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The Birthplace of American Spirits

It was the year 1620 at the Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia where colonist George Thorpe is credited with distilling America’s first batch of corn-made whiskey. It was the prelude to corn-made moonshine and bourbon. One might think that it all began in Kentucky, however Bourbon County, Kentucky was part of Virginia until the late 1700s!


Berkeley Plantation  Photo credit: Revel Photo Co.

Photo credit: Penny Weiss

Also, in the late 1700s, a Baptist preacher by the name of Elijah Craig who lived in Orange County, Virginia is at times credited for being the first person to age whiskey in charred oak casks, thus creating bourbon. However, there is a question of validity regarding this.

Elijah Craig 

And let’s not forget George Washington who began commercial distilling in 1797 at his Mount Vernon property in Virginia. It was the largest whiskey distillery in the country during that time. Most of the whiskey he produced was a blend of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.


Photo credit: Penny Weiss

George Washington Distillery Photo credit: Revel Photo Co.

After a fire destroyed the building in 1814, Washington’s distillery was eventually reconstructed in 2007 and it now produces small batches of whiskey each year.


Tasting George Washington's whiskey. Photo credit: Penny Weiss

Today, there are over 60 licensed distilleries located throughout Virginia, spanning from south to north and east to west. In fact, there are more craft distilleries here than in both Kentucky and Tennessee. And the variety of whiskey being produced in Virginia is impressive. In addition to whiskey, bourbon and moonshine, many distilleries are also making such spirits as gin, rum, vodka, brandy, aquavit, pastis, absinthe and flavored liqueurs. Most of these distillers use only locally sourced ingredients to ensure a quality product in addition to working with and supporting the community and local farmers.

Virginia is celebrating 400 years of making distilled spirits this September with many events and festivities scheduled throughout the next few months. Visit the website for more information at www.virginianspirits.org. Through the generosity of the Virginia Distillers Association and Virginia Spirits Org., I was recently invited to meet with 25 distillers, tour seven distilleries, participate in a cocktail seminar and dine on exceptional culinary delights. It was a four-day whirlwind tour that also included a stopover at the historic Berkeley Plantation and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery. Our Virginia Spirits Trail began in Newport News and ended in Leesburg. 

Our tour bus was graciously provided by Virginia Hop On Tours co-owned by Jon Craig (pictured here).  Jon provided us with everything we needed, including some local history and entertaining stories. When planning your spirits/wine/beer tours, I highly recommend you contact Jon at www.cvillehopontours.com.

 

Jon Craig   Photo credit: Revel Photo Co.

As I embarked on the tour I became aware of a common thread of agreement between the distillers. For the most part, they all seem to be focused on producing farm to bottle spirits and distilling small batches while making a spirit that reflects the “terroir” and community.  My big take away from this trip (aside from the amazing spirits) is the overall emphasis on community spirit and how the distillers work closely together and support each other. They don’t look at making spirits as a competition between each other because they all have the same goal and passion and are dedicated to working hard to promote Virginia Spirits. It is quite awe-inspiring!

Each distiller and distillery has a unique story and I am impressed by their creative approach to making spirits. Over the next few months, I will be writing about the distilleries that I had contact with on this trip. And of course, I will also discuss and review some of their spirits. 

Let’s begin with the oldest operating distillery in Virginia, A. Smith Bowman Distillery.   

Photo credit: Penny Weiss

The family tree is impressive and reads like a history book. For instance, brothers John, Abraham, Joseph and Isaac Bowman were Virginia militia officers in the American Revolutionary War. And A. Smith Bowman Jr.’s daughter married Jay Adams, a relative of John Adams, John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan. The names on each bottle of whiskey pay homage to a relative. John J. Bowman Single Barrel Bourbon is named after Colonel Bowman, the first military commander and governor of Kentucky County.  And the two stills are nicknamed Mary and George to pay homage to George Bowman and Mary Hite (eldest daughter of Jost Hite), parents of the Bowman brothers.

Abram Smith Bowman, who was the great, great, great-grandson of Abraham Bowman, purchased Sunset Hills Farm in 1927, a 7,200-acre property in Fairfax County that was used as a dairy and granary (in 1964 the farm became the planned community of Reston, Virginia). After the repeal of Prohibition in Virginia in 1933, Bowman built a distillery on the estate that was completed in 1934. With all the excess grain that his farm was producing, it made sense to make spirits with it. The distillery’s hallmark bourbon called Virginia Gentleman was first produced in 1935 with the help of Bowman’s two sons, Abram Jr. and DeLong. Up until the 1950s, A. Smith Bowman was the only producer of legal whiskey in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1988, the distillery relocated 60 miles south of the original location to the historic city of Fredericksburg.

Today, A. Smith Bowman, a micro-distillery, produces award-winning whiskeys led by Colorado raised Master Distiller, Brian Prewitt. Using the latest technology and time-honored tradition, they produce premium spirits made with the best natural ingredients.  Although they produce vodka, rum, gin and several experimental spirits, they are best known for their whiskey, especially bourbon. 

Photo credit: Penny Weiss

Photo credit: Revel Photo Co.

After tasting several Bowman bourbons, the standout for me was the Abraham Bowman Sweet XVI Bourbon that was released in 2018. 

Photo credit: Penny Weiss

This bourbon represents Bowman’s experimental, limited-edition line. It was made from a selection of bourbons aged in Missouri charred oak barrels with four different entry poofs  - 125, 114, 105, and 90 proof. After 16 years of aging, the barrels were blended together producing a rich and seductive spirit. The nose was sweet with caramel, vanilla, leather and charred oak. Considering it was a 114 proof release, it was smooth but definitely heat infused. Notes of molasses, baking spice, oak, and anise filled the palate with a warm, creamy and sweet finish. This was a limited edition that is not available anymore. However, if you like bourbon, I highly recommend seeking out one of the many A. Smith Bowman bourbons that are now on the market here

More stories and coverage of the distilleries from my Virginia trip to follow soon. In the meantime, why not book a tour of Virginia’s Spirit Trail and enjoy all that Virginia has to offer?  Or, stop by your local spirits store and pick up a bottle of Virginia spirits. Either way, you’re in for a treat!

Until next time…

 

Cheers!

Penny

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