A Visit to A. Smith Bowman Distillery
Note: I was partway through writing this article when I woke up one morning and heard the news that Truman Cox, A. Smith Bowman’s master distiller, had passed away at the tragically young age of 44. I would be remiss, then, not to mention him. The article below is based largely around a visit to the distillery in late December of 2012. Truman, despite his duties as master distiller, took time out to give us a very in-depth and honest tour. He was a boundlessly enthusiastic, accommodating, and friendly guy who loved what he did. It’s a damn shame to have lost him so early.
Nestled on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Virginia (best known as the last resting place of Stonewall Jackson’s arm, or for, I guess, the massive Civil War battlefield where he actually lost that arm) and located in a former cellophane factory, is the A. Smith Bowman distillery, home of the Bowman Brothers line of small batch bourbon. Founded shortly after Prohibition, in 1934, by Abram Smith Bowman and his two sons, the distillery was originally located in Fairfax, closer to Washington DC, and was the home of Virginia Gentleman whiskey. Things stayed pretty much the same until 1988, when skyrocketing real estate prices forced the distillery to relocate, this time to nearby Fredericksburg.
In 2003, the Sazerac Company purchased the distillery and began investing in renovation and looking to update the product line. When longtime master distiller Joe Dangler retired, the mantle of master distiller was handed to Truman Cox, a mad scientist from Buffalo Trace who brought his interest in creating solid traditional bourbon as well as experimentation with him to his new home in Virginia. Under his stewardship, the new A. Smith Bowman continued to build itself a dedicated following, as seems to happen with just about anything Sazerac buys. A. Smith Bowman is still the home of Virginia Gentleman, but the line has now been enhanced with the Bowman Brothers small batch bourbon, the John J. Bowman single barrel bourbon, and occasional special editions like Abraham Bowman.
A. Smith Bowman sits somewhere between scenic and industrial. The building may be an old plastic wrap factory, but the red brick exterior is well maintained. The grounds around the distillery are pleasantly wooded. Inside, the no-nonsense approach to running the place is charming. The “visitors’ center” is just a space on the floor of a cavernous warehouse, peppered with racks of merchandise. Scattered around the large space are relics from the distillery’s early days, including desks, weighing equipment, and other old-time distilling paraphernalia. Truman took us, and a group of visiting Sazerac employees, through the history of Bowman and his distillery, then shuffled us into the stillhouse, where we met Mary, the towering primary still for the company. The tour also covered the barrel filling station and their version of a rickhouse -- another big warehouse space stacked floor to ceiling with barrels and plagued with everyone who sees it (they let you take a look at it from the Angel’s Perch) comparing it to the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After the barrel house, we got a look at the distillery’s bottling plant, which is essentially a woman sitting at a folding table, filling, then affixing labels by hand to the bottles. Then we got to taste. Through it all, Truman exhibited a warmth and honesty that is often absent from people working in the American whiskey business, where secrets are kept and lies are told for absolutely no good reason other than old-fashioned hucksterism. He couldn’t answer every question, but those he could, he answered honestly. Those he couldn’t, he admitted up front he couldn’t answer.
We sampled both of the Bowman whiskies. Bowman Brothers is a small-batch whiskey named after John, Abraham, Joseph and Isaac Bowman -- four brothers who served in the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War and eventually played a major role in the settlement of the Virginia territory that would eventually become the state of the Kentucky. The bourbon doesn’t carry an age statement, but it doesn’t need one. The whiskey speaks for itself, and it speaks quite eloquently. John J. Bowman single barrel is named after Colonel John J. Bowman specifically, explorer and great, great uncle of distillery founder Abraham Bowman. The distillery also offers a rum and a gin. Truman did, at the behest (begging) of some of the Sazerac guys, trot out a bottle of the now-unavailable Abraham Bowman, named after the great great grandfather of A. Smith. It’s a fantastic whiskey that speaks well about the old/new distillery’s future as sort of a mini-Buffalo Trace with one foot in tradition and the other in exploration.