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Published: Sunday, 10/27/2002

Have a drink on George

Is there not a single area of our nation's history that isn't being exploited commercially? Don't bother to answer; it's a rhetorical question, occasioned by news that the liquor industry is paying to rebuild George Washington's distillery.

Most people don't even know that the Father of Our Country, in addition to being a statesman, politician, and farmer, was a booze producer in retirement. But he was - big time.

Officials at Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation, point out that Mr. Washington's distillery gushed out some 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey and fruit brandy a year in the late 18th century, at a time when the average American operator produced fewer than 1,000 gallons. His motive was the entrepreneurial one that made this country great - liquor was a big money-maker.

Based on that historical curiosity, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association, is donating $1.2 million for reconstruction of the first president's distillery on the Mount Vernon grounds. That will be a big job considering that facility opened in 1798, a year after Mr. Washington left office, but fell into disuse after he died in 1799 and was torn down by 1815.

The restoration is part of a program presidential historians say will acquaint the American people with little-known facets of the Big Kahuna of Founding Fathers and which the liquor industry hopes will spotlight its heritage.

Historians say that liquor often was served at polling places in Mr. Washington's era. Given low voter turnout and some of the ballot choices these days, it might be a tradition worth reviving.

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