A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Visit #22, May 17, 2016

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Just 58 miles south of Washington, D.C. resides the A. Smith Bowman Distillery.  It was an overcast Spring day that I made the trip to Fredericksburg, VA, the town located at the midpoint of the opposing capitals of the Civil War.  Most people come to visit the Civil War battlefields, but my purpose was bourbon.  In fact, they had just released another limited edition whiskey the day before, one that had sold out quickly in 8 hours, unfortunately for me.  But with that news behind me, I decided to enjoy the tour of the distillery as if the limited edition didn’t exist!Bowman - XXXV

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The A. Smith Bowman distillery just celebrated its 80th anniversary.  Licensed in 1935 by A. Smith Bowman, the distillery was originally located at the Sunset Hills Farm in Fairfax county outside of Washington, D.C.  In 1958, Robert E. Simon purchased most of the farm/distillery and in 1988, the distillery was moved to its current location in Fredericksburg, VA.  He moved it here because of the rising costs in the D.C. market.  The site was originally a cellophane factory that was used to wrap up cigars and cigarettes.  They were large when they moved, but in 2003 they were sold to another family and operates on a smaller basis now.

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The tour guide for the afternoon was Erin, one of only 13 people that work at the distillery.  Erin explained the history of the distillery and its move to its current location.  She also went over all of the different spirits that they produce.  Here are some notes from the tour of the distillery:

  • two stills used for production, George and Mary
  • George – Vendome still #1965, started using this in January, 2015, pot/column still, mash used for George is 500 gallons
  • Mary – 25 year old passive still – temperature not controlled, double reflux, triple distilled (first two distillations done at Buffalo Trace), only used in the Fall and the Spring seasons, was the original still for the Fredericksburg location
  • they chill filter their bourbon at 28 degrees for aesthetic reasons, the Abraham limited release is the only non-chill-filtered bourbon
  • barrels are stored upright (they don’t need to be rotated when standing upright), they use 53-gallon barrels from the Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, KY – American Oak from the Ozarks, char level of 3.5, bung holes are found on the ends of the barrels
  • close to 10,000 barrels are stored on site
  • distilling and operations happen from 7:30am to 3:30pm Monday-Friday
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Erin starting off the tour
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Explaining the barrels and char process

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George, the Vendome
George, the Vendome

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Mary, the passive still
Mary, the passive still

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The Mash Tank
The Mash Tank

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Chill-Filtration Tank
Chill-Filtration Tank

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Bung at the end of barrel
Bung at the end of barrel
Spirit from barrel entered into moat
Spirit from barrel entered into moat

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Anniversary Barrel
Barrel warehouse
Barrel warehouse

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Bottling Line
Bottling Line

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Erin was a great tour guide and gave a nice, comprehensive overview of the distillery and the process of making its whiskey.  It was nice to be able to go into all of the different rooms and see their style of production.  They definitely combine the old with the new.  I was amazed to see how many barrels they stored on site.  And the fact that they were stacked upright!

We gathered around the tasting table for the last part of the tour.  The first three spirits below were what we tasted, but listed after are the other products that they make:

  • John J. Bowman – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Single Barrel, 100 proof
  • Bowman Brothers – Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Small Batch, 90 proof, comes from 8 barrels that are blended
  • Mary Hite Bowman Caramel Creme Liqueur – made with bourbon, probably excellent over ice cream
  • Abraham Bowman – Virginia Limited Edition Whiskey – two releases a year, this latest release sold out in 8 hours!  Wheat Bourbon
  • George Bowman – Colonial Era Dark Caribbean Rum – 1750s recipe, colonial style from Guyana, aged 3 years in bourbon barrels
  • Deep Run – Virginia Vodka – distilled 7 times, corn based
  • Sunset Hills – Viginia Gin – citrus

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Limited Edition!
Limited Edition!
Tasting table
Tasting table

Thank you to Erin for the great tour.  It was also nice chatting with the head distiller, Brian Prewitt, who started at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in 2013.  It seems like he has found a great place here at this distillery and based on the demand for the Abraham Bowman, he is making some great whiskey.

Brian
Brian

Charles’ Notes: It’s been a while since I visited a distillery that had close to 10,000 barrels on site.  Most of my time the last few months was spent visiting newer craft distillers in the Northeast, so it was refreshing to be back among the masses of American Oak.  The smell, the age, etc.  Obviously I was disappointed with not being able to get a bottle of the new Abraham Bowman, but in this day and age of bourbon mania, it’s best to get there on time.  Brian was great to talk to and learn about his history both at UC Davis in California and his time brewing in Colorado.  The A. Smith Bowman distillery is in good hands with his skills.  I look forward to getting back through Fredericksburg to see what is new in the future and will definitely time my visit better to arrive on the release date, not the day after.

