Gin is the spirit of summer. Clear, light and reminiscent of an herb garden: it’s perfect for three-digit temperatures and Collins glasses overflowing with ice. But the second the mercury dips below 80? Forget it. The only thing you want is bourbon.
With autumn in the air, it’s time to break out the brown stuff. September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and while sketching out the details of a road trip to central Kentucky might be tempting, there are plenty of distilleries in the area offering top-notch spirits crafted from local grains.
Today, Kentucky is making the vast majority of bourbon in America, but it isn’t the birthplace of American whiskey – this is the cradle of American spirits. Times were tough in the early days, and paramount among the colonists’ priorities was making some decent hooch. As early as 1620, colonists were writing home about the distilled corn spirits they were making in Virginia.
“Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” wrote George Thorpe, an early resident of Williamsburg who had either been drinking at the time he penned this correspondence or was taking full advantage of English’s not-yet-formalized spelling conventions.
By the late 1700s, even the Founding Fathers had gotten into the game. After his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon and by the time he died, the plantation was pumping out about 11,000 gallons each year of what we’d today probably call rye. Over the next century, production moved west and one by one, the DMV distilleries shuttered. By the time Prohibition was underway, there weren’t many distilleries left to close. But in 1934, bourbon came back to Virginia when A. Smith Bowman, a jack-of-all-trades from Louisiana, returned to his family’s ancestral home in Fairfax to start a granary.
“Our founder was actually in the industry prior to Prohibition,” says Brian Prewitt, A. Smith Bowman Distillery’s sixth master distiller. “He was running one of the biggest distilleries in America down in Algiers Point, Louisiana. It didn’t survive Prohibition and went under around 1916. He did a lot of things in between but wanted to get back to his roots and heritage in Virginia. I think he knew Prohibition was ending.”
Prewitt says one of the really interesting parts of his heritage as a distiller is that Kentucky used to be part of Virginia.
“If you look at it like that, it’s where American whiskey really started. Being that we’re the oldest distillery in Virginia, that was what we started with right off the bat – that history.”
The distillery has since moved to Fredericksburg, 50-plus miles outside of the District. If that’s a hair too far, look for Prewitt and his colleagues at Virginia ABC stores where they’re planning to do many tastings of their bourbon.
In the District proper, several distilleries are making bourbon these days including One Eight Distilling and Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery. Though they’re shoulder-to-shoulder in Ivy City, they’re taking radically different approaches when approaching their heritages. One Eight takes its name from the section of the Constitution that provided for the establishment of DC, and is looking decisively toward the future of small-batch bourbon.
“We’re a grain-to-bottle distillery and all our suppliers are from within a hundred miles of One Eight,” says Cara Webster, One Eight’s events and marketing director. “Rye was the first chapter of American whiskey, so we started there.”
Today, the distillery makes a rye-forward bourbon to which lovers of Basil Hayden’s or Bulleit will surely fawn over. One Eight is offering two events for Bourbon Heritage Month. On September 8, open house-style event Tribe Vibes will offer mixology classes, distillery tours and West African-inspired hors d’oeuvres. The sixth annual Battle of the Barrel-Aged Beers on September 10 will showcase the District’s six breweries that make beers aged in liquor barrels: 3 Stars, Atlas, DC Brau, Hellbender, Port City and Right Proper. The latter is one of One Eight’s most popular events, so be sure to order tickets in advance.
Around the corner is Jos. A. Magnus & Co., a revitalized brand that launched in 2015. Though the distillery was originally in Cincinnati, bourbon bearing the Magnus name was sold in DC where the family decided to begin anew before Prohibition.
“The genesis of Jos. A. Magnus & Company’s re-establishment in 2015 was the discovery of a carefully preserved bottle passed down through generations,” says general manager Ali Anderson. “Magnus’ great-grandson, unaware of just how remarkable the bourbon was, wrapped the bottle in a T-shirt, tossed it in a bag and boarded a plane to Kentucky.”
That the TSA inspectors didn’t break the bottle and the seal only leaked a little is perhaps proof of divine intervention. The whiskey survived all the way to Louisville for industry veterans to taste. Working together, they teased out a contemporary version of the old recipe, which is made today in Ivy City. Don’t worry about the bottle that started it all, though: today it’s stored safely in a military-grade case in a temperature-controlled environment.
To celebrate their remarkable heritage, Jos. A. Magnus is teaming up with Virginia ABC for Spirit Bourbon Day on September 19. Around the Commonwealth, look for Magnus whiskies with special discounts. These sales are rare, so stock up.
Whichever of these origin stories appeals to you most, take advantage of the opportunity to learn a little more about the bourbon heritage of the area. Drinking a nice spicy nip of whiskey on a cold day is, of course, the greatest autumnal joy. But the real reward comes when you get to interject, “Well, actually” at bar trivia when someone tries to tell you bourbon can only be made in Kentucky.
Sip some bourbon at these local distilleries:
A. Smith Bowman Distillery: 1 Bowman Dr. Fredericksburg, VA; www.asmithbowman.com
Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery: 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE, DC; www.josephmagnus.com
One Eight Distilling: 1135 Okie St. NE, DC; www.oneeightdistilling.com