Comptroller Website.

        1. From your lips to God’s ear.

        2. Yeah but then you’d have to go to Maryland and nobody wants to do that.

    2. Head to Delaware – Total Wine or Kreston.

      1. Where is Librtopia located? New Hampshire?

    3. You can only insert so many bottles of alcohol into your rectum – trust me.

      1. I hope your mother refused to clean that mess up.

      2. Makes me think of that one video I saw years ago where the guy shoved a mason jar into his ass but it shattered and the rest of the video is him calmly picking shards of glass out of his anus.

        1. BUCS considers this video to be so bland and vanilla that he left it playing on the tv one time when his parents came over.

          1. I was given a laptop with internet access at the age of 9 and I had a room to myself. Things went astray. This was ’99 or so too. Back when the internet was somehow skeevier.

            1. So, my point is, by the time that video came out in late 2000s I was pretty dead inside. Really, I am a good example of the exact type of person worried parents use as an example for why media ruins a person.

              1. Little BUCS’s Netscape homepage was Consumption Junction.

  5. Holy crap– I didn’t know that the VA government actually takes ALL your revenue, then sends back your cut. I don’t even know how a business could survive waiting on the government to send back their money. That’s the revenue, not just the profit– that check includes funds you need to pay your bills. That’s bureaucratic socialism I wouldn’t even expect from China.

    1. Sounds a lot like the days when Guido an da boyz ran da Famly. Dey’d take evr’ting an, dependen on how JENRUS Guido was feelin dat week, bring back your cut.

      But actually this is a disgusting form of fascism, which is government control of private means of production.

  6. Still, I think Washington would be stunned at just how intertwined the government has become.
    That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
    -Declaration of Independence

  7. That shit is like $90 a bottle. Now I realize it’s because it’s made in VA.

    1. And it is really not that great. It is a novelty drink.

      1. Kind of like Templeton Rye, which supposedly was Al Capone’s drink of choice, they sell if for like $40, and it was discovered a year ago most of it is surplus whiskey made in Ohio, or something like that. When I drink whiskey, I look to Canada, where people know how to stay warm during the winter (Crown).

        1. When I drink whiskey, I instead drink whisky and look to Scotland where they know how to stay warm during the winter. (Hint: it usually involves one or more sheep)

  8. This is just free-market capitalism – the government’s charging all the market will bear. So what’s your complaint? If you don’t like the government you’ve got, get a different government. George Washington did.

    1. You’re directly quoting that dude who was on here defending the Jones Act a few weeks ago, aren’t you.

  9. I’m guessing they didn’t make this whiskey exactly the same way it was done back when Washington was in charge. He probably used slaves to do most of the work.

    1. He probably did slaves and probably used different air that didn’t have all this CO2 ppm currently in it.

      They should just shut down the whole operation because masters of the obvious probably won’t drink it anyways.

      1. did *use* slaves and did slaves that is.

  10. The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean.

  11. I must say that having to go to the VABC store turns me off from wanting to buy hard liquor since I have to go out of my way a bit to find one. I always find it laughable when they advertise “specials” on certain brands because they are still getting their big fat cut.

  12. There is nothing healthier than competition. Decriminalizing Orange Sunshine and Windowpane would get those Virginians voting for repeal of crony mercantilist sumptuary laws in a hurry. If the entire State had voted Libertarian we’d only have gotten something like 13 electoral votes. As it turned out, those 4 million spoiler votes swung 89 electoral votes. Virginia is a disgrace to the memory of Patrick Henry, the first American to take up arms against Perfidious Albion and its depraved looters!

  13. Couple three years back WE THE PEOPLE in Washington State decided we’d had done with the state booze nazis and passed a citizen’s initiative that forced the state to get out of the liquor business, sell their main warehouse, and let private enterprise run it. As payback, they changed the tax laws, and we now have one of the highest rates in the nation. There are now THREE levels of taxation on each bottle of hard stuff. A litre tax, a liquor tax, and then, on top of those two, the standard state sales tax. Costco sell a 1.75 litre of their house brand vodka that is quite drinkable. Buy it in California at any Costco, you leave sixteen bucks inside for Costco as you carry that bottle to your car. That identical “item number” at any Costco in Washington State now costs THIRTY EIGHT by the time you can escape. Prior to the remake of the liquor folks, that bottle sold for aobut $28. Since then I refuse to buy ANY hard liquor inside this state. Whenever I’m in California I stock up. Once every year or two prevents me from paying the revenooers at the Marble Zoo on the hill in Olympia.

  14. Great article. Thank you for giving such a information of Washington.

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