George Washington Plied Voters with Booze

Ex-president also made whiskey, but was a wine lush.

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It's Election Day in Virginia, an event that back in George Washington's day would have had the ex-president and his supporters seeing double. The reason: Voting day was a reason to binge in Colonial times, and the candidate who served up the most hooch often won.

Washington biographer Dennis Pogue, vice president of preservation at Washington's home of Mount Vernon, reveals that the father of the nation lost his first campaign in 1755 to the House of Burgesses largely because he didn't put on an alcohol-laden circus at the polls. That year, Washington got 40 votes. The winner, who plied voters with beer, whiskey, rum punch, and wine, got 271 votes.

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A quick learner, Washington won three years later with the help of alcohol. "What do you know, he was successful and got 331 votes," says Pogue, author of the new book Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry. He spoke about his research Monday night at an event sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the National Press Club.

Drinking around voting polls has long since been banned in the country.

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Pogue says that Americans in Colonial times were bigger drinkers than today, consuming more than twice as much hard liquor, or about five gallons a year.

Washington himself had a taste for booze, preferring Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine, over whiskey as his choice for strong liquor. "He drank a fair amount," says Pogue.

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His preference for wine was ironic because Washington built a major rye whiskey distillery after leaving the White House, turning out nearly 11,000 gallons a year by the time of his death in 1799 with the help of six black slaves.

Much of Washington's involvement with whiskey and his distillery isn't commonly known, one of the reasons why Mount Vernon and the Distilled Spirits Council teamed to rebuild the facility on grounds of the former president's home. The distillery is now producing a small batch of the unaged rye and nearly 300 bottles recently made available sold fast at $185 each. That amounts to about $1,850 a gallon. In the 1790s, Washington sold his whiskey for 60 cents a gallon.

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