If you know A. Smith Bowman, you know about Mary. Mary is the pot still with the big reflux ball and tiara of pipes that the distillery has used for secondary distillation of column-stilled spirit for years. Bowman is a rare—if not unique—character in small distilleries in that they do no mashing; they take distilled spirit, made elsewhere, then run it through Mary and age it on their premises. When the late Truman Cox took over as master distiller, he told me with no little excitement that there were plans in the works for changing that; there was going to be mashing at Bowman. Truman never got to see it, sadly, but the plans continued; there is going to be mashing and primary distillation at Bowman.
When I was at Bowman last month, I saw the evidence. Master distiller Brian Prewitt walked me through the facility, pointing to where the mash cooker and fermenters would be installed, where they’d be putting the new hybrid pot/column still—to be named “George”—and a new warehousing space, twice the size of the current space (which is almost packed full of aging whiskey). It was quite impressive.
I talked to Brian recently about details. He’d been out to Vendome in Louisville, taking a look at George. It’s a 500 gallon hybrid still, with a 4-plate column on top of the pot, and a 20-plate bubble cap vodka column off to the side, and an optional gin basket. “I can pull a draw off any plate, pull at a lower proof, it gives me the option to do all kind of different things,” Brian said.
On the fermentation side, there’s going to be a 500 gallon mash cooker, with rakes and a false bottom so they can run wash or the whole mash. “We want to be able do anything and everything,” said Brian; he said it several times, actually. “The fermenters are jacketed [cooled], so we can do all kinds of fermentation profiles, or we can do it all natural if we want. We’re getting a hammer mill and a roller mill; I’ll run corn through the hammer, malt through roller. Whatever combination of grains we want, we’ll be able to run.”
It should be delivered and set up in January (after a few tweaks at Vendome), then up and running in February. All timelines are dependent on TTB approval, of course, and he’d heard nothing yet on the warehouse expansion.
I asked Brian if this is the new Bowman. Yes and no. “It will yield about 65-66 proof gallons [per batch], which, lo and behold, is just about a barrel,” he said. “The core products will be from Buffalo Trace and Mary, but we want to have an experiment going, well, every week if we can. One week a rye, then a wheat, and maybe a local rum, who knows?
“It’s exciting, it’s turning over a new leaf for the distillery,” he said. “We’re getting back to making some good whiskey, with the flexibility to experiment one barrel at a time. We can try all sorts of stuff, pulling out the stops and trying the old favorites too. It’s twice the size of the Taylor [microdistillery at Buffalo Trace]; it’s a similar design. But they have a packed column, they can only really run vodka through it. We’ll be making gins, different eau de vies; Virginia has a lot of grapes, and we don’t even have a brandy in our portfolio. Why not do it?
“We originally thought, hey, let’s get a whiskey still,” he said, and laughed. “Well, what if we want to do a gin or a rum? We wanted something we could easily clean to get the other flavors out of, and do anything!”
It’s a major step for Bowman, and it brings the question of “what is a ‘craft’ distiller” into sharper focus. Is Bowman craft? They’re small, they innovate. Is it important that they’re wholly owned by the Sazerac Company, when they operate with such a wide degree of independence? Which parts of the identity of a “craft distillery are important? Tough questions.