Friday, December 19, 2008

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Fresh off our research of American Rum Distillers, we decided to pay a visit to a local craft bourbon distiller, A. Smith Bowman Distillery. Yes, it is entirely accurate to question designating this distillery as a micro-distillery - but after several years of producing large scale export driven products, A. Smith Bowman is returning to its roots.

That started over 70 years ago when Abram Smith Bowman and his sons, Smith and DeLong, began making bourbon at the family Sunset Hills Farm in Wiehle, Virginia. The distillery itself was situated in a building constructed in 1892, which served as the town hall for Wiehle, as well as a church. For the next 50years the distillery produced their trademark Virginia Gentleman® at this location. During that time the Bowman family sold most of their estate to Robert E. Simon, who used proceeds from selling Carnegie Hall to created the planned community of Reston. As the area became more urbanized from this development, in 1988 the distillery moved south to Fredericksburg, where it still operates today. In its infinite wisdom Fairfax County bulldozed several historic structures associated with the historic distillery and the original Bowman house and distillery are now threatened as developers seek to build homes and condominiums on the property. The county has little respect for history when money is involved.

Meanwhile in Fredericksburg, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery was eventually purchased by the Sazerac Company, who also owns the Buffalo Trace Distillery and the Old Rip Van Winkle, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, and other well known brands. The Bowman brand had expanded to include vodka, rum, gin, and other products and the Bowman name became more associated with these spirits instead of the old Virginia Gentleman® brand. This brand had actually expanded to include the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon which was awarded a double gold medal and named Best American Whiskey at the 2003 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This tradition of excellence continued at this year's competition as the 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon also earned a double gold medal. The master distiller who crafts this award winning spirit, Joe Dangler, agreed to host a tour of their facility for me.

Mr Dangler has worked for the A. Smith Bowman Distillery for over 30 years, starting in Reston and relocating to Fredericksburg with the distillery. He was originally hired as a line foreman and over the course of his career emerged as the distillery's master distiller. No formal education - just on the job training. At the Fredericksburg facility, bourbon is the only spirit created and the product line consists of three brands: Bowman Bourbon, Virginia Gentleman® and Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon. Each brand is made from the original Virginia Gentleman® recipe, the only difference is the dilution and length of aging. In order to benefit from economies of scale, the mash and first distillation occur at the parent's Buffalo Trace Distillery. The corn whiskey is then transported to Fredericksburg where it undergoes a second distillation in a copper still and chilled filtered. The bourbon is then aged in new casks in a warehouse palette system that was designed to use labor efficiently and allow for ample ventilation to control temperature. The Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon is aged for six years whereas the other two brands are aged between 3 1/2 to 4 years.

The warehouse smells amazing - think of the sweet corn aroma of bourbon. I asked Mr. Dangler if he ever gets tired of the smell and he informed me "no" and his nose has been trained to notice any off-odors. A semi-quality control mechanism. There's no tasting at the facility, but instead I was given access to view the the warehouse, distillation room, and bottling system. Besides the row after row of aging bourbon, the copper still was the most impressive piece - a fine piece of craftsmanship. The distillery also possesses antique scales used by the Feds to calculate taxes as well as several antique barrel making tools. Very soon the distillery hopes to showcase these items in a new visitor center. This center will also include displays on the history of the Bowman family, the distillery, and the city of Fredericksburg. We look forward to that development. In the meanwhile the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon has replaced Ancient Age and Wild Turkey 101 as our everyday bourbon. Retailing between $20-$25, this double gold winner is a bargain. It has a honey aroma that intensifies after adding a couple drops of water to the glass. At 90 proof there's an initial alcohol burn - but it quickly dissipates to a sweet nutmeg\vanilla tail. Yes, some days its worth to splurge on a Black Maple Hill or a Pappy Van Winkle - but for a steady, everyday brand - the Virginia Gentleman® 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon is the king.
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