May 18, 2013

A. Smith Bowman Distillery Tour

After visiting the Historic Half expo, I headed over to the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg. As a frequent drinker of Bowman Brothers small batch, I figured it was time to visit the home of Virginia bourbon. It was close to my hotel for the night and tucked away in a nicely-wooded side street. You enter through a brick fence gate and proceed to a large red brick building.

Upon arriving in a nice brick building, you enter in the gift shop area which also shares floor space with the bottling area. The bottling line sits two people who hand bottle product, talk about small batch premium spirits.

The space was nice and I was greeted immediately by a friendly Bowman employee.

Distillery entrance.

View of bottling line from
the gift shop.

Close-up view of the hand-
bottling production line.

Thinking I would skip the tour and just do the tasting, I quickly found myself in front of five bottles with a very knowledgeable Bowman employee. Laid out in front of me was the entire product line:
  • Bowman Brothers Small Batch bourbon (90 proof)
  • John J. Bowman Single Barrel bourbon (100 proof)
  • George Bowman Dark Caribbean Rum
  • Deep Run Vodka
  • Sunset Hills Gin
The tasting line up.
I was instructed I could only taste three of the five bottles (silly Virginia ABC laws!). Given that I always have a bottle of Bowman Brothers on hand and given that most decent vodka tastes the same, I opted for the single barrel bourbon, rum, and gin. The John J. Bowman single barrel bourbon was pretty mellow and smooth, as expected from spending 10 years in oak. The George Bowman Dark Caribbean Rum was a great sipping rum, unlike the over-flavored spiced rum most people are drinking. It's a pot-still rum, with all the ingredients purchased from a single farmer in Guyana, and has a very full flavor. You get a great taste of brown sugar and molasses, with some other subtle aromas as well. The Sunset Hills Gin had a great smell of juniper, but wasn't as overpowering as a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. It had a light and smooth taste, easy to sip by itself or build a martini around.

After having a good discussion with the employee and learning he was about to lead the tour, I stuck around and went through the distillery with a handful of people in a small tour group. Bowman Brothers is named after John, Abraham, Joseph and Isaac Bowman — four brothers who served in the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War and eventually played a major role in the settlement of the Virginia territory that would eventually become the state of the Kentucky. It was interesting to learn the history of the Bowman family and distillery, including their production of Virginia Gentlemen, their settling in northern Virginia, and their providing Russia with vodka for a long time through history.

Most interesting in the history of the company was that they began in Fairfax County, their land becoming what is now Reston, Virginia.  The Bowman family has a dairy and granary and named it "Sunset Hills," which is now a popular road name in Reston and one I travel frequently to visit business clients. Excess grain from the granary would be used for distilling spirits, and with the exception of the Prohibition years, liquor poured from that distillery until their move to Fredericksburg in 1988. The company is still the home of Virginia Gentlemen, but the only products fully distilled, stored, and bottled in the Fredericksburg facility are the Bowman brands.

The tour took us through some older distilling equipment, stave making, and the importance of the oak barrels, including their creation, use, and second life as scotch barrels. After our history lesson, we were led into the stillhouse where we could meet "Mary", the company's massive copper still. We also made our way through the barrel filling area and finally to the warehouse that stores barrels floor to ceiling for the requisite near-decade of aging.

We also saw a few barrels that were aging some bourbon "tests" as the barrels were previously used for apple cider or other items. The master distiller, who sadly passed in December 2012, came from Buffalo Trace, and it seems that Bowman is headed in a similar direction of mixing tradition with exploration and innovation.

Storage warehouse floor.

Storage warehouse from above.

"Test bourbon," ready to
sample in 2019.

In summary, it was a very educating and interesting tour of a small batch distillery. The life cycle of bourbon is fascinating, especially the waiting game and evolution of the product in the barrel. The bourbons were good, the employees were friendly, and the entire facility had a small town feel that you don't get when you visit a mega-producer in Kentucky.

Bought a nice set of
new glasses.

Took home a few of these... 

...and one of these for
good measure.