Conversations in Management: Whiskey

Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.

George Washington

Washington_WhiskeyWhen George Washington became President, no one, including Washington, had any idea of what a President should do. But the father of our country had no doubt about what a commander-in-chief should do. When a band of rowdy Pennsylvanians declined to pay their whiskey tax, Washington didn’t hesitate to don his uniform, muster the militia and ride out to collect. Crisis resolved!

While there’s a certain irony that the first popular challenge to federal authority was the same one that sparked the revolution to begin with, it shouldn’t mask whiskey’s growing national importance. War with Great Britain brought an end to rum imports from the Caribbean. This was significant because our primogenitors loved to drink and rum was the spirit of choice. Records show average annual consumption for Americans over fifteen was thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine. Something had to replace the rum and so with our famed ingenuity, farmers began distilling grain. This inexpensive alternative was more akin to moonshine than the barrel-aged elixir that delights modern imbibers. None-the-less, it sold well and was considered all-American to boot. Washington took note.

With the end of his presidency, Washington turned his attention to generating income. Whiskey was a natural choice. With abundant crops, a gristmill, plenty of fresh water and ready access to markets Mt. Vernon had everything necessary for distilling success. And his distillery was successful beyond imagination. In 1797 he produced a respectable 616 gallons in a makeshift facility. Three years later, production in his new 2,250 square foot distillery had jumped to 11,000 gallons. To put this in context, the average Virginia distillery (and there were about 3,600 of them) was 800 square feet and produced 650 gallons. In today’s dollars, Washington’s production in 1799 was worth $120,000 as compared to $7,400 for his competitor’s! With results like this, it could be argued that of all the Founding Fathers, Washington contributed most to the country’s pursuit of happiness. No wonder he was labelled, “first in the hearts of his countrymen”—and according to government statistics, first in the hearts of his country’s women and teenagers as well!

Washington himself was no teetotaler. He drank beer with meals, had a particular fondness for Madeira and on special occasions, broke out the champagne.  Though usually considered taciturn, one close friend noted, “The General with a few glasses of champagne got quite merry, and being with his intimate friends laughed and talked a good deal.” And that’s the point. Washington may have caught a buzz but he was never drunk. He understood that personal responsibility and dignity were the foundation of happiness and success. He was a man who valued moderation.

Moderation has gone out of fashion today. Our sports are extreme, our styles radical and our politics far left or far right. But life—our life—isn’t all grim neither is it all bliss. Maybe we should start moderating our point of view. Maybe it’s time to seek out common ground for the common good.  Maybe there really is a happy medium. And just maybe we have a “moral duty” to look for it. That’s a lot of maybes, but it worked for Washington—why not us?                —Ebert

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