George Washington’s distillery manager

Little Spencerfield

Little Spencerfield

James Anderson was born in 1745 and grew up on his father’s farm, at Pittadro, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh a mile or so from Royal Burgh of Inverkeithing, Scotland next door to us at Spencerfield. At the age of 21, he began an apprenticeship “upon the English border…with a Gentleman, Famous in Farming,” and at the end of the second year began to manage the estate of this gentleman’s uncle. Back in Inverkeithing he then started farming on his own at Little Spencerfield and in February 1774, aged 29 he married Helen Gordon, from Spencerfield “oour hoose”. They had seven children–John (1776), Elizabeth (1777), Jean (1779), Helen (1781), James (1783), Alexander (1785), and Margaret (1787).
In his introductory letter to Washington he states he
“farmed on my own account, largely in the Grain line, And had several manufacturing Mills. But by the failure of a Sett (sic) of Distillers in 1788 I nearly lost all.”
The Andersons left Scotland, landing in Norfolk, Virginia, in late 1790 or early 1791. Much grain at the time was grown and distilled to whisky in the rich soils around Inverkeithing and James Anderson learnt the art on his farm here. The small local distilleries are now long gone but grain for distilling is still grown around Spencerfield.
The family initially rented a farm near Mount Vernon, and Anderson worked as a manager for a smaller plantation. They moved south near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1795 to manage Salvington, the Selden family plantation. Anderson described Salvington as 1,700 acres with 25 slaves and a distillery “which I also conduct.” This seems to have been his first opportunity to run a distillery. In Scotland, it seems he grew and processed grain for large distilleries.

Little is known about Salvington’s distillery. At this time in Virginia, distilleries generally had two or three stills and were about 1,000 square feet in size. Mount Vernon’s distillery had five stills and was more than 2,000 square feet, making it considerably larger. In fact, the distillery that Anderson convinced Washington to build was one of the largest distilleries of the time. Perhaps Anderson used larger distilleries in Scotland as a model for the Mount Vernon operation.

James Anderson began duties as plantation manager at Mount Vernon on January 1, 1797, and he immediately thought the plantation–with the abundance of grain grown–would be a superb spot for a distillery. With Washington’s consent, Anderson began distilling that February. He was so successful that Washington agreed to expand the distillery .
James seems to have had a special relationship with Mr Washington who clearly states that the distillery was his idea: “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…” (George Washington to John Fitzgerald, June 12, 1797).

Anderson and Washington held each other in high esteem, yet they maintained a prickly working relationship. Washington paid Anderson his highest compliment on June 11, 1798, when he wrote “I believe you are a man of strict integrity; sobriety; industry & zeal.” However, Washington also thought Anderson promised too freely and failed to complete tasks as quickly as he wanted. Probably because of this tension in their working relationship, Anderson thought about working for a neighbouring planter in the spring of 1798. Washington and Anderson patched up their differences, and Anderson continued to work at Mount Vernon until after Martha Washington’s death in 1802. In late 1803 or early 1804, the Andersons moved south to manage White House Plantation for George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s grandson. James died on March 12, 1807, Helen on November 30, 1809. They are buried near the White House Plantation.

So at Spencerfield on George Washington’s birthday we will raise a glass of Sheep Dip or Pigs Nose if you prefer to George Washington and his plantation manager the founder of American whiskey Spencerfield and Inverkeithing’s descendent James Anderson

Slainte Mr President

Slainte Mr President

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One Response to George Washington’s distillery manager

  1. Mike says:

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