A. Smith Bowman Distillery sits on a quiet, wooded lot not too far from the Rappahannock River just outside of Fredericksburg. It has been making spirits there since the late 1980s, in an old cigarette wrapper factory retrofitted to accommodate copper stills and thousands of barrels of fermenting spirits. But the history of the distillery stretches back another 50 years to just after Prohibition, when its founder needed to find a use for all the extra grain produced on his farm.
Since then, Bowman has been known for decades as a producer of what master distiller Brian Prewitt refers to as value brands — less expensive spirits — but these days it’s all about experimentation.
“We have a slogan: ‘Pioneer Spirit,’’ he says, gesturing to test bottles full of amber liquid on his desk amid the bluegrass din of the distillery’s Pioneer Picnic event on July 13. “We wanted to be rooted in the past, but we want to have that same pioneering spirit in that we want to push the limit of what we think good spirits can be.” Part of the reason for celebrating tonight is Bowman’s world’s best bourbon award from Whisky Magazine for its John J. Bowman single-barrel variety. The distillery also took home the award in 2016 for its more experimental bourbon, the Abram Bowman Port Finished.
With a 15-person team, Bowman is the embodiment of a small-batch distillery. It has two stills — affectionately named George and Mary. On this stiflingly hot summer afternoon, they look cool and inviting with their chrome knobs and copper curves. Mary is the workhorse and the elder of the two stills, producing hundreds of gallons of spirits almost daily in the spring and fall when the ambient temperature is best for condensation. George is the experimental still, installed in 2015, and is a stark contrast to Mary’s traditional spirals and hammered metal. Outfitted with a sophisticated array of windows, pressure gauges and knobs, it’s George that’s helping to define Bowman’s future.
Prewitt has a master’s degree in brewing from the University of California at Davis. With a career spanning more than a decade, he says that he’s had a chance to brew or distill almost every kind of alcohol at sites in California, Colorado and Mexico. He came to work at Bowman in 2013 following the death of the previous master distiller and he expanded the operation’s focus to include premium craft spirits.
Of the two award-winners, it’s the 2016 Abram Bowman that has the more complicated pedigree. It started as a 12-year-old bourbon that was finished for six months in some of Bowman’s own barrels that had been used in port wine production at a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley. The result was a soft and approachable limited release that may come as a surprise to those not well-versed in the appreciation of whiskey.
“I think there are really two realms of bourbon drinkers. There’s the spicy-smoky and then there’s the sweet and kind of soft and fruity,” Prewitt says. “I think it really played well to that sweet and soft.”
The 2017 award winner is the John J., a traditional single-barrel bourbon that falls more in line with Bowman’s day-to-day distillations. Prewitt says they felt it was important to show how confident they were in their current products, and the team was thrilled when Whisky Magazine handed down a second victory.
“If you win an award once,” he says, “I think people go, ‘Oh, it was a fluke.’ Twice, they’re like, ‘OK, maybe these guys are onto something.’”
Bolstered by these wins, Prewitt says the team is currently working on dozens of experiments, including a mash with heirloom corn that’s similar to the type used at the distillery’s founding in the 1930s, and a delightful-sounding apple brandy with fruit supplied by a local farmer. Prewitt is also quick to point out that although whiskey and bourbon are their bread-and-butter, the distillery also produces vodka, gin and brandy.
A. Smith Bowman is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day but Sunday. There’s also a distillery store that stocks every type of spirit that Bowman has on hand.
“We want to spread the word that there’s some great bourbon, whiskey and spirits made right here in Virginia,” Prewitt says. “If you’re in the area, stop by and see us. We’ll be happy to walk you through and taste some of the experiments we have going on.” asmithbowman.com.