Does the name A. Smith Bowman ring a bell? It should, because the Virginia distillery has the history, the quality and an immediate future full of enough bright prospects to warrant serious attention. Founded in Reston, Virginia in 1934, the distillery has been at its current location in Fredericksburg since 1988. During a recent visit to the facility, master distiller Brian Prewitt sat down for a conversation.
Despite eight decades of history, the distillery remains an unknown entity to many.
“Unfortunately I think there are still a lot of people who don’t know we’re here,” admits Prewitt. But the distillery is fresh off a “World’s Best Bourbon” award nod from World Whiskies Awards, the distillery’s second in a row. Clearly, the word is getting out, and now you too can consider yourself in the know.
One factor which immediately stands out about A. Smith Bowman is their triple-distillation process for their main line of whiskeys, rare in the world of bourbon. “Really, it’s something that gives us those smooth flavor characteristics,” says Prewitt. “We’ve been triple distilling since the ‘80s. It gives a nice, smooth character, rounds it a little bit, softens it out.”
After receiving their low wines—wash which has been distilled once—from Buffalo Trace, they distil twice more on their uniquely shaped 2,000-gallon pot still dubbed Mary. “She’s our workhorse,” says Prewitt.
As far as the Buffalo Trace connection, A. Smith Bowman is under the same company roof. They were purchased by Sazerac in 2003, after previously having a production agreement with Ancient Age, also in the Sazerac portfolio.
“Then low and behold, we’re purchased by the family that owns Sazerac,” says Prewitt. “I work closely with [Buffalo Trace’s] master distiller Harlen Wheatley.”
A. Smith Bowman then enjoys the benefits of what Prewitt describes as a, “large, consistent fermentation,” process which provides the distillery with a solid starting base to use before distilling the juice two more times.
The arrangement also enables Prewitt to be more experimental. That’s something which Buffalo Trace itself is known for, but Prewitt relishes his own opportunity to do so. “We’re like the crazy guys out there,” he says. If someone has a wacky idea, he’ll volunteer for the job. “I’m like ‘hey, I’ll do it!’”
Those experiments can be found strewn about in Bowman’s two main warehouses.
“Welcome to my church of whiskey,” says Prewitt upon entering the first warehouse, jam-packed to capacity, while the second, larger warehouse is well on its way to being just as full. Peek around and find casks which have been seasoned with coffee, port, and beer, made from woods sourced from France, Hungary, and Virginia and myriad other variables.
“These are things we’re afforded to do, and it lets me push the limits of whiskey,” says Prewitt. “We don’t think the best bourbon has yet been made. My goal is to push the forefront of what spirits can be while staying rooted through our history.”
The experimental whiskeys fall under the Abraham Bowman brand line, which has had a total of 15 releases. They stagger those releases at a pace of roughly two per year, with another likely due out for later this spring.
There have been experimental smash hits—the Abraham Bowman Coffee-Finished Bourbon is a personal favorite of the author’s—as well as, let’s say, a few less impressive outcomes now and again. Prewitt keeps a hot sauce barrel in the distillery as a reminder of one such failed experiment.
A. Smith Bowman is also now releasing additional products made entirely in-house, without a first pass at Buffalo Trace, using their smaller hybrid copper pot still named George. The first product that George has turned out is Rye Expectations Gin. Beyond being distilled from rye grain, rye itself was also used as one of the botanical components.
“The goal was to have more of the rye character come through,” says Prewitt. And if rye gin is being made at the distillery, it’s a safe bet to say the years ahead will see an A. Smith Bowman rye whiskey make its debut.
In the meantime, their two core whiskeys are currently Bowman Brothers and John J. Bowman. The former is a small batch whiskey, which here translates to eight barrels at a time, while the latter is a single barrel release. They share the same mash bill but differ in age. Bowman Brothers typically includes whiskey between six and eight years old, and shows a fruitier profile, whereas John J. Bowman is typically between nine and 11 years old, with a heavier vanillin and oak influence.
That range of ages also indicates that none of their whiskeys carry an age statement. While that’s currently a hot button issue in the whiskey world, that simply has always been the practice at A. Smith Bowman. “One of the reasons we don’t put an age on there is we target a flavor profile, not a specific age or number,” says Prewitt. “We really try to hit the flavor and target what we’re going for.”
Expect more big things from A. Smith Bowman in the future, regardless of how many years it takes to get there.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.