There’s Something About Mary
Whisky Advocate copy editor Sam Komlenic visits A. Smith Bowman after master distiller Truman Cox’s funeral, and sees Cox’s influence on the future.
I met Truman Cox, A. Smith Bowman’s recently installed master distiller, at WhiskyFest New York in October. He was there to debut his luscious, ex-Bowman bourbon/Virginia port barrel-finished Abraham Bowman single barrel. In this particular situation the term “single barrel” meant the distillery created just one barrel for the inaugural run.
When I found out that I’d be in Fredericksburg in February, I shot him an email. He responded immediately and with enthusiasm. “I would be honored to be able to show you around my distillery on Friday. I have you on my calendar and looking forward to your visit.”
You may already have guessed how this turns out. Truman passed away unexpectedly less than a week before my arrival, and I was saddened that his time had come so soon. I was honored to attend his funeral along with Lew Bryson…on the very same day I was to have spent with Truman at the distillery.
Because of the circumstances, I had just about given up on the idea of a tour, but the staff at Bowman graciously offered to take me through the next day. The distillery is housed in a single building of what was once a mammoth complex dedicated to making cellophane. You enter through the “gift shop,” a huge space with merchandise and a tasting area, but otherwise virtually empty, providing future expansion space.
Distilling here might best be described as minimalist. There is no mashing, which eliminates a big part of the overall process. There are plans to add mashing capability and additional distilling capacity to make this a stand-alone operation. At present, twice-distilled spirit from Buffalo Trace is trucked in, to be redistilled in an absolutely fantastic piece of equipment that finally makes it triple distilled Virginia bourbon.
“Mary” (named for the mother of the namesake Bowman brothers) is a huge 1,700 gallon copper pot still that would not seem out of place being run by the Wizard of Oz. She was built by Vendome for Bowman and installed in 1991. Standing over 20 feet tall, Mary is adorned with a reflux ball at her apex, crowned by a triple coil of copper leading into a vertical output pipe that pitches over to drop straight down to the condenser.
The filled barrels are palletized and all occupy a single floor. The entire inventory is housed in one modest building, a stock of just 5,400 barrels! Bowman may be the only long-standing distillery in the U.S. with an output smaller than that of some of their craft brethren.
Recently, some 1970s–era Fairfax County bourbon distilled at Bowman’s former location in northern Virginia was discovered and found its way to Truman. He took notes as he tasted the whiskey that had been distilled by one of his predecessors. “Back in the day Fairfax County Whiskey was good but regional; it didn’t get picked up nationwide. Why? Maybe it didn’t meet the flavors that people wanted then. I am interested in recreating the original formula from Sunset Hills as a future possible project, but I don’t think we can recreate the flavor perfectly. There are just too many variables that can’t be exactly duplicated.”
After sipping the current John J. Bowman, I think Truman might have been closer to replicating old-style bourbon than he gave himself credit for. To me, this whiskey is one of the very few currently available that tastes like it was made in a bygone era. The distillate comes from Buffalo Trace, where they make excellent whiskeys, but none quite like this. Virginia aging versus Kentucky? Sorry, identical latitude. Maybe there’s just something about Mary. Her size and setup encourage a high degree of reflux. Triple distilling further lightens the spirit and eliminates much of the tails.
My tour guide, Bill Jones, was a recent hire of Truman’s, and he still spoke of him in the present tense. We saw some of the experiments Truman had been working on, including French and Hungarian oak barrels. The empty Bowman barrels Truman had chosen to be used for the next port-finished release were banded together on a pallet, ready for him to deliver to the winery to begin their transformation.
Truman Cox is, and will remain, entwined with the success of this distillery for the rest of its history. His impact over his short tenure is palpable, and his selfless, can-do attitude is evident in every corner, in each word spoken here. Mary will continue to produce distinctive bourbon, and every successive master distiller that fires her up, adjusts her valves, and makes the cuts will be guided, to some extent, by the man whose innovative spirit and integrity finally put this distillery on the map.
Thank you, Truman. The man upstairs must have needed a damn good distiller. He will not be disappointed.
Thanks also to the entire staff at A. Smith Bowman and Buffalo Trace for their hospitality and kindness during this difficult time.