Visiting the A. Smith Bowman Distillery

“A. Smith Bowman Distillery Old Reston Avenue.” That is the title of this painting by Doris Kidder that has hung all winter, in the hall outside of our company office in Leesburg, VA.

A. Smith Bowman Distillery Sign Photo

“A. Smith Bowman Distillery Old Reston Avenue.”

That is the title of this painting by Doris Kidder that has hung all winter, in the hall outside of our company office in Leesburg, VA. I was aware the Bowman Distillery was once located in Reston, VA since I bought my first bottle of Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon several years ago. Also, my wife and I had the pleasure to meet and talk with former Master Distiller Truman Cox at Whiskyfest New York in 2012, just a few months prior to his sudden death. We had a trip coming up to Savannah, and we figured on the way south we would stop at the distillery for a tour.

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery had moved to Fredericksburg, VA in 1988 and is now located in what used to be a cellophane factory. We arrived just in time for the 11 am tour. Our tour guide was Ralph Falvo and he was fabulous. The tour included six people including my wife and me.

The first part of tour was about the Bowman Distillery history. There are a few posts on line that talk a good bit about the history of the Bowman family. Ralph did not go too much into the family details but more about how the distillery came about. Abram Smith Bowman owned the Sunset Hills farm in Fairfax County, VA and like many farmers had excess grain. Right after prohibition ended, he built a distillery. The main products of the distillery were Virginia Gentlemen, Sunset Hills Bourbon and Fairfax County Bourbon. There was a bottle of the Sunset Hills Bourbon in the display case which Ralph indicated was from the 1930’s.

In 1958, the Bowman’s sold most of their farm to Robert E. Simon, who built the planned community of Reston. The distillery continued to operate as Reston grew up around it. In 1988, however, the family sold the rest of their land, most likely because the real estate taxes were too high, and moved to Fredericksburg, VA. In 2003, the distillery was bought by Sazerac and in 2009 changed their business model to a micro-distillery.

The tour moved on to a discussion about bourbon ingredients and then to what was one of the most interesting parts of the tour, a discussion about barrels. Ralph had a used bourbon barrel that was cut open on one side to show the char on the inside. He told us that the Bowman Distillery uses barrels made with oak from Missouri. He said the trees had to be sixty to eighty years old, and the wood had to come from the bottom third of the tree. According to Ralph, this is the oak that Bowman believes makes the best tasting bourbon. He said they use #4 char. He had some barrel staves from a barrel they used for their Abraham Bowman Millennial Limited Release 14-year-old bourbon. It is possible to see at the end of the stave the line marking how far the bourbon had traveled into the wood during aging. Ralph showed us one stave where you could see the bourbon had come all the way through.

The stills were next on the tour. Bowman has two stills. One is an older still, nicknamed “Mary” that has been around for some time. The other was installed in January 2015, nicknamed “George.” Ralph said the new still is owned by Sazerac, the parent company of Bowman and is used to make gin, vodka and to experiment with bourbon. Ralph explained the gin distilling process in some interesting detail.

As for bourbon, Bowman uses their old still to distil their bourbon. One unusual thing about Bowman is that they do not make their mash. It comes from Buffalo Trace, of which Sazerac is also the parent. The mash is cooked and distilled once at the Buffalo Trace Distillery and then shipped to the Bowman Distillery where it is distilled again, barreled and aged.

From the still room, we entered the area where the barrels are aged. A sweet bourbon smell in this room! Bowman is the only distillery (according to Ralph) that ages their barrels standing upright. This prevents loss from having to turn the barrels over and allows the entire barrel to be used in the aging process as the bourbon rises and falls in the barrels due to temperature fluctuations. The barrels are stacked four levels high, so there is not much temperature variation between the top and bottom levels. This leads to a more consistent flavor profile between the barrels.

Bowman markets three bourbon products, Bowman Brothers Small Batch, John Bowman Single Barrel and an Abraham Bowman yearly limited edition. Ralph stated that the small batch bourbon is aged seven years, and the batch consists of eight barrels, each selected to provide a consistent flavor profile. The single barrel is aged ten years. Although Bowman still makes Virginia Gentlemen, I don’t remember it being mentioned on the tour and it is not mentioned on the website. The three Bowman bourbons are bottled in Fredericksburg, while Virginia Gentlemen is aged in Fredericksburg but bottled in Baltimore, MD.

The tour finished with a tasting. Since Virginia is a control state, the ABC requires that the distillery can only provide samples of four products which the distillery must pick out daily. In addition, if you don’t finish your sample you can’t pass it on to someone else but instead must pour it out (blasphemy!). The samples for the day of our tour were the Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon, the John Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon, the Sunset Hills Gin and the Caramel Bourbon Cream. I am not much of a Gin fan but have to say that the Sunset Hills Gin is very, very good. I have both the small batch and single barrel before, and both are very good. The Bowman products are easy to find in Virginia (except for the Limited Edition), but I hear they are difficult to find elsewhere. The Caramel Bourbon Cream is good and comes in a bottle that looks very much like the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream.

The tour lasted about an hour, and we finished at the gift shop. An excellent selection of Bowman items for sale. You could also buy their bourbons, rum, gin, and vodka. After a little shopping, my wife and I had the opportunity to talk to Ralph a bit further.

Recently the A. Smith Bowman Distillery Abraham Bowman Port Finished Bourbon limited edition was awarded World’s Best Bourbon at the North America Whiskies & Spirits Conference in New York where the World Whiskies Awards were announced. My wife and I both were able to taste this bourbon at the WhiskyFest DC back at the beginning of March. It is very, very good. We also were able to taste the Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Wine Finish Bourbon there as well, and I think it is better than the port finish. We asked Ralph if there was any around and he said right now these are impossible to find. Ralph did say that another limited edition release was coming up shortly. I asked him what was unique about this release. He said that is a secret!

Well, the secret is out. The Abraham Bowman Limited Release Wheat Bourbon was released on Wednesday, May 16th. It is a nine-year-old, 94 proof wheated bourbon but purportedly not the same mashbill as Weller. The Bowman gift shop sold out of their portion in less than a day. The Virginia ABC will do a lottery for their share sometime in the near future. I am looking for my email.

If you find yourself in Fredericksburg, VA, stop at A. Smith Bowman Distillery for a tour and some excellent Virginia bourbon! It’s worth the visit.