Monday, April 2, 2018

George Washington -- President and Whiskey Distiller

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
By 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the United States while it was starting to develop and forced President Washington to personally lead the United States militia westward to stop the rebels........
The Whiskey Rebellion, also known as the Whiskey Insurrection, was a tax protest in the United States beginning in 1791, during George Washington's presidency. The so-called whiskey tax was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government. It became law in 1791 and was intended to generate revenue for the debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. The tax applied to all distilled spirits, but American whiskey was by far the country's most popular distilled beverage in the eighteenth century, so the excise tax became widely known as a whiskey tax.
Western frontier farmers were accustomed to distilling their surplus rye, barley, wheat, corn, or fermented grain mixtures into whiskey. These farmers resisted the tax. In these regions, whiskey often served as a medium of exchange. Many of the resisters were war veterans who believed that they were fighting for the principles of the American Revolution, in particular against taxation without local representation, while the federal government maintained that the taxes were the legal expression of Congressional taxation powers.
Throughout Western Pennsylvania counties, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a U.S. marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned. Most distillers in nearby Kentucky were found to be all-but-impossible to tax—in the next six years, over 175 distillers from Kentucky were convicted of violating the tax law. Numerous examples of resistance are recorded in court documents and newspaper accounts.
The Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated that the new national government had the will and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws, though the whiskey excise remained difficult to collect. The events contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States, a process already underway. The whiskey tax was repealed in the early 1800s during the Jefferson administration.
President Washington wanted to resolve this dispute peacefully. In 1792, he issued a national proclamation admonishing westerners for their resistance to the operation of the laws of the United States for raising revenue upon spirits distilled within the same. However, by 1794 the protests became violent. In July, nearly 400 whiskey rebels near Pittsburg set fire to the home of John Neville, the regional tax collection supervisor. Left with little recourse and at the urgings of Secretary Hamilton, Washington organized a militia force of 12,950 men and led them towards Western Pennsylvania, warning locals "not to abet, air, or comfort the Insurgents aforesaid, as they will answer the contrary at their peril."
The calling of the militia had the desired effect of essentially ending the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time the militia reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and could not be found. The militia apprehended approximately 150 men and tried them for treason. A lack of evidence and inability to obtain witnesses hampered the trials. Two men, John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, were found guilty of treason, though both were pardoned by President Washington. By 1802, then President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey. Under the eye of President Washington, the emerging United States survived the first true challenge to federal authority.
George Washington’s Rye Whiskey is distilled at George Washington’s reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon from a recipe discovered by scholars examining the distillery ledgers for 1798 and 1799. It is distilled in limited quantities and only available for purchase in person. In 1797, urged on by his farm manager, James Anderson, Washington ramped up production and it produced 600 gallons in 1799. The year Washington died, the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at that time.


  1. And I thought I know Pennsylvania history. Guess they didn't want to ruin our tender minds on such things or have us realize that our first great president distilled whiskey!

    History like it's never taught in school! Go SotW!!!

  2. I was a bit surprised myself. I don't think the presidents were paid that much money in those days. He might have needed the extra cash. Thanks for stopping to visit today.

  3. Well happy day! Good to know Washington was not only a man who liked whiskey, but made it himself.

    I'm not surprised that whiskey was taxed to pay that post-revolution debt. Naturally, it would have been those Pennsylvanians were the first to revolt against the whiskey tax. The North Carolina mountain folks are still upholding that revolt today. LOL

    Good blog, Paisley. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Is there still a Washington produced whiskey or did it end when he died?

    1. Every few months, Mount Vernon produces a small batch of distilled spirits from our historic Distillery. It's very expensive. One bottle I saw sold for over $200. Glad you enjoyed the post, Sarah.


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