A. Smith Bowman is Virginia’s oldest distillery and also one of its most well-regarded. Their bourbons have received dozens of awards in recent years, including the top honor of “World’s Best Bourbon” at the World Whisky Awards, not once, but twice in back-to-back years. Those accolades have been well-earned over generations. Bowman’s long history includes the well-worn stories of Prohibition and its challenges but also a unique partnership with one of the biggest names in bourbon and, more recently, a program of innovation and experimentation that aims to pioneer the next great spirit. On a recent, unseasonably warm summer day, I took a trip to the distillery in Fredericksburg to catch up with Master Distiller Brian Prewitt and learn a little more about the past, present, and future of A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
First, the past.
The Bowmans were true American pioneers, settling near Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the mid-1700s, committing sons to the Revolutionary War, and eventually taking what was likely a homegrown skill for distilling all the way to Louisiana where, in the later 1800s, the distillery’s namesake, Abram Smith Bowman, began legally distilling in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. Like so many distillers of his day, Bowman was forced to shut his operation down during Prohibition, but that left him time to make his fortune elsewhere and return the family back to Northern Virginia where he purchased a sprawling farm, romantically named Sunset Hills.
“They had excess grain at Sunset Hills and needed something to do with it,” David Sweet, my tour guide, tells me matter-of-factly. In 1934, Abram received Virginia’s first distiller’s license and got back into the spirits business, producing, among other things, Virginia Gentleman bourbon. The sale of Sunset Hills and encroaching urban sprawl on the remaining distillery forced Bowman to relocate in the late 1980s. “They were suffering from NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) sentiment,” David tells me. The family chose a former factory space 60 miles away in Fredericksburg, Virginia with plenty of brick warehouses and ideal proximity to the Rappahannock River.
Relocating a distillery is never an easy undertaking, which is why almost no one does it. For starters, you can’t distill anything when your stills are in pieces. Bowman solved that dilemma by contract-distilling their bourbon recipe with Ancient Age Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, better known today as Buffalo Trace. Bowman was happy with the arrangement and decided to keep it as part of the production model, and in 2003, when spirits powerhouse Sazerac acquired Ancient Age, they were so impressed by the partnership and the spirits coming out of Bowman that they purchased them, as well.
Before we move on from here, it’s important to expound a bit on that last part. The Sazerac-Bowman arrangement is the kind of thing that gives a lot of bourbon purists heartburn. But unlike plenty of the contract distilling arrangements today where a “distillery” has little to no impact on the actual production, the team at Bowman contributes a lot of distilling time and know-how to achieve their final product, despite the fact that some spirits, but not all [more on that later], are initially distilled elsewhere.
Bowman does indeed distill on-site on one of two different custom copper pot stills. The largest is a 2,000-gallon installed in 1991 with a unique reflux ball and copper coiled reflux line named Mary, after the matriarch of the Bowman clan. All of the core bourbons go through Mary before barreling, so they are essentially triple distilled, something rather unique in the bourbon world. “Mary’s unique reflux capabilities contribute to the ability to refine the different flavors off of the still,” master distiller Brian Prewitt tells me midway through my tour. “By adjusting the steam and condensing temperatures we drive our reflux ratios and control the overall flavor profile.” That profile includes unique fruit notes, like apple and cherry, among other enticing flavor and aroma components.
Apologies for the digression. On to the present.
Since 2010, Bowman has offered an impressively broad portfolio of spirits. The core bourbons, Bowman Brothers Small Batch, John J. Single Barrel, and Isaac Bowman Port Barrel Finished, see the widest distribution in over 40 states, Europe, the United Kingdom, and Japan. But the distillery also offers vodka, a rum, a bourbon cream liqueur, and four different gins, in addition to yearly limited-release whiskeys, under the Abraham Bowman line, and twice-yearly experimental spirits releases. Their latest, permanent addition to the core bourbon portfolio is a cask strength bourbon, bottled at over 140 proof (!), that inexplicably drinks with the approachability of a much gentler whiskey. “We try to make something for all spirits consumers,” Brian tells me.
