Podcast Episode: The Life and Times of Washington's Distiller (feat Steve Bashore from Mount Vernon)
A story of taxation, whisky dynasties, and a farmer who talked a retiring president into the world of whisky.
Listen to the Episode
The story of James Anderson and his journey to becoming George Washington's distiller is a fascinating one. It starts simply enough on a farm in Inverkeithing, Scotland. But circumstances around him dictate his future and he suddenly finds himself bringing his wife and seven children to a new world.
Listen to the story of a Scottish farmers journey to Mount Vernon and how he convinced a retiring president the benefits of the whiskey trade.
And thanks to Steve Bashore, the Head of Historic Trades at Mount Vernon and the head distiller at Washington's rebuilt Distillery for bringing in some of the knowledge he gained with his research on Anderson and Washington.
In this episode:
- Andrew Stein and Kennetpans
- The marriage that brought two dynasties together
- Kennetpans, Kilbagie, Hattonburn, Kincaple, and Canonmills Distilleries
- William Pitt the Younger tries to pay for war debts
- The "Highland Line"
- The London Gin Trade and how it almost killed two dynasties
- The fallout from the Lowland License Act of 1788
- To Dublin and America
- James Anderson's life in Scotland
- Mr. Prescott and Salvington Plantation
- The job request
- Washington's hesitation
- The relationship between James Anderson and George Washington
- George Washington's Distillery
- What happened to James Anderson?
- What happened to the distillery?
Also, make sure to check out the Kennetpans Trust website and MountVernon.org. Find resources and transcripts in the tabs above. Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore."
Painting of the distillery at Dogue Creek used by permission of MountVernon.org and Steve Bashore.
Two Scotch Whisky Dynasties
They were emerging scotch whisky royalty with a long history of skills in the art of distillation. It is thought that the Stein family had honed their craft through the friars of Kennetpans Abbey around the time the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII.
But it would be almost one hundred years before Andrew Stein would develop the family’s first successful commercial distilling operation, just east of Stirling in Clackmannanshire. And by the 1730s the Kennetpans Distillery had quickly grown to become Scotland’s largest under the leadership of Andrew’s son John.
John and his wife had 11 children, three of whom were about to dominate the whisky industry for the next fifty years and beyond.
Their eldest was Margaret. Born in 1729, she would find love with her cousin, a man whose family distilling roots went almost as far back as the Steins. It was John Haig’s great great grandfather Robert that carried their family into their own distilling dynasty in the early 1600s.
The marriage of John Haig and Margaret Stein in 1751 would cement the family’s legacy for generations to come. But the more immediate successes would be the parents four sons Robert, James, Andrew, and John Jr.
John Jr. would take over Kennetpans Distillery when his father died of a heart attack in 1773 and would expand the family business into Ireland in 1780 with a distillery in Dublin. Robert would open Kincaple Distillery on the coast at St. Andrews, Andrew would take over Hattonburn Distillery about 16 miles northeast near Loch Leven - where it was said they made the worst whisky in Scotland. But out of all of them, it would be James who would see the biggest early success when he opened Kilbagie Distillery in 1777, just a mile down the road from his father’s and now brother John Jr’s distillery at Kennetpans.
James' quick success came at the hands of both his business savvy and some excellent timing. It seems that to the south, gin was experiencing a boom in London and James saw the potential for having his spirits be the cure for the high demand. In 1777, he sent 2,000 gallons of whisky to England to be rectified into gin - thus becoming the first exporter of Scotch whisky in the spirits' storied history.
And because of this, it didn’t take long for his distillery at Kilbagie to outgrown John Jr’s Kennetpans, becoming the most productive distillery in Scotland. And the other brothers and relatives would soon follow James into the London Gin Trade as well - including nephew - also named James, who joined the party with his Canonmills Distillery in Edinburgh during the year 1782.
Ginning Up Revenue
Meanwhile, in parliament, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was seeing his budget buckling under massive debt, most of which could be traced back to the effort against the American colonial insurrection. Money needed to be raised by tax revenue and soon he started eyeing the large influx of spirits coming from Scotland.
His first job was to divide the export happy Lowland region from the rest of Scotland, so he proposed the creation of the “highland line” - from the Firth of Clyde in the west to the Firth of Tay in the east. Then he lowered import duties and instead taxed the amount of pre-distilled wash produced by each distillery, hoping to encourage the flow of Lowland whisky into London, thus capturing a larger volume of tax revenue to help fill the coffers.
