Booze Cues

Everything you need to know about bourbon, Virginia’s finest native spirit.

Photo courtesy of Fifth & Federal

Bourbon whiskey is the ultimate American offering to the world of spirits. That’s because to be bourbon, the spirit needs to be produced in America and made with at least 51 percent corn—a tradition for which we have early settlers in Jamestown to thank. What that means is that while all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. So, way to go 1620 Virginia, thank you for giving us one of our most spirited inventions.

Bourbon in Virginia: A Brief History

1620 — George Thorpe, an early English settler in Jamestown, finished his first batch of corn whiskey after discovering that, by substituting the indigenous corn for the European barley traditionally used in distilling whiskey, he could create the mash needed to make the drink. 

1789 — Orange County native Elijah Craig, “the father of modern bourbon,” began distillation in charred oak casks—a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique tastes.

1797 — Virginia’s largest distillery of the day opened at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Rye and corn grown on the estate were used in the mash, and production leapt from 80 gallons the first year to 11,000 gallons the following year. The distillery ceased operations by the 19th century.

1935 — Fairfax County farmer A. Smith Bowman began producing his Virginia Gentleman Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Bowman grew the grains on his Sunset Hills farm, and used trees from his land to craft the barrels that would store the whiskey, which, remains popular today. 

Bourbon Etiquette
Brian Prewitt, master distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, shares tips for pouring like a pro.

Photo courtesy of A. Smith Bowman Distillery

Pour it right. Your glass should always complement your spirit, as the vessel is going to determine the experience. A bourbon neat requires something simple, like a shot glass, a rocks glass or a Glencairn glass whose tulip shape is perfect for swirling the whiskey to open up its aroma. 

On the rocks—or not? Not. I always prefer to try a new spirit neat and at room temperature. To really taste it, I dig for the intricacies of what the distiller was trying to convey, and if it’s cold, you can’t really taste it. 

In favor of flavor? Many a classic cocktail can’t be made without the addition of a juice or flavored soda. My guidelines are easy and go back to one simple question: Does the ingredient complement the spirit? If the spirit is pushed to the background and you can’t even tell that it is in a drink, then what’s the point? 

Bourbon Bars

Visit these establishments around the Commonwealth whose robust bourbon selections offer so many irresistible bottles of Virginia’s, and the nation’s, best corn-based spirits, you won’t be able to have just one pour.

Fifth & Federal, Lynchburg Owner Ralph Beck relies on customer requests to help round out his inventory of approximately 100 bottles of bourbon, about 40 of which are Virginia-distilled. Owner’s Pick: Kentucky-based Buffalo Trace Distillery’s George T. Stagg.

Jack Rose Dining Saloon, D.C. The home of the largest whiskey collection in the Western Hemisphere keeps a constantly rotating 2,700 bottles, more than 1,000 of which are bourbon. Owner’s Pick: Cask Strength A. Smith Bowman Single Barrel Rye. “We had a customer ask us to make him the greatest Manhattan on earth,” says owner Bill Thomas. “I immediately pulled down that bottle.”

McCormack’s Big Whiskey Grill, Richmond Owner Mac McCormack has accrued more than 500 bottles of bourbon, comprising the largest collection in the state. Owner’s Pick: Holland’s Ghost, a collaboration with Richmond-based Reservoir Distillery aged in Ardent Craft Ales stout barrels. 

Repeal, Virginia Beach With more than 100 bottles of bourbon to choose from among his stock, general manager Sean Bender says the Hunter & Scott line from Reservoir is one of the best made in the Commonwealth. Manager’s Pick: Repeal John J. Bowman, an 8-year John J. Bowman selected by Repeal and aged for an additional year. 

The Makers
Virginia’s bourbon distillers.

Photo courtesy of Reservoir Distillery

8 Shires Distillery, Williamsburg

A. Smith Bowman, Fredericksburg

Belmont Farm Distillery, Culpeper

Copper Fox Distillery, Sperryville 

Davis Valley Distillery, Rural Retreat

Dome & Spear Distillery, Evington

Falls Church Distillers, Falls Church

Filibuster Bourbons, Maurertown

Ironclad Distillery, Newport News

KO Distilling, Manassas

Mount Defiance Distillery, Middleburg

Ragged Branch Distillery, Charlottesville

Reservoir Distillery, Richmond

River Hill Distillery, Luray

Silverback Distillery, Afton

Springfield Distillery, Halifax

Tarnished Truth Distillery, Virginia Beach


This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue. Look out for more stories on Virginia spirits in our inaugural Drink issue, coming to newsstands in November.

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