Happy Independence Day to all my loyal readers. You might be surprised to learn that U.S. Presidents and whiskey are entwined in the fabric of our country. Did you know our first president was a whiskey distiller? George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799 (according to its website). That was one of the largest distilleries in the country with 5 copper pot stills – larger than many distilleries today.
Mount Vernon Distillery was not the first in the country. General Washington was buying whiskey for his troops from Pennsylvania distillers during the Revolutionary War. He later angered these distillers after the war when, to help pay war debts, the country decided to tax whiskey.
If you are ever get a chance to visit Mount Vernon make a side trip to the Mount Vernon Distillery. They give an interesting and fun tour of George Washington’s distillery operation. While there you can buy rye whiskey at the distillery which has been restored and is a working distillery.
George Washington was making mostly Rye whiskey with 60% rye, 30% corn, and 5% barley. This rye was distilled twice and sold as common whiskey. He also distilled apple, peach, and persimmon brandy.
Prior to the revolution rum was the preferred beverage. We know from our tours in Barbados that Washington spent time studying the rum making process when he was in Barbados with his brother. After the war, molasses from the west Indies, which is required for the rum making process, became more expensive. The ingredients for whiskey were more easily acquired and less expensive. And thus, distillers turned to whiskey.
As you celebrate the 4th of July you may be celebrating with a beer, which was Thomas Jefferson’s preferred beverage. I would suggest you toast our first president, and perhaps the most famous Founding Father, with a sip of American whiskey.
We recently had one of those weekends you will always cherish and remember fondly. Our daughter and her husband suggested we go to The Homestead. If you are not familiar with The Homestead it is not because its new – they recently celebrated 250 years as America’s first and oldest resort.
While there we took the history tour of the Homestead and learned a lot about how a resort in pretty much the middle of nowhere in Virginia came to be, and became a legend.
Quick overview… Captain Thomas Bullitt, Charles and Andrew Lewis were part of the militia and surveyors during the French and Indian War. They were told of the many healing qualities of the waters in the area. In 1764, at the end of the war, Captain Bullitt received a colonial land grand of 300 acres which contained seven natural mineral springs from Colonel George Washington. Captain Bullitt moved his militia and his family and their families to the area. Within 2 years the land was cleared and an 18 room wooden hotel was built. In 1766, The Homestead was opened and named in honor of the Homesteaders who built the resort and bathhouses. The hotel changed ownership several times until 1901 when a fire started in the pastry shop and burned the entire resort. The day after the fire the investors met and decided to rebuild immediately. Fast forward to today and it is now part of the Omni Hotels & Resorts.
Getting There We flew into Richmond (RIC) and stayed the night with our daughter before heading to the Homestead. If you’re coming from out of the area, Charlottesville and Roanoke are the closest airports, but Richmond is the largest close airport and serviced by Southwest which I’m loyal to. You definitely have to rent a car, there really isn’t another way to get to the resort. It is a nice 3-hour drive from Richmond through horse farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains. On our way, we enjoyed a leisurely drive stopping in the Charlottesville area to get a sandwich for lunch at Greenwood Grocery, one of our son-in-law’s favorites. If making a day of your drive, you basically pass through Central Virginia wine country and stopping at a vineyard such as King Family Vineyards is highly recommended.
Once you get close to the hotel you’ll see the Tower and the resort coming into view. It is perfectly nestled into the hillside. You also drive past the golf courses and surrounding spa, casino, and cottage row on your way into the main entrance of the resort.
Activities The Homestead offers tons of activities for visitors young and old. It is most well known for its golf courses. The legend Sam Snead helped in giving the Homestead that legacy. Born nearby, Snead began caddying at The Homestead when he was 7. He worked as an assistant pro at The Homestead at 19 and turned professional in 1934. There are 2 courses at the Resort. The Old Course has the oldest continuously used 1st Tee in the country. The Cascades Course is set against the Allegheny Mountains. Both offer excellent golf. There is also a miniature golf course for younger and non-golfers.
