Saturday, November 15, 2014

Pic(k) of the Week: Something (still) about Mary

Something (still) About Mary.

This is the thirty-something-year-old, 1,700 gallon, copper double reflux still, given the name "Mary" (after the mother of the first Bowman brothers in Revolutionary War days) which distills the whiskey at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The very act of distilling the whiskey with distilled water thins the copper. Mary is reaching the end of her lifespan, and will eventually have to be replaced (with Mary II)?

The fermentation, and initial distillation, of the grain mash takes place off-site at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Kentucky, and then is shipped to Bowman, where it is distilled again —with Mary— and then aged in first-use charred American oak barrels ... to become bourbon.
A boiler creates distillate vapors. These are then allowed to rise up through the column in the reflux still. At the top of this column, the vapors are condensed. The condensed vapors now run back down the column as a liquid; as they come back down, they pass through other rising vapors. These rising vapors enrich this condensed liquid. Once the condensed liquids reach a lower level in the column, they then become hot enough to boil again. This creates more vapors and the process continues.

Abram Smith Bowman founded his eponymous distillery soon after the end of Prohibition, in 1934, in the town of Reston, Virginia (then a bucolic region, now a built-up, if planned, suburb of Washington, D.C.). In 1988, the company was moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, into the capacious site of a former cellophane manufacturing plant. In 2003, the distillery was purchased by Sazerac, an alcoholic beverage company based in Louisiana.

Barrel room @A. Smith Bowman (03)

I took these photos while touring the distillery on a Saturday morning, 8 November 2014. Yes! Sipping bourbon on a crisp autumn morning.

Unique among bourbon-makers, Bowman stores its barrels vertically on pallets, rather than horizontally in rickhouses. Why? "Because, this way," said our tour guide, Ralph, "we don't have to physically roll around any of our seven-thousand barrels!" Each barrel —coopered from Ozark white oak— weighs over 510 pounds when filled with 53 gallons of bourbon.

And what is 'bourbon'? As defined by the U.S. government, it is:
  • Produced in the United States.
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume).
  • Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period.
  • Bourbon that meets the above requirements, and has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may (but is not required to) be called straight bourbon.
Bowman's current master distiller, Brian Prewitt, gained his experience at E&J Distilleries (Modesto, California). But he also has valid brewing chops, having worked at New Belgium Brewery (Fort Collins, Colorado), and, as head brewer, at Great Divide (Denver, Colorado). At A. Smith Bowman, he's producing:
  • Virginia Gentleman bourbon
  • Bowman Brothers small batch bourbon
    named for four ancestors of Abram Bowman: 18th-century frontiersmen and American Revolutionary War military officers.
  • Abraham Bowman limited-edition small batch whiskey
    named for Colonel Abraham Bowman (1749–1837), the great grandfather of Abram Bowman
  • John J. Bowman single-barrel bourbon
    named for Colonel John Bowman (1738–1784), the great, great uncle of Abram Bowman.
John J. Bowman bourbon (02)

The distillery also produces vodka and rum, and, in 2015, will be installing an additional 25-gallon still solely to produce gin.

Also there the morning I was there was Lew Bryson. The editor of Whiskey Advocate Magazine, Bryson has just written a book called Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits. A. Smith Bowman was one stop on his book-signing tour. Here he is (on the left) with Brian Prewitt (on the right).

Bryson & Prewitt

I'm reading Bryson's book (and sipping Prewitt's bourbon). Review to follow.

  • More photos from the A. Smith Bowman tour: here.
  • The distillery conducts free tours every hour Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Free tastings are included.
  • Details on Bryson's Tasting Whiskey book-signing tour, posted to Facebook: here.
  • Pic(k) of the Week: one in a weekly series of personal photos, often posted on Saturdays, and often, but not always, with a good fermentable as a subject. Camera: Olympus Pen E-PL1.
  • Commercial reproduction requires explicit permission, as per as per Creative Commons.

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