I met Truman Cox an hour ago, and he’s already breaking one of his own laws: “When you drink bourbon with a friend, the bourbon should never be older than the friendship.” I ask him if this means that moonshine should be a staple of first dates.
Sitting in his Fredericksburg, Virginia office, I am glad he has suspended this rule, for it is difficult to find anything in a bottle that is less than eight years old. As the Master Distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery, it’s Truman’s job to create the bourbon that he hopes will be the focal point of such meetings between old friends. A. Smith Bowman is the oldest bourbon producer on the east coast, and for many years, there were only nine bourbon distillers in the world- eight in Kentucky and A. Smith Bowman. Housed in an old cellophane factory, the building itself boasts an abundance of floor space and open areas that would be crowded with conveyor belts and sophisticated bottling equipment at other distilleries or “creative space” at major corporations where employees could play hacky sack or wiffleball.
But at A. Smith Bowman, you would be hard pressed to field a team. With nine employees, including one woman equipped with a single aquarium pump as a bottling line, A. Smith Bowman is an operation where “craft” and “hand bottled” are more than marketing terms.
“We’re unique,” Truman explains as we walk to the room where Mary, the massive copper still rests, “we are a larger distillery that is attempting to get small. By doing so, we hope to create a distinct product that reflects our history and our surroundings.”
In many ways, they have succeeded. The distillery’s small batch and single barrel bourbon varieties are distributed only in Virginia, Maryland and DC. These spirits coupled with a smooth gin, a tequila-esque rum, and the cleanest vodka I have ever tasted give A. Smith Bowman a unique position as an established distillery striving to create new offerings.
Local bourbon and whisky has been a cornerstone of Virginia for generations. From early settlers, to George Washington, to modern pioneers, the state has a long history of distillation. I ask Truman about the resurgence of moonshining culture in recent years, and he bristles. “Distilling your own liquor is dangerous for a multitude of reasons- there’s the legal ramifications, there’s the chance that your still will explode if improperly constructed and if you get a bad batch of home whisky, you could really hurt yourself.” Here Truman’s background as a chemist comes in as we discuss the properties of ethanol and methanoic acid.
Truman and I conclude our tour in the cavernous warehouse where 5000 barrels sit upright and aging, shielded from the Virginia humidity. I climb the steps to the “Angel’s Perch” and gaze out over the stores of A. Smith Bowman. I think I’m being clever when I remark that it looks like the final scene in ”Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the Ark of the Covenant is being stored away in a uniform wooden crate. “Everyone says that,” Truman good-naturedly informs me.
Set aside from the others is one particular barrel that is home to the next batch of A. Bowman Limited Edition single barrel bourbon.
“This barrel,” Truman explains, “will be the 3rd edition single barrel that we have produced. We aged bourbon in this barrel for 4 years. Then we emptied it, shipped it to a winery in Potomac Point, Virginia where it was filled with port for one year. Then they sent it back to us and we filled it in January with a seven year-old bourbon. We are going to officially unveil it later this fall at The Whiskey Fest in New York City.” Like the hundreds of others in the warehouse, the exterior of the barrel is speckled with deep, black spots that look like tar or sap.
“That is called ‘distiller’s candy’,” he explains, “and a couple of months ago, we had a brave visitor on one of our tours stick his finger in it and sample it.” Truman demonstrates this tasting method. “Now most people might be hesitant, but go ahead and try it.” Not being one to shy away, I rub my finger into a murky smudge and then stick it in my mouth. Truman sees my face react; can tell that I, like everyone else who has dared to do the same, is impressed and intrigued. His face lights up. “Just think, if the goo that is seeping through the barrel tastes that good just imagine what the hell it must taste like inside.”
A. Smith Bowman: 1 Bowman Dr. Fredericksburg, VA; 540-373-4555; www.asmithbowman.com
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Located in Loudoun County, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is family owned and produces award winning, high quality organic spirits and liqueurs: organic rye whisky and gin, brandy from Virginia wines, and seasonal specialty liqueurs. Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is the first distillery in Loudoun County Virginia since before prohibition. Take a tour of the distillery to see their 400 liter custom-made Kothe still and condenser. Tours highlight the process of making distilled spirits, including fermentation, distillation, aging, and bottling. Tours last about half an hour and cost $5 per person and tastings also last half an hour, for a one hour total tour experience. Find out where you can buy Catoctin products at www.catoctincreekdistilling.com/wheretobuy.
Catoctin Creek: 37251C E. Richardson Ln. Purcellville, Virginia; 540-751-8404; www.catoctincreekdistilling.com
Copper Fox Distillery
At Copper Fox Distillery, employees are dedicated to making great American spirits: pot-stilled in small batches, one barrel at a time honoring time-tested methods. Tours of Copper Fox distiller are available Monday through Thursday from noon to 4 p.m. as well as Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours for large groups (10+) are available by reservation.
Copper Fox Distillery: 9 River Ln. Sperryville, VA; 540-987-8554; www.copperfox.biz
Smooth Ambler Spirits
TAG Galyean and John Little founded Smooth Ambler in 2009 to produce fine artisan spirits by combining patient Appalachian know-how with the finest of American ingredients. Located in the rural Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia, Smooth Ambler uses state-of-the-art distillery equipment in conjunction with natural resources of the region: high-valley mountain air, natural waters, ideal temperature variations and friendly folks. These elements combined with a hands-on, grain-to-glass distilling, cutting and filtering process create a truly remarkable drink best enjoyed one slow sip at a time.
Smooth Ambler: 745 Industrial Park Rd. Maxwelton, WV; 304-497-3123; www.smoothambler.com
Rocklands Now Sells Rocklands Bourbon
When you have good barbeque, you need good bourbon. That’s the thinking behind Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company’s newest product, called simply “Rocklands Bourbon.” Distilled for Rocklands in South Carolina, the bourbon follows the company’s approach of bending convention just slightly to create distinctive and delicious traditional products. Rocklands Bourbon is currently available for drinking by the glass in the Arlington and DC Rocklands, and by the bottle in Virginia ABC stores and at Plain Old Pearson’s in Washington.
Rocklands: 3471 Washington Blvd. Arlington, VA; 703-528-9663. 2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; 202-333-2558;www.rocklands.com