And for James Stein, the Wash Act of 1784 was his call to ramp up production. And it wouldn’t be long before William Pitt’s distilling constituents in London would be crying foul as London became flooded with Lowland whisky.
Wanting to protect their seats in parliament, the MP’s amended the law two years later - abolishing the tax on wash, and instead taxing the still’s capacity. This was the system that had been used for Highland distillers over the last two years, and it seemed to be working, except for the overlooked fact that Highland distillers were limited on the size of their stills.
Lowland distillers were to be charged twice as much on the capacity of their stills as their Highland neighbors. The idea being, the higher cost of the Scottish spirits would make English distillers competitive again.
But laws have flaws and loopholes and James Stein soon found a way to take advantage of the revised law.
The MP’s, it seems, had not counted on the ability of distillers to optimize their operations. The MPs had calculated the tax based on stills being discharged only seven times a week, but the Stein’s figured out how to get forty still runs a week!
But how were they doing it? It would still be another 35 years before the continuous still would be invented.
Well the Steins got creative and developed shorter, saucer shaped stills that could discharge spirits much faster. But unfortunately, the quality wasn’t there and the spirits would soon cheapen the reputation of scotch whisky - yet it was the perfect spirit for rectifying into gin.
But there was a second law that was also passed that year. This one would place an additional 2 shillings per gallon on any spirit imported from Scotland into England.
This was a double whammy and Kilbagie felt the pain almost immediately as English gin drinkers weren’t about to pay a premium for cheap mass produced gin. So James went about bribing the Solicitor for Excise by dropping a package he called “a pair of gloves” into his pocket. In reality, it was 500 English pounds. He told the solicitor that if he ignored the act, there would be another gift next year. But the ploy backfired when the solicitor reported him. Lucky for James, he had enough money to buy the best attorney and the jury sided with James, acknowledging he had given the money but that the bribe was not proven.
Exasperated with the lack of success they were having, parliament dealt a final deathblow to Lowland distillers with the passage of the Lowland License Act of 1788. Not only would the duty on exports be increased even further, but Scotch distillers would also be required to ask for a license 12 months in advance of when they wanted to export whisky into England.
The effects were immediate and stunning. It was basically a death penalty for the Haigs and Steins distilling operations - and for all of the farmers and suppliers who had become accustomed to the high demands of the whisky market. Scotland, for all intents and purposes, had been cut off. Almost the entire Haig and Stein empire found itself in bankruptcy. Kilbegie, Canonmills, and Kennetpans all went silent.
In the middle of all of this chaos, Margaret, the daughter of John Haig and Margaret Stein decided that she and her attorney husband John should get away from this mess, and start a new life in Ireland. They had heard that John Stein Jr. was looking for someone to manage his Dublin distillery and they jumped at the chance to enter the family business - albeit in a new country. But Ireland had not been as heavy a player in the London Gin Trade and so the English parliament had left them alone.
For John, this move to Ireland fit like a hand in glove. The lawyer turned distillery manager would see the Stein’s Bow Street distillery go from an output of 30,000 gallons a year when he arrived to over 1 million gallons a year by the turn of the century.
In 1805, John would buy out his in-laws, would bring his own son John Jr into the business, and in 1810 he would change the name of the whiskey to match he and Margaret’s last name. You see, Margaret Haig, the daughter of John Haig and Margaret Stein had married another Clackmannanshire Scot whose name was John Jameson.
So what happened to the Steins and the Haigs?
Well, both families would struggle for a time, but they would slowly work their way back into the industry.
James' son Robert would take over Kilbegie and utilizing the family’s creativity in speeding up production would patent his own continuous column, besting Aeneas Coffey’s invention by two years - although the Coffey Still would become the standard.
And Margaret Stein and John Haig’s grandson by way of William Haig would be the founder of John Haig & Co. makers of Haig Gold, Dimple, and Pinch.
The ruins of Andrew Stein’s Kennetpans Distillery still exist, and a trust has been established to work for its preservation.
As for the Margaret and John Jameson, the Jameson’s Irish Whiskey dynasty continues to thrive to this day - and the Bow Street Distillery was their main source of output until the 1970s.
