By Mike Gerrard

"Let me build you a distillery. I'll make you a lot of money." That's what James Anderson promised the former US President George Washington in 1796, the year before Washington retired from the Presidency. Anderson had been born on his father's farm near Inverkeithing in Fife, and by his early 20s was managing an uncle's farm. He went on to run his own farm, which also had a distillery. In the early 1790s he and his wife took their seven children with them to Virginia in the United States, where Anderson became a farm manager.

In October 1796 he was hired by George Washington to be the plantation manager at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. In his first letter to his new boss Anderson made his promise about the distillery - and was as good as his word. Building a distillery, the largest in the USA at the time, doubled Washington's income.

Anderson is one of several Scots who had a major impact on the American whiskey business. Famous names like Maker's Mark, George Dickel and even the mighty Jack Daniel's all have Scottish connections.

My journey along the American Whiskey Trail began at Mount Vernon, 17 miles from the White House in Washington DC, and it's a journey that takes you through America's history, its independence, immigration and Prohibition to the modern global business world.

It also takes you through the glorious rural scenery of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. It's a landscape of green rolling hills, of fast-flowing streams and rivers, of woods and forests and farms. It's a landscape that would have made many of the Scottish immigrants feel at home, like Scotland but with warmer weather.

George Washington died in 1799 and his wife Martha followed him in 1802, when Anderson left the distillery which later burned down. However, with the support of the Distilled Spirits Council of the USA and the help of Scottish distillers, it was rebuilt and re-opened in 2007. Although it only distils twice a year, it can be visited all year round and you can see demonstrations of exactly how whiskey was made in Washington's day.

"The key thing for the distillery," our tour guide Steve tells us, "was the Dogue Creek, named after the Dogue Native Americans. Washington already had a Grist Mill here, and the creek provided a ready source of pure water for the distillery." Anderson oversaw the building of the distillery, and worked there with six of Washington's slaves.

"So basically," says Steve, "seven guys produced all the whiskey. At its peak they were making 30-40 gallons a day so really must have been working round the clock when it was in full production. We do it the way it was done in the 1790s, which makes it harder for us but that's the way we want to do it."

Stacks of logs stand outside the surprisingly small single-storey stone building, and inside a man is feeding wood into the fire to heat the copper still. It's a room full of steam and stirring, of sacks of rye and corn and barley being poured into barrels to bubble and ferment.

"It was a thrill to taste the first batch," says Steve, who was there when distilling resumed. "It puts you in touch with the past. When we re-opened the distillery it was the first spirits made here in 200 years. The last time spirits were made on this site was in 1808. No one does it like we do, with wood-fired stills and so on. We've learned how to work with these old skills.'

Old skills and traditions - and Scotland - are also a big part of Maker's Mark, the distinguished bourbon maker in Loretto, Kentucky. They're one of the few US distilleries to spell whisky the Scottish way, in honour of their Scottish ancestry. Although the name Maker's Mark only dates back to 1954, the Samuels family behind it was distilling whisky at their home in the village of Samuelson, near Haddington in East Lothian, as long ago as the 1500s.

"My family migrated to Pennsylvania in the 1680s,' says Rob Samuels, now the 3rd generation to be making Maker's Mark bourbon. "George Washington imposed the first ever national tax in the USA, which was a tax on farmers who were distilling. My ancestors were among those who rebelled against the tax, and George Washington sent in almost 6000 troops in what was known as the Whiskey Rebellion - the only time in the history of the USA that troops fought against US civilians."

To help settle the dispute, the governor of Virginia offered land grants for what is now Bourbon County in Kentucky. People who settled here got 1000 acres of land for free, and so the Samuels family moved to Kentucky along with many other rebels who were, perhaps not surprisingly, of largely Scots or Irish decent.

"By 1840," says Samuels, "there were more than 200 distilleries in Kentucky, all making bad whiskey. One distillery's sales pitch at the time was that their whiskey would blow your ears off!

After deciding to sell the TW Samuels Distillery my grandfather opened a bank... and had to close it again within 60 days. He then floundered as an automotive dealer. All our family have failed at everything other than making whiskey."

So the family went back to whiskey-making in the 1950s, and were very successful indeed. It was Samuels' grandmother who came up with the name of Maker's Mark, who decided to retain the Scottish spelling of whisky for their ancestors, who made it the first US distillery to welcome visitors and who also came up with the idea of hand-dipping each bottle in red sealing wax to distinguish it from everyone else. It's a practice that's still carried out. Every bottle of Maker's Mark is made here in their old-fashioned distillery in rural Kentucky, and every one is dipped in molten red wax.

As part of our tour we're invited to don protective clothing and try our hand at sealing the top of a bourbon bottle in wax. After watching some pretty dismal attempts, I was delighted to manage a perfect dip and be told I could have a job there any time.

Driving further west from Kentucky into Tennessee, it's a tempting prospect. The grass is as green as a snooker table, cherry trees are in blossom and eagles soar in the clear blue sky. The George Dickel Distillery is in the beautifully-named Cascade Hollow, an idyllic spot where a stream runs by and I suddenly harbour fantasies of ambling to work every day and making whiskey. Or in Dickels' case, whisky. George Dickel also adopted the Scottish spelling though in his case it wasn't through nostalgia for the homeland (he was in fact German) but a marketing move because he wanted buyers to think his Tennessee whiskey was every bit as good as the finest Scotch. Whether it is or not you'll have to come to the USA to find out, as George Dickel isn't yet available in Scotland.

"We're a very small company," our guide says. "Only 26 people in total work here, including office staff, so everyone has to be versatile. Every bottle of Dickel whisky in the world is made here. Last year we sold about 130,000 cases, so just over 1.5 million bottles. We're into quality not quantity."

Less than 20 miles away in Lynchburg, they go for both quality and quantity at Jack Daniel's, the biggest-selling American whiskey in the world. This is whiskey-making on an industrial scale, where cases by the million are produced using water from the same spring where a 15-year-old kid called Jack Daniel set up a still in 1865. In 1866 young Jack had the first licensed distillery in the United States. Jack's grandmother was Scottish, his grandfather Welsh, and the couple emigrated to the US. Jack ran away from home and was taken in by a lay preacher who also made moonshine, encouraging Jack's interest in distilling.

Today bourbon and whiskey-making in the US is booming. Companies like Jack Daniel's can't fill barrels fast enough. With the fast expansion of craft distilling too, there's even a barrel shortage. All along the American Whiskey Trail is a feeling of bustle and energy, and it's due in part to those immigrants and pioneers like James Anderson who took their Scottish distilling skills and entrepreneurship across the ocean.