Gentleman's relish

Gentleman's relish

Lynn Seldon charts the history and success of a bourbon made beyond Kentucky:\rVirginia Gentleman

Production | 13 Jul 2003 | Issue 32 | By Lynn Seldon

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Those who think Kentucky has a monopoly on bourbon whiskey in the United States haven’t talked to the descendants of Abram Smith Bowman – or tried his bourbon. Founded in 1935 by Bowman and his two sons, Smith and DeLong, A. Smith Bowman Distillery is the oldest family owned bourbon distillery in the United States.“Though they may not know A. Smith Bowman, everyone in this region knows Virginia Gentleman,” says John ‘Jay’ B. Adams, Jr., the company’s president and CEO (and Delong Bowman’s son-in-law).“Many men in Virginia and neighbouring states will only drink our bourbon.”The Bowmans began producing bourbon on their farm in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County at the end of Prohibition, and the fabled Virginia Gentleman became the region’s hallmark bourbon for decades. Originally created as a ‘small batch’ bourbon, the distillery was originally located on Sunset Hills Farm, the Bowman family property in what would eventually become the bustling city of Reston.Produced today as it was then, Virginia Gentleman became the Bowman Distillery’s hallmark brand. Made from the finest corn, rye, and malted barley, it is aged for at least four years in new charred oak barrels.The 80-proof bourbon was rated four out of five stars (100 per cent recommended) by the website, and has garnered good comments in Whisky Magazine for its consistent flavour.The sweetish Virginia Gentleman 80 has a big body and tends to be higher in malt and lower in corn than many Kentucky bourbons.Responding to the rapid growth around them, the family moved the distillery operation 60 miles south to the historic city of Fredericksburg in 1988. The company purchased the former FMC Cellophane Manufacturing Plant, which had been vacant and decaying for some time. Undertaking a massive renovation of the sprawling buildings, the distillery and corporate headquarters are now an award-winning example of preservation and adaptive re-use.Ironically, the company is located near the site where Elijah Craig, the ‘inventor’ of bourbon whiskey, was born and raised. Craig would eventually move west to Kentucky, leaving a legacy of bourbon whiskey in Virginia.During the ‘90s, the distillery embarked on a successful expansion plan, including the production of brands like Bowman’s Vodka, Bowman’s Gin, and a complete line of imported spirits. However, it was the successful 1998 launch of Virginia Gentleman 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon
hat put the company back on the bars of bourbon drinkers worldwide.The award-winning Virginia Gentleman 90 combines a unique copper still and multi-layered filtration system with ageing of at least six years in new oak charred barrels. Produced under the watchful eye of long-time master distiller and vice president of production, Joe Dangler, Virginia Gentleman 90 has won many awards, including four stars from Spirit Journal and silver medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2000 and 2001.Even the packaging, which depicts a fox-hunt in England, has won an award (some drinkers have nicknamed it the ‘Fox’). The box’s artwork is from a painting by Britain’s John Sortorius, which is in the collection of Delong Bowman.“We want you to taste some of that sweet nuttiness that Virginia Gentleman 80 has, but the additional ageing means more oak on the nose and palate,” says Dangler, who is about as meticulous in making Virginia Gentleman 90 distinctive as you can get.“We use Vendome Copper and Brass Company stills, Independent Stave Company barrels with a #3 char, and three separate filterings.”Dangler adds that they still chill filter both the 80 and 90 proof, and ventilate their ageing houses all summer to keep the air fresh, letting the wood work its wonders through the seasons.The result is a bourbon that has Dangler and Adams getting requests for Virginia Gentleman 90 from around the world. Like Craig centuries earlier, these Virginia gentlemen are making bourbon history once again.Adams, who has been with the company since 1971, sees Virginia Gentleman literally as a part of Virginia’s history. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University’s School of Law, where ‘Virginia gentlemen’ traditionally attend college and law school, so he knows his history.A. Smith Bowman’s family originally came from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, with roots in Virginia and Kentucky. Adams is more of an Anglophile at heart, hence his ownership of a Jaguar and Rolls Royce and membership of London’s Carlton Club.In a further connection to Britain, Adams arranged for Virginia Gentleman 90 to be debuted at the British Embassy, where the then ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer and his wife Ladie Meyer hosted a benefit for historic Stratford Hall, the birthplace of General Robert E. Lee.“With our distillery being so close to where Elijah Craig was born and raised, we also like to point out that Kentucky was once a part of Virginia,” quips Adams, whose southern accent is as smooth as his company’s Virginia Gentleman 90.“They’re even planning to produce whiskey again up at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Our first president was a big whiskey fan, and they’re restoring his distillery.”Washington’s distillery was evidently a big operation. In the year he became president, his distillery reported more than $1,000 in sales, which would be hundreds of thousands of dollars today.This led to a long line of Virginia-based distillers nearby. National Distillers had two plants in the area during the post- Prohibition era, producing, among other things, Mount Vernon Rye, and Mount Vernon whiskey, which is still produced today. Of course, A. Smith Bowman also got his start nearby.Adams says the ceremony to celebrate the distillery restoration at Mount Vernon included an actor playing Washington. When asked his favourite bourbon, ‘Washington’ immediately replied,“Virginia Gentleman, of course.”Recipes using Virginia Gentleman 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon:Fox on the Rocks:
Use a rocks or double old fashioned glass, fill halfway with crushed ice, and pour on 2 1/2 ounces Virginia Gentleman 90.Manhattan:
Stir two ounces of Virginia Gentleman 90, a splash of sweet or dry vermouth, and a dash of bitters with crushed ice, and garnish with a cherry.Gentleman’s Sangaree:
2oz Virginia Gentleman
3oz club soda
2 tsp water
1 tsp sugar
1/2 oz tawny portUsing a highball glass, dissolve sugar in the water and Virginia Gentleman. Fill the glass with ice and soda. Float the port on the top. Garnish with a lemon twist and dust with nutmeg and cinnamon.Virginia Cooler:
Mix Virginia Gentleman with lemon and lime soda in a highball glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.For further information, visit
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