In 1935, after the repeal of Prohibition in Virginia, A. Smith Bowman built and licensed a distillery on his Sunset Hills Farm in Fairfax County, a dairy operation whose excess grain fed the whiskey-making process.
80 years later, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery is still going strong, having relocated in 1988 to Spotsylvania County’s Bowman Center to escape rising taxes and real estate prices in Northern Virginia.
As the liquor industry it is a part of has grown, Bowman has remained a small-batch micro-distillery. Each bottle is filled, sealed and labeled by hand in a process that visitors to the distillery can watch for themselves. You can walk in during operating hours and find friendly staff eager to give you a tour and share their passion for the process.
“It’s really about finding that holy grail,” Master Distiller Brian Prewitt said. “We’re under the belief that the best spirit has yet to be made, and we’re out to find that.”
As they mark their 80th year, the folks at Bowman have brought a new 500-gallon still, named, “George,” into their arsenal. George was installed in early 2015 beside “Mary,” the main still in use at the distillery. Mary is named for Mary Hite Bowman, wife of George, an ancestor of A. Smith Bowman who was an eighteenth-century pioneer who made one of the first explorations of the Shenandoah Valley.
George is a customized still made for truly small-batch production, as in one barrel at a time. It will allow Prewitt and his team to experiment with different flavors and expressions in their products.
“Everything we’re doing is all by smell and by taste,” Prewitt said. “You’re looking for flavors, you’re looking for aromas to find out how is this going to taste?”
This commitment to the process of sourcing the best ingredients and consistently pursuing a better product is indicative of the artistry alive in the Fredericksburg area’s craft beverage community. A. Smith Bowman is part of the area’s Grapes & Grains Trail, which also includes four wineries and three breweries throughout the region.
The process takes patience and an appreciation of the big picture, because once it is distilled and barreled, most of Bowman’s products are aged for a decade or more before they’re ready for consumption. The first batch of distillate to come from George will be barreled for opening on the distillery’s 100th anniversary, in 2035.
A tour of A. Smith Bowman will leave you with plenty of food for thought to take back to your next cocktail hour. You’ll get to gaze over the immense warehouse where barrels are aged—stacked vertically, not horizontally as most distillers do—from the “Angels’ Perch.”
You’ll see the trough where barrels are cracked open to create a “river of whiskey,” and the charred bits the barrels release are collected and saved as what Prewitt calls “man-cave potpourri.” Barrel char and barrel staves are available for purchase in the distillery’s gift shop.
The distillery is open Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tours run every hour, with the last one leaving at 4 p.m. Admission is free.