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WhistlePig Distillery

Visit #21, April 27, 2016WHISTLE I

Nestled in the rolling hills just west of the Green Mountains in Vermont sits the WhistlePig Farm.  Purchased in 2007 by Raj Bhakta, WhistlePig Farm started aging rye whiskey stocks in 2008 and by 2010, they launched their first 10-year old rye whiskey.  With the help of the Master Distiller David Pickerell, the WhistlePig distillery is now averages 400 cases a day of bottle production.  The site itself is located in a picturesque area of Vermont and it is evident that WhistlePig has been successful in its business plan of expansion with a relatively new still house built in an early 1900’s barn.WHISTLE IV

WhistlePig Farm is not open to visitors currently, but we were lucky to make a visit as a member of the writing community that focuses on whiskey.  Our tour leader for the afternoon was Connor Burleigh, the operations manager of the distillery.  Connor started with an internship in 2014 and quickly moved from sales to operations a year ago.  He provided us with a great tour of the facility and tasting.

Our guide, Connor
Our guide, Connor

The WhistlePig business plan is interesting.  Since they source whiskey from different distilleries in Canada and the United States, they plan to stick to this source for the whiskies that have already become popular.  They believe that if they start to use the rye whiskey that they produced in-house, it would change the flavor profile and it would be a problem for consumers that are already accustomed to a certain taste.  They do want to create their own product in-house eventually, but it will not replace what they currently age from these different sources.  Most newer distilleries that we have visited in the U.S. have an end goal of just producing their own whiskey.  This is not the case with WhistlePig.  A different approach.

Here are some notes from our tour of the property and still house:

  • 1200 acres of farm land: 700 arable acres, 330 acres used for rye production, the rest rented out, grain stored off site
  • 30,000 barrels overall stored in various locations
  • rye whiskey sourced from 3-4 different distilleries both in Canada and the United States, Old World sourced from MGP in Indiana
  • 1% of hard wood in Vermont is white oak, we saw a variety of barrels including Madeira barrels, some with #4 char and toast
  • Old World is chill filtered in a milk tank
  • 1 week of production held in bottling tank
  • 600 bottles an hour / 400 cases a day, hand-labeled
  • California is the biggest market
  • WhistlePig rye found in 7 countries
  • new distillery opened in November 2015 in a barn built in the early 1900’s
  • 2-year legal battle to get barn ready for distilling
  • 750 gallon Vendome pot hybrid still
  • 1400 lbs of grain in the mash tank
  • 5 900 gallon fermentation tanks, 3-5 days of fermentation
  • 5-7 hours of run time for the still: 4-5 hours for the heart run, they do keep some heads, they keep the still running 18 hours a day, 5 days a week
Barrel House
Barrel House

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Oloroso Sherry Cask
Oloroso Sherry Cask
Bottling Area
Bottling Area
A new bottle
A new bottle

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Milk Tank
Milk Tank

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Mortimer, the still
One of the distillers
One of the distillers

WHISTLE X

Mash and fermentation
Mash and fermentation
Fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks

Connor provided us with a great tour of the facility.  It was a busy place with barrels being moved around and the still house in production.  Since the still has only been running since last November, they were experimenting with different runs, including some bourbon runs.  It will be interesting if they go this path at some point.  The restored barn that was converted into the new still house was incredible.  They had a huge open entrance perfect for hosting large groups and explaining the history of WhistlePig.  Upstairs they also had a large loft area that was perfectly set up for large parties or gatherings.

What would a distillery visit be without a tasting!  We had the privilege of tasting many of the different cask finishes that make up their products and the new 15-year old before release.  Quite amazing.  Here is a list of the 11 different tastes that we had, including a cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels:

  • 10-year old original rye, ABV 50%
  • Madeira finish – 4-6 weeks for most finishing – 12-year old
  • Sauternes finish
  • Port finish – double gold in SF spirits competition
  • Old World – 63% Madeira, 30% Sauternes, 7% Port finishes
  • Muscat finish – 4 months of finishing
  • Oloroso Sherry finish – over a year finished
  • Tokaji finish – Hungarian sweet wine – 2 months of finishing
  • Pedro Ximenez finish – 1 year of finishing
  • Pierre Ferrand XO cognac aged in WhistlePig barrels for 1 year
  • new release 15-year old, aged 6 months in Vermont oak, received a 97 in Wine Enthusiast magazine

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What a great experience to try all of these different finishes.  I do have to say that it became difficult after 5 or 6 of them to have a clean palate to taste, but we did our best.  This was the first time we have experienced what it takes to create a blend of rye whiskey.  It was sure a fascinating treat.  Thanks to Connor and the entire WhistlePig group for inviting us to visit with them and share with us their business plan and production.WHISTLE III

WHISTLE II

Charles’ Notes:  This was an exciting visit for me.  I had just returned from a food tour in Miami where I saw WhistlePig in almost every bar and I was intrigued with how such a young distillery could be so popular across the U.S.  And it was fun to be invited to a place that is not yet open to the public.  The business plan of WhistlePig really made me think about what do distilleries want from their model.  Do they want to be real craft distillers where they make small in-house products that take years to develop?  Or do they want to find a business model that will sustain them for the future and allow them to experiment?  The fact that WhistlePig will continue to source never occurred to me until this visit.  But they want to maintain expectations.  Do other distilleries follow this plan?  It is an interesting direction.  They were gracious hosts and we enjoyed our visit to their farm.  I look forward to revisiting with them in the future.WHISTLE IX

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