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Photo: Courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery
Photo: Courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Spills on Why Bourbon Stays Strong

September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of the uniquely American whiskey distillers have been producing and perfecting for hundreds of years. And while plenty of goods grow stale with age – passed over in favor of the shinier, modern creations (see: mezcal) – interest in bourbon has no ceiling.

Take DC for example, where bourbon-based drinks like the Old Fashioned and Mint Julep are fast becoming menu staples. And many bars and liquor stores now make a point to appeal to customers with a variety of bottles, from the rare to the everyday.

Some may take that as proof that society has reached peak bourbon. But there’s plenty of evidence its trajectory is still on the rise.

“We are seeing growing demand driven in many ways by consumer recognition that Americans can make world-class whiskey [that’s] highly crafted and deliver an amazing array of enjoyable drinking experiences, whether neat or mixed,” says Mark Brown, president and CEO of Frankfort, Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Few sources are better plugged into the bourbon world than Buffalo Trace, which runs the oldest continually operating distillery in the U.S. The Buffalo Trace name was adopted in 1999 with the release of its namesake bourbon, but bourbon has been produced at the site for over 200 years. More than 200,000 visitors a year travel to its headquarters, which was named a national historic landmark in 2013.

What started as a small, 50-employee operation has grown to 450 employees and earned more awards than any other distillery. The rapid growth is a telling snapshot of bourbon’s momentum as a coveted liquor.

When asked what he loves most about bourbon, Brown points to its versatility and flexibility. Bourbon drinkers aren’t afraid of having a little fun.

“I love the approachability, taste and mixability of bourbon,” he says. “We are not tied to stuffy traditions around how whiskey should be consumed.”

As its popularity has grown, bourbon has also become a bridge connecting likeminded drinkers who bond and share experiences tasting and collecting new and favorite bottles. Creating those experiences is the result of art, science and many crafty hands. Just ask Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, who’s worked at the distillery since 1995.

“[Bourbon] is produced from the fields of farmers and brought to the table of consumers by craftsmen that are truly passionate about producing a quality product,” he says.

Wheatley still sees an opportunity to educate customers about the history and intricacies of bourbon. In addition to the manual work involved, for example, there are legal requirements to follow for a whiskey to be designated a bourbon. Among them: the spirit must be produced in the U.S., it must come from at least 51 percent corn and it must be aged in new American oak barrels.

Each bourbon brand also comes with its own quirks, pedigree and way of doing things. That’s all the more important in 2018, when the sheer amount of bourbon choices can be overwhelming even for its biggest fans.

“I think once people understand the history and stories behind the brands, they begin to respect and appreciate the brands a little more,” Wheatley says.

Experimentation has become a bigger part of the bourbon world, too. As general interest expands, distilleries across the country – including One Eight Distilling in Ivy City – are inventing their own twists on the classic bourbon profile. Wheatley says that while it “would be easy to be distracted,” by these new offerings and styles, Buffalo Trace plans to stay the course going forward.

If there’s one downside to the bourbon craze, it’s that consumers are seeing their unquenchable demand met with higher prices. Enjoying bourbon can become a rather expensive and overwhelming hobby. It’s not hard to find bottles for a hundred dollars or more.

It’s a challenge Buffalo Trace, along with all American distillers, must embrace in 2018 and beyond. But as long as there are tasty bourbons being produced, its popularity seems far from peak.

“We are only at the very beginning of bourbon,” Brown says.

Follow Buffalo Trace on Instagram at @buffalotrace and learn more about the distillery at www.buffalotrace.com.


Pearl Dive’s Bardstown Derby, A Bourbon Hit

Photo: Scott Suchman

Photo: Scott Suchman

Buffalo Trace bourbon is the featured spirit in the Bardstown Derby, a cocktail mainstay at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle. The featured libation on our September cover takes its name from the historic town of Bardstown, Kentucky and has been on the restaurant’s menu for a number of years. It’s a clear customer favorite.

“It’s a riff off a Brown Derby,” says George Sault, bar director for Black Restaurant Group, which owns Pearl Dive.

The drink tweaks the standard Brown Derby formula of bourbon, grapefruit and honey with additions of tart fresh lemon juice and a floral, rich, house-made orange blossom honey syrup.

“It’s our most popular cocktail after the Pearl Cup, which is a gin-based cocktail,” Sault says.

Along with mixing up plenty of Bardstown Derbys on busy nights, Sault has plenty of experience steering bourbon drinkers of all levels toward a great cocktail or dram from Pearl Dive’s menu of both approachable and complex whiskeys. When it comes to bourbon newcomers, Sault says to “dive into what they usually drink.”

Some people gravitate toward citrus-forward drinks or stirred boozy cocktails like an Old Fashioned. Others prefer a simple pour of whiskey, neat or with some ice. From that point, there are endless bottles to explore and taste.

“If someone is well-versed in whiskey, then you start diving into some of the whiskeys that you don’t see on the everyday bar shelves,” he says.

Follow Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on social media at @PearlDiveDC and check out their cocktail menu at www.pearldivedc.com.

Photo: Scott Suchman

Photo: Scott Suchman

The Bardstown Derby
2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon
0.5 oz. fresh lemon juice
1.5 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
0.75 oz. orange blossom honey syrup

Add all ingredients into a shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: 1612 14th St. NW, DC; 202-319-1612; www.pearldivedc.com

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