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Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Private Barrel // Photo: Bultema Group

Break Out The Brown Stuff: Bourbon Season Returns

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

The Sally's Rickey on the Row // Photo: Mynor Ventura

The Rickey: A Distinctly DC Cocktail

A city with a heated climate – literally and politically speaking – the rickey is a cocktail to cool them all down. From a bourbon-based drink to one that utilizes gin, the simple ingredients leave much room for experimentation for DC’s mixologists.

Summertime in the nation’s capital brings out all the jokes about DC’s swamp-like qualities, so it’s no wonder July was dubbed Rickey Month in the District.

“We’re one of only two cities that has our own identified cocktail,” notes Hunter Douglas, bar program manager of Hank’s Oyster Bar and Hank’s Cocktail Bar.

“The rickey is up there on the pantheon of drinks that cocktail bartenders in DC really care about. Everyone has a good way that they like to make a rickey.”

The first-ever rickey was sipped in the District and has remained a distinctly DC cocktail ever since. Shoomaker’s Saloon is credited with mixing up the first one in the late 1800s – the local bar stood where the current JW Marriott is downtown. Named for Colonel Joe Rickey, the original libation mixed bourbon with lime juice and sparkling water – a simple enough drink that gained popularity with the substitution of gin for bourbon. These days, say “rickey” and the latter is what comes to mind for most.

The leap from bourbon to gin seems understandable, but the addition of lime foam, cumin or pickled lime? These days, the drink has been elevated with mixologists putting their own stamp on the classic. From more understated additions to some rather unexpected ingredients, bars are continuing to transform the drink further.

“The rickey, first and foremost, should be refreshing,” Douglas continues. “It should be able to cool you down. It should be a light, refreshing drink while you’re in 90-degree weather.”

Douglas manages the menu and team behind the recently relocated cocktail bar (now in Dupont Circle) from the Hank’s brand. Among the nearly 40 cocktails on the menu, the Rick Rolled presents itself as a slightly fresher, sweeter upgrade to the classic. Aviation Gin infused with dehydrated cucumbers works as the base upon which lime and honey are layered on top. Shaken and strained over fresh ice and soda water, it’s “light, refreshing and not overly sweet, and you get these cool herbal, floral notes from the citrus oil, honey and cucumber.”

Just down the street from where the original was created, The Occidental’s version from mixologist Frankie Jones adds earthy notes with coriander, turmeric and white pepper. The spices provide an unexpected flavor that plays well with the gin. The I Only Had A F.E.W. Rickeys is an off-menu item, and can be ordered as Jones had intended or customized to any guest’s palate.

“I just ask people, ‘What kind of flavor are you into?’” Jones says. “Literally, I can make a rickey with anything. Choose bourbon or gin. If you want a fruity rickey, we can do that, too.”

The rickey is a blank canvas of sorts because of its simplicity.

“It leaves so much room for experimentation and the addition of flavors and textures, so it’s quite fun to play around with,” Jones adds.

His former stomping ground, 14th Street’s The Gibson, has been in operation for a decade, and the team is well-versed in making the rickey.

The Gibson’s creative director Julia Ebell notes, “We are so classically focused here. It’s a place where you can come and get a really fantastic standard rickey or Colonel Joe anytime, year-round.”

The DC heat makes the rickey a bit of a necessity come summer months, but that doesn’t stop the team from having a little bit of fun with it.

“We have an outdoor space, so rickeys are a formula we love playing around [with] here,” Ebell says.

The speakeasy’s latest iteration, made just in time for Rickey Month, was born of a multilayered conversation between staff members about everything from Rick and Morty to Little Women to realizing how much they “love putting pickled and preserved product into our drinks.”  The Beth’s Cure: A Pickle Rickey features Brooklyn gin, turmeric and pickled lime and ginger soda over ice and garnished with a pickled lime.

On why the drink remains as popular in the District as it has for so many years, Ebell notes, “It’s kind of spirit(ual) air conditioning. DC is warm and muggy, and just having something you can drink outside without feeling like you’re drowning yourself is fantastic. It’s something that comes out of the place where it was born. It’s as much DC as go-go is.”

From a non-DC resident’s perspective, Pyramid Hotel Group Director of Restaurants Davide Crusoe points out that very few cities have a signature cocktail, and the draw comes from the rickey’s history and unique DC character.

“[The rickey] will be forever and always on our [menus].”

He designed The Sally’s cocktail menu, located in Dupont Circle’s The Fairfax at Embassy Row, which includes the Rickey on the Row made with Hangar 1 vodka, kaffir lime, Plymouth gin, The King’s Ginger, lime foam and egg. The cocktail is intended to be “a fun play with a lot of different things that we think are cool.”

Of all the elevated versions and plays on the original, Crusoe says, “It sort of morphed over time with people’s palates. The rickey has grown up with time and it’s stayed synonymous with the city.”

For some bars, the key rickey ingredient comes from an unexpected source: bubbles. Micah Wilder, mixologist and partner at Zeppelin, explains how the Shaw newcomer’s program is focused on Japanese spirits and bubbles.

“The Toki Highball is a really great example of a whiskey rickey: just super classic and simple,” he says of his rickey concoction.

Zeppelin is able to increase the fizziness of the cocktail by nearly freezing it using a special machine, which helps retain carbonation.

“The way the temperatures are working with the machine, it’s just really amazing.”

Made with Roku Gin, Italicus Rosolio Bergamot Liqueur, grapefruit, lemon and baller bubbles, Zeppelin’s Kabuki Springs cocktail is “a little bit more of a signature gin rickey [that tastes] like you’re drinking this Japanese soda.”

Wilder adds, “It’s super simple and good, and really what it’s supposed to be.”

No matter how it’s shaken, stirred or garnished, Jones says the rickey is still “the perfect cocktail for our weather.”

“It’s just this refreshing thing that you can drink fast and it cools you down a bit,” he elaborates. “And if you have enough of them, it’ll probably warm you up but you won’t care about the humidity anymore.”

Despite differences (political or not), DC denizens can all agree on one thing: the rickey belongs to the District.

The Gibson: 2009 14th St. NW, DC; www.thegibsondc.com
Hank’s Cocktail Bar: 1624 Q St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com
The Occidental: 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.occidentaldc.com
The Sally: 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, DC; www.thesallydc.com
Zeppelin: 1544 9th St. NW, DC; www.zeppelindc.com

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

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