But the Jameson’s wouldn’t be the only Scots to making lemons into lemonade. There was another Scotsman who would watch his life’s toil turn to dust thanks to the three acts of parliament in the mid 1780s but this one wouldn’t find his success in Ireland - instead, he would come to America.
James Anderson’s Life In Scotland
Born in 1745 and raised on his father’s farm near Inverkeithing, Scotland, James Anderson was destined for a life of farming.
By the age of 21 he had gone to work near the English border as an apprentice for a well respected farmer. Within a couple of years he took on the responsibility of managing an estate for that farmer’s uncle - a position he held for three years.
Ready for life on his own terms, James purchased Spencerfield House and the surrounding lands, where he established a mill and went about the task of selling grain. Apparently his operation grew handsomely over the next few years, as his letters mention that he operated several manufacturing mills. He married Ms. Helen Gordon of Inverkeithing and they would grow their family to seven children, starting with John in 1776 and Elizabeth in 1777, then having one every other year until little Margaret in 1787.
For a farmer of grains, his farm's location couldn’t be more perfect. He was situated smack dab in the middle of the Haig and Stein distillery empire and he likely benefited from the major growth of the industry during James Stein’s foray into the London Gin Trade. Kilbegie and Kennetpans were just 15 miles to the west, Andrew Stein’s distillery was just 15 miles north, and James Haig’s Canonmills would be just across the river and a few miles east in Edinburgh.
The Steins were very particular about the grains they used and Anderson’s tutelage under a well-respected farmer likely led them to his fields.
But as the distillery industry crumbled in 1788, the expectations for continued growth must have been crushed under the weight of the realization that no exports to England for at least a year would greatly tax James’ ability to survive.
By 1790, with the Scotch whisky industry basically mothballed, he saw no way out other than to sell the farm, pack up his family, board a ship, and set sail for new opportunities and a new life in America.
America Before Washington
Arriving in Norfolk, Virginia in early 1791 one can only imagine how James and Helen felt, bringing their seven young children to these foreign shores.
They immediately made their way north to Alexandria where they met up with a man named Prescott.
It was during this time that James was taken to the estate of the then President of the United States George Washington. During this short visit to Mount Vernon, James took stock of the farms and started making mental notes on how things might be improved. But a meeting with the president was not to be, as Washington was attending to his duties in Philadelphia.
After trying to make a go of it on a small farm in Fairfax County, James grew frustrated with the quality of the soil. He again looked to Mr. Prescott for some assistance and went to work for him on his estate in Prince William County near present day Manassas.
Here he would find himself working with 15 or so enslaved workers on a 1100 acre farm. But Prescott didn’t have means to take on the improvements that Anderson was suggesting. Feeling that his talents were being wasted, James once again packed up the family and in 1795, he gained employment with the Selden family at their Salvington Plantation near Fredericksburg. With more land, more finances, and more enslaved people, it offered a little more opportunity, but not to the level he was hoping for. Yet, he found satisfaction in being able to tackle his own pet project, the establishment of a distillery on the property.
Little is known about the distilling operation at Salvington. In fact, little is known about James Anderson as a distiller before this time. Farmer distillers were prevalent in both Scotland and the United States, so there is a possibility James did some distilling in Inverkeithing. But it wasn’t his main occupation and he was likely so busy supplying grains to the fast growing scotch whisky industry that he likely didn’t have leftover grains for his own spirits...at least not until the excise disaster in 1788.
So it is very possible that James learned his craft from the enslaved laborers at Salvington, but he could just as likely have taught himself, or brought the skill with him.
It didn’t take long for his burning desire to elevate his standing to get the better of him. Remembering his trip to Mount Vernon years before, he decided to reach out to President Washington during the Summer of 1796 and ask for a job as Farm Manager at Mount Vernon.
With Washington nearing the end of his second and final term as president and was finally ready to give up public life. He had long wanted to retire to his plantation to work on renovations he had been planning since the beginning of the war - and he loved the science of farming and was eager to see what could be done to optimize his yields and better utilize his land.
Washington’s Mount Vernon
The area around Mount Vernon had been in the Washington family all the way back to George Washington’s great grandfather John Washington, who partnered in the land purchase with his friend Nicholas Spencer in 1674.
