So many times over the years I would carry my mountain bike down the three flights of stairs of my Reston, Virginia condo, strap on my trusty helmet and CamelBak, and head out in search of urban terrain to practice my trials skills on. In case you’re not familiar with mountain bike trials riding, I highly recommend you watch this video of Danny MacAskill. It will help paint the picture of what was floating around in my head as I headed out on each of these sessions. I dreamed big and aspired to ride like Danny one day, but in reality, simply doing a pedal kick off a four-foot wall was enough make my heart pound out of my chest.
Despite my dreams and hard work, I was no Danny MacAskill! It just wasn’t going to happen. Nevertheless, I went out riding daily, and many of those rides took me past a mysterious old building that I always admired. It was an abandoned building with boarded-up windows that looked like it was once a warehouse with a small loading dock on the side. I didn’t know the history of this building and I never bothered to do any research. I simply admired it. I hoped it would one day go up for sale and I’d have enough money to buy it, renovate it, and make it my home. It was on the market for a while, but I believe they were asking just north of $1,000,000 for it. So much for that idea!
Fast forward eight years. I sold my trials bike, and my all-mountain/enduro bike has been sitting in my basement for years collecting dust. I have since found myself a new hobby: whiskey! After years of sipping on Jim Beam white label, I eventually discovered the wonderful, wide world of whiskey, and for the past year and change I’ve immersed myself in whiskey academia and have spent a good portion of my free time and energy collecting bourbon and rye. Over the course of said whiskey journey, I have become a big fan of a somewhat local distillery: the A. Smith Bowman distillery in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about a two-hour drive from my house. I started off with Bowman Brothers bourbon, and then moved up to John J. Bowman, and then started hunting their limited Abraham Bowman releases. I was stoked to find a distillery in Virginia that was producing such quality bourbons. It was the only distillery outside of the big Kentucky greats that I knew of that was producing such high caliber bourbon, and it was in my home state. Well, I now live about a mile from the Virginia border in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and I work in Dulles, Virginia. Despite my mailing address, Virginia still feels like my home state.
My first surprise as I started learning more about A. Smith Bowman was that it was owned by Sazerac and they don’t produce their own bourbon mash. Distillate from Buffalo Trace, twice distilled, is delivered to A. Smith Bowman where it’s distilled a third time and aged on site. This was my first glimpse into the complexities of whiskey production and brands. I knew that new distilleries and NDPs sourced aged whiskey, which made sense to me because it takes years to mature quality whiskey, but I hadn’t heard of an established distillery sourcing whitedog, just to turn around and distill it again. If they are going to take the time to distill the juice a third time and age their stock to full maturity, why not produce the mash themselves? I’m sure there’s a good reason for all this, and in the end, the bourbon is outstanding, so it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.
My second surprise came when I learned that A. Smith Bowman had moved to Fredericksburg in 1988. And where did they move from? They moved from Reston, Virginia!!! I was shocked. A distillery in Reston? How could such a bustling, highly populated D.C. suburb have been home to a distillery? I couldn’t picture where in Reston this distillery could have been. The Reston I knew was a maze of town homes, condo complexes, high rise apartments, small lakes and wooded areas, and of course, the Reston Town Center.
After doing a little more digging, along came my third surprise: I learned that not only was the former A. Smith Bowman distillery in Reston, but the old building I mentioned earlier was actually part of the distillery. Wow!!! I would have never imagined that the old building I so admired based on its beauty alone was part of a distillery’s history, and to boot, a distillery that I was such a fan off. My hobby of mountain biking led me past this historical building on a regular basis, and now years later my new hobby and love for whiskey led me back to it. It’s funny how things can come around full circle in odd ways.
After learning that the old distillery was so close to where I lived in Reston, my interest in learning about the distillery’s history grew. But what really spurred me to start digging into the history was when fellow Instagram whiskey friend, @sburt009, mentioned that he had a pour of Reston-distilled Virginia Gentleman at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in D.C. I had seen Virginia Gentleman on the bottom shelf of stores before, but I never paid much attention to it, and I certainly didn’t realize it was an A. Smith Bowman product. And to think that there were still bottles of Reston-distilled A. Smith Bowman floating around out there. Very cool!
