While Kentucky is traditionally considered the master of bourbon,
when old timers began distilling it, the Bluegrass State was a county in Virginia. So it’s no surprise that just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, a small distillery practices the time-honored art and science of making fine bourbon. Each barrel aged at A. Smith Bowman responds to the seasons, while the spirit inside acquires tenor and taste in a slow waltz with charred oak.
Bowman’s small batch bourbons are currently distributed in 19 states and London, England, yet are still bottled by hand and they never combine more than eight barrels. For comparison, Maker’s Mark, another award-winning bourbon, combines about 19 barrels for each batch. A. Smith Bowman enjoys a growing reputation. “We’re attracting visitors to Fredericksburg from as far away as Maine and Florida and we get international visitors,” says tour guide Mary Ahrens.
In 2013, both John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon and Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon were awarded gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a blind tasting by industry experts of more than 1400 entrants.
The history of the Bowman family is uniquely American. After serving in the Revolutionary War, Abraham Bowman and his four brothers settled in Kentucky. Abram Smith Bowman was born there in the late 1800s and moved to Indianapolis as an adult, finding fortune with a transportation company. When the city bought him out in 1927, he purchased a farm in Northern Virginia called Sunset Hills. He used leftover grain to distill spirits. After Prohibition was repealed, he built a modern distillery in Fairfax and named it after his farm. In 1988, the distillery moved to its current location in a former manufacturing plant just off route 2 across from the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds. It’s a small operation with a handful of employees. Although they sold their share in 2003 to Sazerac of Metairie, Louisiana, the family that gave this distillery its name serves as a reminder of a tradition generations in the making.
They distill twice a year, in the fall and the spring.
“That’s how the old timers had to do it,” Ahrens explains. “They had to cool their still before there was refrigeration so they had to do it when the streams were running. They could count on it.”
While continuing to make the spirits that built its reputation, Bowman looks to innovate. Master Distiller Brian Prewitt worked with Vendome Copper and Brass Works, in Louisville, Kentucky, to design a custom-made still. This month, a 24 foot tall, 500 gallon hybrid pot made to Prewitt’s specifications was assembled at the distillery. Its features will allow Bowman to experiment with flavor profiles and to take over the entire process of distilling vodka and gin, which until now have been distilled off site and bottled in Fredericksburg. Named “George” for the father of the Bowman brothers, it will make its inaugural run in March. George sits alongside “Mary,” the longtime still named for the Bowman matriarch. “We want to have the capability to try anything and everything, and with George, we should be able to do just that,” Prewitt said in a press release. “We’re excited to do some experimenting, try new things and continue to make great spirits here at A. Smith Bowman Distillery.”
Federal law requires that bourbon be made of at least 51 percent corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, with no additives other than water and yeast. A. Smith Bowman’s recipe includes malted barley and rye. After several days of fermentation, the solids and the liquids are separated and the solids are fed to cattle.
The liquid mixture is then pumped into the still. After distillation, only the “center cut” – what the distiller determines is the highest quality – is used. Each barrel is filled with 53 gallons and hammered shut with a wooden mallet.
For a whiskey to be called “bourbon,” it has to be aged in new charred oak barrels. “We want an oak that’s going to be pliable enough to make into a barrel and porous enough that it’s going to interact with the whiskey,” Ahrens says.
Bowman gets their barrels from Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, Kentucky, a company that has supplied makers of bourbon and wine with hand-crafted barrels since 1912. ISC company sends buyers into Arkansas to select white oak from the Ozark Mountains. The wood is milled into staves which are then dried for 18 to 24 months in open air. After that, the cooper constructs the barrel using techniques first developed in feudal England. Finally, the interior is “toasted” with a 1300 degree propane flame to give them four degrees of char.
The spirit goes in crystal clear.
During aging, the oak relaxes in summer months and contracts in winter. This interaction with the wood develops the spirit’s color and taste. John J. Bowman single barrel bourbon is aged 10 years; Bowman Brothers is aged seven years.
During aging, some of the alcohol seeps out of the barrel bringing wood deposits with it. This “barrel candy” seals the barrel. While each barrel is different, up to 65 percent is lost in the aging process to evaporation, what is known as “the angel’s share.”
There are more than 5000 barrels currently aging on the property. Finally, after being brought from the aging room, makers extract the bung and empty the barrel into a tank for filtration. Every four to six months, they release bourbon limited editions named after the patriarch Abraha
Bowman’s oaky, concentrated flavors are earning a growing reputation that may force the company to revise their bottling process. They still bottle one at a time.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a writer originally from the Northern Neck of Virginia. She is fascinated by the history of the rural south and is currently earning her MFA in Creative Writing in southwest Louisiana. Contact her via http://cescawaterfield.wordpress.com