The spa is another popular attraction. My wife and daughter had facials at the spa. The facilities are about 5 years old and very nice. When they re-did the spa they added a great headed outdoor pool and hot tub just for spa-goers. And within the spa complex is a Hot Spring pool as well. Lynn and I spent the afternoon soaking in the mineral pool – I definitely recommend it. (Not to be confused with the original hot springs that are off-site. We didn’t make it to those.)
Other activities include fly fishing, shooting, zip lining, hiking, the outdoor family pool and lazy river when it’s warm out, the indoor pool, and of course the hot springs. Carter and I went to the shooting club to shoot trap. I was very impressed with the club, but not my shooting.
Another activity you can’t miss is afternoon tea. Well, they call is social hour now, but it’s essentially afternoon tea. The service has changed a bit since the last time my daughter and son-in-law were there. They set up a station to get your tea (hot or cold) and then waiters walk around with a treat – while we were there it was pumpkin bread one day and lemon bars the other.
Another popular activity is just sitting in the Great Hall (essentially the lobby) by the fire reading, playing games, or hanging out. Lynn and Taylor spent a decent amount of time working on their needlepoint there Saturday afternoon.
Tip: Pack your own alcohol! We brought a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of wine to enjoy throughout the weekend. It’s a great place to pour yourself some bourbon and wander down to the Great Hall to gather with people. We also brought some after dinner drinks to the outdoor fire pit to enjoy with our s’mores.
Dining Dining at the Homestead excellent. We opted for the breakfast package to enjoy their popular breakfast buffet with its legendary homemade donuts. Breakfast takes place in the Main Dining Room – a grand, open room with a dance floor and piano. You can picture how it was used years ago for opulent dinners. We didn’t eat dinner there, but the breakfast was great.
We were supposed to eat dinner our first night at Jefferson’s Restaurant, which is described as “a modern American grill serving regional influences.” Its menu looks pretty similar to a steak house menu with some regional additions like fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits. Unfortunately the power went out right before our reservation on Friday, so after having cocktails in the bar area in the dark and ordering as many cold appetizers and salads from the menu as possible we called it a night. I guess we’ll have to go back!
We had lunch on Saturday at the Casino Restaurant which is near the pro-shop. Lunch was delicious. We shared the fried zucchini appetizer and a couple pizzas. Everything hit the spot.
We ventured to the Waterwheel Restaurant at the Gristmill Inn a couple miles from the resort for dinner Saturday night. It is very quaint in an old gristmill with exposed wood beams and whitewashed walls. They have a fun little wine cellar in the basement of the mill where you can go down to pick out your wine. Everyone raved about their dishes, including the guests around us. It’s a fun atmosphere, excellent food, and great experience.
After dinner Saturday night we wandered back to the Homestead and got a s’more kit to roast s’mores outside around their large bonfire pit. While it was definitely cold out (we were there in February) the fire was roaring and it was a fun little after dinner activity.
Tip: Make reservations for dinner as soon as your book your trip. There aren’t a lot of dinner options in the area and because of both on-site and off-site restaurants they fill up quickly.
Another must-try is the Lobby Bar. When the Homestead did a small remodel 5 or so years ago, they added this bar literally right off the lobby (hence the name) with a small billiards room with pool tables behind it. The bar has portraits of the 22 sitting Presidents who have stayed at The Homestead. It’s a warm and inviting bar with a nice selection of liquor, beer, and wine, and a great atmosphere especially during a busy weekend. While there, I enjoyed an Old Fashioned and Lynn a Manhattan – our “go to’s”!
There is also a new French restaurant in town called LesCochons d’Or that people recommended. We did not get a chance to eat there but plan to on our next trip to The Homestead. It has gotten excellent review and you can walk to it from the hotel.
Overall, I can’t say enough about the experience. When I have described it to people here on the West Coast they say it sounds like the setting for the movie “Dirty Dancing.” While a little less “campy,” it’s definitely similar. And years and years ago people would head to the Homestead for the entire summer much like Dirty Dancing. Sitting in the Great Hall with all the overstuffed furniture and roaring fires is part of the wonderful experience. We really did feel like we had dropped back in time but with all the amenities of the 21st century.
If you get a chance go, you will come back refreshed with very fond memories.