Since becoming Master Distiller in 2013, Brian Prewitt has pursued that goal with considerable success, seeing steady sales growth during his tenure alongside a number of impressive accolades. Their George Bowman Rum recently picked up the prestigious Chairman’s Trophy at the 2020 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, while Deep Run Vodka is still sporting its Double Gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2017. And the bourbon cream, David tells me, is a favorite among the Buffalo Trace executives, “even though they make their own recipe.”
After their limited-edition port-finished bourbon took home the first of two World’s Best Bourbon titles at the World Whisky Awards in 2016, Brian and the Bowman team decided to make it a permanent part of the line-up. A custom oak foeder was installed at the distillery to support solera aging, important for consistency in a much larger production, and Isaac Bowman Port Barrel Finished Bourbon was born. “Isaac is really approachable to those who are just getting into bourbon while still delivering the flavor impact that seasoned bourbon drinkers look for,” Brian tells me, revealing that some Bowman spirits are designed with several different spirits drinkers in mind.
Brian’s most recent, clear spirits passion project has been his line of Tinkerman’s gins, a nickname he wears with pride as Bowman’s consummate tinkerer. They were some of the first spirits developed after the addition, in 2015, of a 500-gallon hybrid still, complete with a custom gin basket, named George, after the Bowman patriarch from the pioneering days. The Tinkerman line includes three very different gins, named for their distinct qualities: Curiously Bright and Complex, Citrus Supreme, and Sweet Spice. “The original idea was not to create three different gins,” Brian tells me. “I wanted to paint the corners with the extremes of the flavor wheel, but people ended up loving these on their own. So, we have three Tinkerman’s gins instead of just one.” Those gins have taken their share of gold medals at the various spirits competitions in recent years, and as of this writing, they are distributed in nearly 30 states.
So, what does A. Smith Bowman have planned for the future?
“We’re close to 500 different experiments right now,” Brian tells me. “We’re always looking for that next big thing. That’s what the Abraham Bowmans and the Experimental line are all about. It gives us a chance to test new approaches and see how they pan out.” Apple brandy, rum, and gin made from rye are just a few of the experimental spirits offered in recent years and produced entirely in-house. As I toured Bowman’s unique brick and concrete barrel houses, I encountered a dizzying number of other experiments, especially of the whiskey variety, any one of which could become a limited edition release and then, just maybe, a part of the permanent lineup.
From bourbon aging in specially toasted “vanilla” barrels to a variety of straight malts with differing levels of peat and whiskeys aging in Hungarian oak, a favorite of Brian’s, the opportunities for the next great whiskey abound at A. Smith Bowman. If you believe, as Brian does, that the best whiskey has yet to be made, then a walk around the Bowman warehouses is a roller coaster of possibility. Brian sure seems like he’s enjoying the ride. “We’re installing a new 1,000-gallon fermenter right now that’s entirely climate-controlled,” he tells me with noticeable excitement in his voice. “It’s all about pushing the limits of what I think yeast can do to get certain flavor characteristics that I don’t think very many have been able to achieve. Hopefully, someday I’ll get to tell you more about it.”
As we discussed Bowman’s many experimental spirits, I was struck by how Brian’s future planning for the distillery is measured not in years but decades. “We’ve got young bourbon and rye aging in 600-liter Hungarian oak casks that I want to take to 20 years,” he tells me. A commemorative whiskey made with Bowman’s original recipe from 1934 and barreled in Virginia oak for the distillery’s 80th anniversary won’t see a bottle for 13 more years. “To commemorate Bowman’s centennial,” Brian tells me. With that kind of time horizon and all those experiments, you might expect Brian to anticipate only continued boomtimes for brown spirits, but he’s somewhat more measured. “I really see the industry continuing to grow. But not as exponentially as it has been. You’ll see a lot of continued growth in distilleries but probably some consolidation, too.”
Lucky for them, Bowman effectively got their consolidation out of the way nearly two decades ago when Sazerac had the foresight to add an enterprising small distillery to their stables. That partnership has given them the resources to produce world-class spirits today while also experimenting freely to produce the world-class spirits of tomorrow. “Our motto is Pioneer Spirit,” Brian tells me as we wrap up my visit. “That speaks to our history but also how we’re pushing the limits of what spirits can be.”