A. Smith Bowman opens Visitor Center, turns a page
Join Whisky Advocate contributor and managing editor Lew Bryson on his latest whiskey journey.
Yesterday I drove down to Fredericksburg, Virginia for the opening of the new Visitor Center at the A. Smith Bowman distillery, the place most of you know as the maker of Virginia Gentleman bourbon. It is an operation that is, to the best of my knowledge, unique. Bowman gets double-distilled bourbon-mash spirit (from Buffalo Trace, as both are now owned by Sazerac), runs it through their pot still doubler — named “Mary,” after the mother of the Bowman brothers who were officers in the Revolutionary War and settled in Virginia — and then ages the whiskey on-site in new, charred oak barrels (mostly; see below).
That’s how master distiller Joe Dangler did it for years (the distillery moved to this location from Reston, Virginia in 1988) and that’s how new master distiller Truman Cox does it now at this big brick building (everything’s under one roof for now). Bowman is in a surprisingly bucolic setting, surrounded by trees and flanked by a burbling creek and a waterfall. Visitors have already doubled since Sazerac bought the distillery, and the Spotsylvania County tourism folks were very excited about a “Grape to Grain” weekend they’ll be doing in mid-June, featuring Bowman, Blue and Gray Brewing (an established craft brewery in the same business park; excellent beers!), and four Virginia wineries, all of them along the old Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroad line.
Yesterday’s event may have been billed as ‘just’ a visitor center opening — and there was a ribbon, a huge pair of scissors, and plenty of local tourism officials — but it was more than that; it was a revealing look at what Cox and Sazerac have planned for Bowman. This reopening is a re-focus on Bowman as a microdistillery: not a small producer of mainstream bourbon, but as a place that will do small batches and bottlings of interesting American whiskeys (and other spirits; they had gin, vodka, and rum available as well).
We were tasting some of those small runs, bottlings from older barrels that Truman has selected over the past year. They are very small runs, though: part of the tour we got was the warehouse (pictured here), and that’s it, that’s the entire stock of A. Smith Bowman whiskey — about 5,000 palletized barrels, ranging from three days to 18 years old. As Truman said, Jim Beam makes more whiskey in a week than is in his entire stock.
That’s okay with him. “We’re already doing experiments,” he said. One of those was sitting right up front in the warehouse, a set of wine-type barrels with whiskey in them. All were toasted oak, to see what effect that had on the whiskey; and half were toasted and charred, to see if the char negated the effects from the toasting or added to them. (The toasted barrels were stenciled “WHISKEY,” the toasted and charred ones read “BOURBON WHISKEY.”)
One other experiment was the debut whiskey Truman will be bringing to WhiskyFest New York. It is a 7 year old Bowman bourbon that is currently finishing in a special barrel. Bowman sold some used barrels to a local winery, Potomac Point, which aged their port in them (“A damned good American port,” Truman said, and after listening to his dad talk wine at lunch, it seemed likely he wasn’t just being supportive). When the port was finished, Cox bought the barrels back and put the bourbon in them. I got a taste of a sample that had been in the port wood for a month, and — well, I’ll just say that it’s off to a very good start, much like this new chapter in the history of A. Smith Bowman.