While most of the land had been passed down to George Washington’s father Augustine, the Spencer family still had ownership of some of the surrounding land. It was George’s older half-brother Lawrence who would start buying up the Spencer’s property, including the land around the Grist Mill at Dogue Creek after he turned 21.
It was Lawrence the name to Mount Vernon. Being called to fight in the War of Jenkins Ear in the Carribean, upon returning Augustine’s passing would leave the estate to Lawrence - and he would name it in honor of his commander in the war, Admiral Edward Vernon. But Lawrence would succumb to tuberculosis at the young age of 33, and the plantation would first pass to George and Lawrence’s widow Anne Fairfax, but when she died - having no surviving heirs, the remaining property went to George.
Yet there was little Washington could do with the house or the land. He was land rich but cash poor. It wouldn’t be until his marriage to a wealthy young widow Martha Custis and the conclusion of the French and Indian War that he would be able to concentrate on developing Mount Vernon.
With the influx of cash, he soon expanded it to five farms and moved from planting tobacco to more profitable crops like corn and wheat. He also grew hemp, flax, and rye.
Still busy settling his affairs and working out the last few months of his second term as president, Washington must have been eager to get back home to start implementing his plans. As for his potential future farm manager, James Anderson’s initial correspondence was a little light on work history, so Washington asked for more detail, but he wasn’t satisfied with Anderson holding details close to the vest. Frustrated, Washington wrote Anderson suggesting that while it may be hard to gloat about one’s own history, details were critical and that they might have to wait for a face to face conversation to get to the heart of the matter.
Not wanting to lose the opportunity, James quickly shot back an apologetic letter and provided a full recounting of his history in Virginia and Scotland. He also wasn’t shy in his promotion of a distillery - touting the benefits experienced at Salvington. Benefits that went well beyond profit - the leftover grain would provide feed for livestock and this in turn would provide beneficial manure to aid in nurturing of the soil.
This follow-up letter obviously sold Washington, and James Anderson was hired. Once again, it was time for James to pack up his family, and prepare to start the new year working at the estate he had long aspired to manage.
Anderson was excited for the benefits a distillery could bring not only to Mount Vernon but also his pocketbook. He had shared distillery profits with the Seldons and thought he might work the same deal with Washington. But before he could approach that subject, he needed to make sure the distillery was approved.
It didn’t take long. In Washington’s letter on January 22nd Anderson is given the go-ahead to start working on a distillery. But Washington wasn’t too eager to get in over his head, suggesting they should set up in the cooperage near the grist mill and limit the operation to two pot stills at the beginning. If things went well, Washington would look at expanding.
It was soon apparent that the cooperage was no place for a permanent distillery. Anderson dealt with it through the Spring, but must have been voicing his frustration quite frequently when Washington returned from Philadelphia. He also raised the idea of partnering on the deal.
Still unsure, Washington wrote to the one man he knew would have some good guidance on whether distilling at Mount Vernon would be profitable or folly. Col. John Fitzgerald had long made a successful career in the rum trade. Washington wrote him saying, "Mr. Anderson has engaged me in a distillery (sic), on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing (sic) it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, and in Europe..."
Col. Fitzgerald assured Washington that there was a lot of money to be made in whisky distilling and that Anderson had a good reputation and should serve the General well.
Upon receiving this reply, Washington gave Anderson instructions on improving the mill to get maximum grain output during the upcoming season and as well as approving the construction of Anderson’s distillery.
But to Anderson’s dismay, Washington wasn’t prepared to offer any sweetheart deal like James had received in the distillery partnership at Salvington. He would have to be content with a salary - but Washington assured him that if the distillery brought success, he would gladly increase that salary.
The decision was made to buy three more stills to bring the total to five. These would be created by an Alexandrian coopersmith named George MacDonald. The construction of the distillery would also be under the care of another resident of Alexandria, stone mason and carpenter George McNunn. Anderson could also depend on the services of six enslaved men who would help work the stills and James would bring on his oldest boy John, who was now 20 years old, to share in some of the duties.
Now it was about choosing a location. Anderson originally wanted to build the distillery close to Mount Vernon, but Washington was concerned that having a distillery so close to the Potomac River could lead to theft. Water would be critical to the distillery operations, so the Dogue Creek location, behind the Grist Mill was the best alternative.
