The A. Smith Bowman Distillery
My drive back home to North Carolina for Christmas took the long route as I hunted bourbon at honey holes in Tennessee, did bottle pickups from Louisville connects and swapped some bourbon picks in Richmond. I decided to visit a friend in Fredericksburg, VA whose parents couldn't make it for the holiday due to a Covid positive test. No friend of mine should have to spend the holidays alone if at all possible--especially when I have a dozen cases or so of some of the finest whiskey on the planet!
While in Fredericksburg, I stopped in on A. Smith Bowman distillery to see if they had any special releases up to close out the year. Bowman Brothers was one of the first bourbons I discovered as I started my true deep dive into the spirit 6-7 years ago, so whenever I'm in Virginia, my eyes are open for new products I can't get here in Texas. The Bowman story is fascinating!
During Prohibition, it's said that Fairfax County was the wettest county in America. This is hard to dispute, it being right across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and the "dry" yet thirsty politicians and bureaucrats who work there. Shrewd businessman A. Smith Bowman filed for a distillery license in 1934 within a month after ratification of the 21st Amendment. And he was up and running his distillery in 1935 on his 7,200 acre farm with all his excess grain there in Fairfax. Who knows what he was doing with all of that excess over the previous decade, but that's neither here nor there. A. Smith Bowman is the oldest legal distillery in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Bowman family's first grain-to-glass whiskey from their self-sustaining farm was Virginia Gentleman, which also became their first straight bourbon released in 1937 (the 2-year minimum for straight whiskey).
Very old bottles that I couldn’t touch!
1940 View of Original Distillery Building, Fairfax County, VA
Courtesy of blueridgeoutdoors.com
The Bowmans ran the only legal distillery in the state until the 1950s, and in the 70s, moved into its current home in Fredericksburg--the former FMC cellophane factory built back in 1927. This place has the highest ceilings you'll ever see in a bourbon production area.
Their bourbon goes through 3 distillations--the first at Sazerac sister, Buffalo Trace, (which also does the initial mash cook) who ships it to off to Bowman. The next 2 bourbon runs are in a huge passive reflux pot still in Fredericksburg affectionately named "Mary".
Bonus Question: Name another famous triple pot-distilled bourbon!
Bowman vertically stacks their barrels, 3x3 on pallets, and 4 pallets high in their warehouses--something I'm seeing more and more at newer distilleries. While the stories of 5-foot tall guys rolling barrels in dusty old rickhouses in Kentucky are quant, you've got to admit, moving pallets around on forklifts is a lot more efficient. (As a big guy, I've also struck my head on a hundred-year-old cross beam a time or two, touring these ricks!) Concussion and fire dangers aside, there are arguments that the whiskey touches more good stave char when stored upright, and there's less worry about barrel head or bung failures. Only time will tell…!
Barrel Warehouse at 1 Bowman Drive, Fredericksburg, VA
Bowman claims to get about 5% loss each year to the angels, and they don't methodically rotate or move the barrels around the warehouse. I did notice the HVAC ducts in the warehouse--another anomaly I don't normally see on tours. They confirmed that they do indeed turn on the heat when the indoor temp drops to 50°F (at 45°F the wood stops moving the liquid) so they actually help their whiskey along a little bit during cold times of day. Barrels are sampled every 6 months or so after ~3-4 years of storing the good stuff. My guide was tight lipped about the huge European oak butts, and Japanese oak barrels lying around the periphery, but I know when something special's cooking!
Their standard Virginia straight bourbon is Bowman Brothers, a 10-barrel (very) small batch 6-year bourbon bottled at 90°. It's chill filtered--a downer for me as I think it removes flavor. But I get it due to the low proof offering, and most consumers don’t like seeing cloudy bottles on the cold shelves of their local package store. With a floor on low temps, and now the filtering, I notice a trend of Bowman protecting their investment at every step of the process.
John J. Bowman is their single barrel 10-year Virginia straight bourbon offering @ 100°. At one point I heard they did a cask strength release, but currently none are expected anytime soon, assuming it allows for wider distribution of their lower proof bourbon. A step above the standard vanilla/caramel notes of younger Bowman Brothers, the single barrels bounce between either the Fig Newtons I enjoyed as a kid, or the Heath bar crumbles I eat on my slab ice cream today. And while I've never actually bought a Heath bar by itself, it and John J. are Delicious! Another DBC pick anyone???
Isaac Bowman is their port-finished Virginia straight bourbon that started off as an experiment/accident (tomAto/tomato). To me you can put this up against any other port-finished bourbon out there, and it'll hold its own. Jammy red fruits dance around with the vanilla/caramel, toffee and baking spices underneath.
Bowman also makes other spirits cooked in "George", a towering hybrid still that sits near "Mary". There was a vodka I didn't taste, and some pretty interesting gins under the Tinkerman's brand that play with Mediterranean citrus, green tea, ginger, jasmine, and coriander @ 92°. If drinking clear spirits is your thing, that is… :-)
What did come home with me was a Guyanan Demerara rum collaboration that takes the South American light rum and ages it in A. Smith Bowman bourbon barrels. I keep a decent stock of higher proof aged rums like Foursquare and Hampden at home when taking a break from bourbon. But this 80° sipper is a nice getaway from the cask strength spirits, and I don’t feel like I'm giving up any flavor! It's definitely a treat.
Speaking of treats, since it was the holidays, Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Bourbon Cream was a great way to end the day. The three ingredients are right there in the name--caramel, 4-year bourbon (their Virginia Gentleman!) & cream. That's it. I could easily pour this into a hot cocoa, or a coffee. Or that half-eaten tub of Blue Bell in my freezer! (Ice cream, again…hmm).
So I didn't get what I came for, the latest limited seasonal release from their experimental series, Abraham Bowman, called Gingerbread #2. They didn't even have a SAMPLE, as holiday hunters like me had cleaned them out (and Virginia ABC stores) days before. What I did get was a great experience at a distillery that was decked out for the season, great pours with good folk, and lots of knowledge behind what I swirl around in my glass. That itself, is the true gift of the holiday we all love!
Virginia IS for lovers!
Your Bourbon Steward