Photo: Annie Madigan
Photo: Annie Madigan

The Bourbon Dynasty: A. Smith Bowman Distillery

For the past two years, A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg has won World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards presented by Whisky Magazine. This year, their single barrel straight bourbon took home the prize. In 2016, it was the Abraham Bowman Port-Finished Bourbon. How does this small, family-owned distillery beat out the competition?

First things first. Isn’t real bourbon from Kentucky?

No, it isn’t quite that simple. To call itself bourbon, a whiskey needs to be made in America, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and bottled at 80 proof or higher. It must be aged in new, charred, oak barrels and contain a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn. The remainder of the ingredients will be rye, wheat and/or malted barley.

Okay, but historically bourbon is from Kentucky, right? Again, not exactly. Bourbon was first distilled in the 18th century, while the name itself dates back to the 1820s. This original bourbon came primarily from Bourbon County, Virginia, an area that was organized in 1785. In 1792, much of this region split away from Virginia to became part of Kentucky. Long story short, bourbon originally came from Virginia, not Kentucky. The area was simply renamed Kentucky after the fact.

But it’s the drink that matters, not semantics or geography.

A. Smith Bowman is a small-batch, hand-crafted distillery founded in 1934, the day after Prohibition ended. Hailing from Mercer County, Kentucky, Abram Bowman started the business with his sons DeLong and Abram Jr. They were originally based in Fairfax before moving to Spotsylvania County in 1988. For the first 20 years of operation, A. Smith Bowman was the only legal whiskey distillery in Virginia. They were best known for Virginia Gentleman and Fairfax County, their signature bourbons. In 2003, Bowman was bought out by Sazerac, a large, 150-year-old liquor company based in New Orleans. Today, Bowman makes bourbon, rye, gin, vodka, rum and other spirits.

So how do we account for the fact that Bowman keeps producing the world’s greatest bourbon? Brian Prewitt, their master distiller, attributes their success to the fact that they “always try to improve.” Whether it’s the ingredients, stills, distillation process, barrels, storage, char, alcohol content or any other variable, Bowman doesn’t rest on its laurels. “Pioneer spirit” is the distillery’s motto, which they embody with relentless experimentation.

Their pot stills are a good example. “Mary,” the main still, was designed in conjunction with Vendome Copper & Brass Works. She’s fitted with a reflux ball that’s topped with a massive copper coil “tiara”– on the vapor side, not the traditional condenser side. This adds more reflux to the distillation process, which in turn fosters a more complex taste in the spirits. “George,” a youngster born in 2015, was also designed in cooperation with Vendome. He’s a hybrid pot still with several distinct trays from which different spirits can be taken out of a single distillate, each at different proofs and with different flavor profiles. The Bowman goal, according to Prewitt, is to “blaze forward” while remaining “rooted in history,” a balance of tradition and innovation.

Prewitt also experiments with barrels. One of his guiding questions is: How does barrel use affect taste? He tried barrels that had previously held port, which infused distinct yet subtle notes of sweet wine into the spirit. Bowman’s espresso bourbon was another success. Local beans were roasted directly into bourbon barrels and left for five weeks. Afterward, the beans were dumped out and the barrels returned to the distillery, where bourbon was added and left to age for six months. Prewitt admits that not all experiments work – hot sauce, for example, didn’t have a positive impact on taste. But that’s okay. Without risking failure, there’s no progress.

Quality control is also a major factor. Mary can hold up to 2,000 gallons, but typically she only distills 500-700 gallons at a time. Bowman bourbons are all triple distilled, and their approach is always hands-on. The production staff is made up of just four people, and their work isn’t automated or computerized – all cuts are done by hand.

I tried 10 Bowman spirits and was impressed with them all – the Rye Expectations gin in particular. The first product of their experimental series, it’s a rye-based gin flavored with a number of botanicals including juniper, coriander and angelica. This isn’t something to dilute with tonic or seltzer. It’s an intriguing, provocative drink to sip over ice.

Whether it’s bourbon or any other spirit, A. Smith Bowman is doing it right. According to Prewitt, their method is neither complex nor mysterious.

“We’re trying to make the best spirits we possibly can.”

A. Smith Bowman Distillery: 1 Bowman Dr. Fredericksburg, VA; 540-373-4555; www.asmithbowman.com