The new distillery would feature five copper pot stills with a 616 gallon capacity. A Mill Run would supply water from the creek. A malting house would be located in the complex and the grist mill would process the grains.
Inside the distillery barrels had been made to serve as mash tubs. The milled corn and rye would be added to these barrels. Water would come from the 210 gallon boiler and would be brought over ladle by ladle and the mash would cook overnight. The next day, malted barley would be added and the thick oatmeal like consistency would quickly transition to a liquid and yeast would be added. Fermentation would occur in the very same barrels that the cooking had taken place in.
It was hard work and most of it was likely being performed by the six enslaved men along with James’ son.
During my recent trip to Mount Vernon, I enjoyed having a great conversation with Steve Bashore, the overseer of the meticulously rebuilt distillery. He showed me around the facility and talked me through the back breaking process that they stay true to today.
Apparently, as much as Anderson wanted this distillery, after it was completed in the Spring of 1798, Washington hears that Anderson is unhappy and is thinking of going to work for a local planter. I asked Steve, who has done extensive research on Anderson and the distillery, about Washington’s reaction to that turn of events.
STEVE: “Well, I think they're kind of a little bit differentiated by time because when Anderson thinks about leaving and also his son John at one point was going to leave in the same time frame. Mmm, and this is 1798. So from Washington's perspective, you convinced me to build a Distillery. I've out laid all this money and bought these Stills. It's been constructed over the winter. Now it's the spring of 1798 and you want to leave right? So I think his anger at that point was I wouldn't have expended all this money. You're the Experts I wouldn't have even done this. Yeah, and now you want to go and so Anderson Back tracks and he stays.”
A few months later, Washington writes Anderson and pays him a compliment, “"I believe you are a man of strict integrity; sobriety; industry & zeal." But Washington apparently doesn’t hold back his feelings and Anderson’s seem to be a bit high strung. I asked Steve if through his research, he could get a bead on whether these two men liked each other.
STEVE: “Yeah. I think it was one of certain respect between I think Washington respected Anderson, but I also think that he like you did with everybody. He critiqued their job performance and Anderson was very skilled at a lot but Washington writes him and says that you get moving on Project a And Midstream you jump into Project B, and it loses efficient use of time and Manpower throughout the estate. So you'll send a cart and Alexandria, but it's not fully loaded and it does some transaction and then it come takes all day to get back. The team is tired. And then it's an inefficient use of time and so at some point Washington takes away a couple of the Farms from Anderson and says his five Farms. Says I want you to focus on these two. Yeah and Washington takes more of a hand of the others for a while and then Anderson also, I think really respected Washington, but Probably wasn't used to maybe being corrected. Even though Washington was always correcting in a manner to improve the farm. So one time Washington ask him some questions and Anderson gets a little hot under the collar about it and Washington's next letter. He says you're asking me not to comment on that which I own. later in that same letter. He says I've never gone against any advice. You've given me about applications for the Farms, but just know that I will ask questions. Basically. Yes. I think that showed the respect was there and I think Anderson do They respected him as well. You know. the property was so big in Washington was used to running it and Anderson had some difficulties and and maybe taking it all in as Washington could yeah, but Washington was a special in that way that I don't know if any of us could have pleased the work ethic level that he had or you know, I think Some did because he had some quality people around him, but they can Anderson did the best he could and he's an immigrant to a new country and he trying to figure out the you know, the labor force which was enslaved which he wasn't used to and there's there's certain issues there and how to manage the enslave Workforce which was You know, I think Anderson wasn't used to that. Yeah, and there's someone in the letters or some discussion of that as well”
Washington also felt that Anderson overpromised. And this may have come down to Anderson’s initial assertions that when it came to the distillery Mount Vernon could be self-sufficient.
