A. Smith Bowman Distillery

The one and only "Mary"
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the A. Smith Bowman Distillery on the banks of the ancient Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  As a younger man, I would often drive south from Washington, D.C. to visit my high school friend Mikey in Fredericksburg where we would borrow shots of whiskey from his dad’s liquor cabinet.  It was only fitting that ‘Adult Me’ returned to ensure that the whiskey was still flowing in the Old Dominion.

Fredericksburg has an interesting whiskey nexus.  In 1768, the Rev. Lewis Craig and four others were imprisoned there for preaching without a license from the Anglican Church.  In 1771, Lewis’ younger brother Rev. Elijah Craig was also imprisoned (twice) for preaching without a license.  Despite the Declaration of Rights adopted by Virginia in 1776, which Elijah Craig helped develop, Baptists continued to face religious persecution.  In 1781, Elijah Craig led a congregation of 600 (“The Traveling Church”) from near Fredericksburg to what was then known as Kentucky County, Virginia.  Following the exodus over the Blue Ridge, in 1789, Elijah Craig invented bourbon…or so the legend goes.  While there is some evidence that Craig was a bourbon luminary, the theory has been debunked by modern bourbon historians and experts.  Regardless, the wild and true story of the rebel Baptist preacher from Virginia making fire-water on the frontier lives on, thanks to Heaven Hill.

The A. Smith Bowman Distillery has a compelling story of its own.  Abram Smith Bowman, great-grandson of Colonel Abraham Smith Bowman (8th Virginia Regiment commander during the Revolutionary War), relocated to northern Virginia from Lexington, Kentucky in 1927 where he had a successful career as an investment banker. 
Between ’27 and 1934, Bowman operated a dairy farm and granary on his 4,000 acre farm known as Sunset Hills.  

In 1934, on the day Prohibition ended, Bowman put his extra grain to good use and formally founded Virginia’s only whiskey distillery at the time.  He and his sons Abram, Jr. and Delong worked the stills, pumping out 'Virginia Gentleman' and the now extinct Fairfax County Bourbon.  

In 1960, the Bowmans capitalized on D.C. area suburban sprawl and sold all but 60 acres of Sunset Hills to the municipality.  But they continued to make whiskey in a small, white structure in Reston, which today sits abandoned and unremarkable despite being on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo from Wikipedia
In 1988, the distillery left Reston altogether (thanks to rising property taxes) and purchased the abandoned FMC (Food, Machinery, and Chemical) cellophane manufacturing plant in Fredericksburg, which had been built in 1920 and features art deco architecture and intricate design features.  The red brick plant is set off of the road, behind oak and pine trees and beside a peaceful creek known as Deep Run.  It maintains an industrial feel in the same way the Budweiser brewery in St. Louis does, but the attention to detail is remarkable.  

Between 1988 and 2015, the Fredericksburg distillery has operated without ever touching a single kernel of corn, cooking any mash, or adding yeast to any vats or tanks.  Buffalo Trace Distillery, 500 miles away in Frankfort, KY, produces the base distillate (mash bill #2) for Bowman and ships it east, back across the Blue Ridge, to be distilled for a third time in the giant copper still known as "Mary," in honor of Mary Hite Bowman, Colonel Bowman's mother.  

In 2003, the distillery was acquired by Sazerac (i.e. owners of Buffalo Trace) which sparked great growth and success at Bowman.  When Master Distiller Joe Dangle retired in 2011, Sazerac promoted Buffalo Trace chemist Truman Cox to run the operation in Virginia.  Truman energized the distillery, developing gin and vodka products to increase cash flow and blending whiskeys to create Bowman Brothers Small Batch.  He also poured time and energy into creating the outstanding John J. Bowman Single Barrel bourbon.

In February 2013, Truman Cox died tragically and unexpectedly, shocking the whiskey world and leaving Bowman with unfinished business.  After more than 6 months of searching for an adequate replacement, Sazerac hired brewer Brian Prewitt away from the Great Divide Brewing Company in Denver, CO.  While most of the John J. Bowman Single Barrel that Brian's employees are bottling was "triple distilled" and barreled by Truman Cox, Brian is an expert in his own right and will bring Bowman to the next level.

Most importantly, Brian recently talked Sazerac into purchasing "George," a 500 gallon Vendome still that he will use to experiment with new spirits (e.g. Sunset Hills gin, Deep Run vodka, George Bowman rum) and his annual Abraham Bowman Limited Edition whiskeys.  They finally plan to start milling, mashing, cooking, and producing Virginia distillate where they'll age it in their famous upright barrels which they purchase from the Independent Stave Co.

The best explanation of what Brian and his team intend to do is here from Whisky Advocate.
"George" (named for Mary's husband, of course)
The tour at Bowman was free.  I was the only person there that day.  I was treated like a king for an hour.  I have nothing but good things to say about their historic brand, their people, and their future.  If you're ever stuck in trafffic between D.C. and Richmond, get off of I-95 and pop in to the old cellophane plant to see what's going on.