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All the president’s whiskey

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BOB MOON: Okay, time for the real truth now about the father of our country. Given that George Washington is one of the men we honor today, a quick history quiz seems appropriate: Was he a man who… a) Chopped down a cherry tree but couldn’t lie about it b) Had wooden teeth c) Threw a dollar all the way across the Potomac River or, d) Was he one heck of a whiskey distiller? Hillary Wicai found the correct answer, just down the Potomac from the nation’s capital.

HILLARY WICAI: Near the end of his life, George Washington was the nation’s largest producer of whiskey. In 1799, he’d distilled 11,000 gallons.

DENNIS POGUE: Everybody thinks they know something about George Washington. Frankly most of what they know is wrong, you know, myths like the cherry tree and the wooden teeth, of course.

Dennis Pogue is the Director of Restoration at General Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon. Now visitors can see and smell a bit of accurate history brewing.

Just this month, a rebuilt version of Washington’s distillery opened to the public. Re-enactors in continental dress pour boiling water over the rye, corn and barley. They stir the sweet mash, then cook it in a copper still where the steamy alcohol is condensed and collected.

And Pogue has a theory as to how this bit of economic history got separated from the George Washington we know.

POGUE: Some of it was purposeful. And Washington actually was seized upon in the 19th Century by folks in the Temperance Movement. They sort of rewrote history and maintained that Washington didn’t drink and was opposed to alcohol.

Even Peter Cressy, the president of the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, didn’t know of Washington’s whiskey making. But once he found out, Cressy and the distillers and wholesalers he represents quickly raised a couple of million dollars to help fund the archaeological digging and rebuilding of the distillery.

And they put their own spin on Washington: He was no teetotaler.

PETER CRESSY: He represents all the things that are great about American values, entrepreneurship, moderation, social responsibility, so it was a natural for us to do it.

It took special legislation, but last month the governor of Virginia signed off on Mt. Vernon selling some of the presidential hooch that’s faithfully made according to Washington’s recipe. Some call it Washington’s liquid gold.

At a recent ceremony opening the distillery, the actor playing Washington gave it the praise history now tells us the first president would have.

GEORGE WASHINGTON [re-enactment]: Well my dear friends raise your glasses in a toast on three huzzahs for the whiskey. Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah! ]

In Mt. Vernon, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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