STEVE: “Yeah, this is such a big operation. He couldn't Supply at all. I think that's one of the things that he if I can read between the lines and the letters that he was a little irritated at James Anderson about because I think Anderson wanted to do it. He probably said we'll look you have this huge Farm. You can grow all the grain. Yeah. Well this place outstripped the knee pretty quickly because it It's just making 11,000 gallons. He had to buy corn from a relative from another property each year. He had to buy Rye on occasion. Sometimes they're trading whiskey for barrels that Cooper's can't keep up with the barrel needs. Yeah, sometimes they're trading whiskey for grain and Washington like things on the farms to like these internal transactions to break even and he didn't want to have to go outside but no estate like this. It's a misnomer to think they were all self sufficient They're not”
Even though the working relationship was likely awkward and Anderson may have been initially spread thin, the first full year of production 1799 would see the distillery churning out 10,942 gallons of whisky - making it a very large operation - with the whiskey produced estimated at a value of $7,500 which would be around $120,000 in today’s money. In fact, the distillery became one of the most profitable parts of Mount Vernon’s operation. A gallon of Washington’s whiskey would cost around 50 cents per gallon or more if it were distilled additional times or rectified.
The distillery served more than eighty customers, including neighbors, merchants, family, and workers. Their main product was a rye whiskey made from 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley, although wheat could be substituted for rye when that grain was in short supply. The whiskey would be put into 31 gallon wooden barrels and would be shipped to customers. Unlike today’s whiskey, Washington’s whiskey was only put in barrels for shipping, they were not charred and the whiskey was not meant to be aged.
One of the reasons Washington felt the distillery was a success was because he could quickly turn a profit, due to the lack of time to market.
The distillery also produced other products, including brandy.
And while 1799 was a great year of production, it would also see George Washington winding down and looking for a way to loosen his load.
STEVE: “the time they leave here is up in question because after Washington will in 1799 mid-year Washington's again thinking about the future because he's manic tired and he running this biggest state and he writes Anderson a letter and September 1799 and he says would you lease the millander? Jewelry from me and I'll keep a farm or two for myself as an amusement. Hmm, and I think he wants to downsize he's it's a big property and this is a lot of overhead a lot of work and Anderson, they couldn't work out the terms of a good lease, you know because Washington would still have to supply grain and firewood and this and that so at that time, he's already been talking to his nephew Lawrence Louis one of his three nephews because it is Willy leaves Mount Vernon to three nephews. Hmm one nephew bushrod. Washington gets the mansion in some land he ends up becoming a Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Louis gets this farm and Louis had married Nelly custis Martha's granddaughter. So they were setting them up for to money-making business has the mill and Distillery and they build a house called Woodlawn Plantation, which is on the hill across from here. So dog run Farm becomes theirs. Okay, and it's not there's not a good primary source documentation as to what happened, but one of the stories is that Anderson and his son John had a falling out with Lewis about the operation over here and that prompted them to leave. Hmm. So we do know that the last written record of whiskey being made here is 1808, but in 1814, he's trying to get this going again. I think leasing it to somebody Louis is yeah and it during that year an accident of some sort of Curves which causes a fire here You've Got You know open fires you got hmm Spirit and the distilleries burnt down. So that's The end of the story is 1814 question is we don't know what happened between o 8 and 14 if there's anything going on. We don't know or I don't know exactly when Anderson left because there's some other indication than 1800 he was sent out a letter trying to you know settle a bunch of his debts and collect debts that he was owed. Yeah, and then I think our other thought is he stayed around partially for a little longer because of Martha's needs and she died, you know shortly thereafter 1802 or three I believe and so I think he's stuck it out. A little longer.”
So, it is not certain when James Anderson left Mount Vernon, but when he did, he went to work for George Washington Parke Custis, Martha's grandson at White House Plantation, east of Richmond. George Washington Parke Custis had been raised by his grandparents George and Martha and had inherited White House Plantation. But he also was working on a second project, the building of Arlington House, which was to be a tribute to his step-Grandfather George Washington. Arlington House would become the home of Robert E. Lee when he married into the Custis family, and would be surrendered to the Federal Government after his surrender at Appomattox with its vast grounds being used as a burial ground - you know it as Arlington National Cemetery.
It was likely that this construction project led to Custis needing James Anderson’s help at White House Plantation. James wasn’t long for this world and he passed away on March 12, 1807. Helen followed him two years later. They were buried near the plantation.
After Washington’s distillery burned to the ground in 1814, Quakers bought the farm and used the mill until the 1850s when it was torn down. It would lay dormant until the 1930s when the Commonwealth of Virginia would purchase the property and rebuild the grist mill. While they were aware of the distillery, they did nothing to resurrect it. It wouldn’t be until the Mount Vernon Ladies Association became involved in the 1990s that the site would be researched and finally excavated between 1999 and 2006. The faithful preservation and reconstruction started in 2005 and was completed in 2007.
Later this week, I will share more of my conversation with the current Head of Historic Trades and Washington’s current distiller Steve Bashore. But for now, I wanted to ask him how he thought his job compared to that of James Anderson.
STEVE: “a lot more on him, you know because he's working across Four Farms 3200 acres in crop plus livestock tons of livestock issues plus we're enslaved Workforce paid staff. So he had a hard job covering all that ground and my job is a microcosm of that in some ways where I have a small demonstrational farm, which I manage, but I have a great team down there. Are that they spend more time there than I do. I'm on the farm some but I've got great full-time staff that manage a variety of demonstrations and programs that we do down there. So in a way, I you know, I'm over top of that and I oversee that and I work with them on that but I've got a good group of people there that do that but the blacksmith shop as well, which is a reconstruction. So that's an active working blacksmith shop and I have two young men in there. They're very skilled Smith's and other part-time people that work through their learning. So in that aspect, I am oversight and budgetary and administrative stuff and I interpret in these places to I'll do tours there, you know, and so I like to be in the field and I give a lot of tours over the years, you know, my focus has been percentage-wise a lot more in The Distillery in the Grist Mill. So percentage-wise. I don't know. It's probably some times of year. It might be 70% of my job because we're bottling or managing barrels or running. Yeah, and then there's the summer months where there's less going on in here and I'm you know, I've got a staff of 25 people. I have to manage and all that goes with that and and then there's a lot of other interpretive writing and research that goes on to so we can tell the accurate stories on each of the sites. So we're in a phase right now rewriting a bunch of interpretive scripts to update.
And get in line with some of the latest research. So that's that's another part of it. So it's it's a variety of things which makes the job fun But for Anderson, I think you know, like I said, I'm a microcosm of what he did but he had it on a bigger scale and he had to deal with the man himself in George Washington”
It was a long journey for James Anderson and his family - leaving Scotland in the midst of chaos after a 4 year span of parliament tinkering with the excise - and climbing the ladder to becoming farm manager for one of the most famous men in the world - only to see it slip away not long after it started.
For Washington, it was a curious journey, seeing that he was only a couple years removed from one of the great challenges of his presidency, brought on by whiskey and excise taxes that his administration had put in place - he would himself have to pay those same taxes.
One wonders what Washington and Anderson would think of today’s distillery - the faithful re-creation that still produces Anderson’s whiskey the way it was distilled more than 220 years ago. Maybe someday Steve Bashore or some of the historians and archeologists interested in the life of James Anderson will dig up another chapter to this story.
But until then, let's raise a glass to the passionate stewards of history - who work day in and day out - faithfully researching and keeping these precious historical experiences alive - not only for us, but for our children and our children’s children.
I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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Thanks to Steve Bashore for his help with this weeks episode and I have to tell you, I had a lot of fun going down the Haig, Stein, and Jameson rabbit hole as well. Check out this week’s show notes, for links to resources like the Kennetpans Trust, helping to preserve the old distillery and MountVernon.org links for learning more about what Steve and his team are doing at the distillery - and how you can visit. .
Next week will be a step away from Washington into the deep south and the legacy of blues, juke joints and whiskey, so make sure you are subscribed for that and I’ll have my interview with Steve Bashore coming up later this week.
And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.
- Interview with Steve Bashore (Head of Historic Trades at Mount Vernon)
- Interview with Dr. Jim Ambuske and Jeanette Patrick (Washington Library)
- Kennetpans Trust Website Details on history of Haig's and Steins' Distilleries and Acts of Parliament
- Haig Whisky Website (Family Tree)
- Scotch Whisky Magazine (Kennetpans article)
- Scottish Field Magazine: Prime Ministers and their Relationships with a Dram
- Whiskey Wash: Getting to Know Scotch Whisky Highlands Region
- Irish Whiskey Museum: Famous Figures of Irish Whiskey John Jameson
- Mount Vernon Website: Ten Facts About the Distillery and more
- Washington's Library: Whiskey Production
- Washington's Library Archives: James Anderson Letters
- Washington's Library Distillery Ledger and further resources
- Smithsonian Magazine: George Washington Whiskey Businessman
- Archaeology.org; Esther White article on James Anderson and the Distillery Excavation