The next thing I learned from good ole Google is that in addition to the Virginia Gentleman brand, A. Smith also produced a brand called Fairfax County Bourbon. This was one I never heard of, but how cool is it that the brand name references the county I once lived in, but also the town (Fairfax) I lived in prior to moving to Reston? More of that “coming ’round full circle stuff” here. When I saw a photo of a dusty Fairfax County bottle online, I was enamored. Not only was it a sexy bottle, but it was bottled-in-bond. I love BIBs!!! Soon after I started researching the brand, I stumbled upon a 2014 post about Fairfax County Bourbon on the Fairfax Underground forum. A guy mentioned that he had some sealed bottles that he would sell. It didn’t seem like anyone was taking him up on his offer, and one dude actually pointed out that it was illegal to sell liquor without a license. Haha! Even though it was almost 2 years after this post, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least try to get in touch with the guy. I assumed his email address wouldn’t even be active… but it was! And he still had three bottles of Fairfax County left. What?!?! He gave me a price, which was more than reasonable. Two weeks later the bottles arrived safe and sound at my house. This was my first dusty score and I was on cloud nine. I now owned a piece of Northern Virginia distilling history.
Now that I’ve bored you with the details of my personal connection to A. Smith Bowman, let’s dive into the history of the distillery. I’m no historian, and I often lose interest when reading if there are too many dates, names and locations, so I promise not to dive too deep.
The land that would eventually come to be the home of the distillery was first purchased by Dr. Carl Wiehle in the late 19th century. At the time the land was used as a farming community known as Wiehle. If you’ve ever spent any time in Reston, you are likely familiar with Wiehle Ave. And that old building that I’m so fond of? Well, it turns out that it was built by Dr. Wiehle to serve as both a town hall and a church. In fact, there used to be a church steeple on top of the building. The bottom floor was used for the town hall, and the second floor was used for the church.
What’s so interesting to me is that Dr. Wiehle had visions of evolving his farming community into a planned Utopian town. Apparently his goal was to build approximately 800 homes for “healthy living” just an hour from D.C. I believe only 6 of those homes were built and Dr. Wiehle died from pneumonia in 1901. Dr. Wiehle’s planned community never happened, but 60 years after his passing, along comes Robert E. Simon in 1961 to purchase 7000 acres and create what is now the Reston we all know today: one of the most well-known and successful planned communities in the country. I wonder if Dr. Wiehle would have approved of Robert E. Simon’s vision?
So, where does A. Smith Bowman fit into this picture, you ask? Good question. In 1927 a fella by the name of Abraham Smith Bowman comes along and buys over 3000 acres of land that was once home to Dr. Wiehle’s farming community and at the time was called Sunset Hills. Bowman operated a successful dairy farm and granary on this land for many years. In 1934 Prohibition finally came to an end, and Bowman quickly capitalized on his grain surplus and began distilling whiskey. The A. Smith Bowman distillery was officially founded in 1935. The distillery began bottling Virginia Gentleman Bourbon in 1937 and they later added the Fairfax County Bourbon brand I mentioned earlier to their portfolio.
In 1947 Bowman purchased over 3000 more acres, making it the largest privately owned tract of land in the D.C. metropolitan area. In the 1960s the land was sold to Robert E. Simon, but 60 acres were sold back to the Bowman family and the distillery continued operations in Reston until 1988. A. Smith, Sr. died in 1952, but by that time the distillery was in the good hands of his sons, DeLong Bowman and Smith, Jr. If I’m not mistaken, A. Smith Bowman is the oldest family-owned bourbon distillery in the country. Please note the “bourbon” in that claim. It’s not the oldest family-owned distillery, in general. I believe those honors go to Laird & Company in Scobeyville, New Jersey, who are known for their Applejack apple brandy. I’m not a big brandy fan, so “oldest family-owned bourbon distillery” is pretty bad-ass in my book.
I’m not exactly sure what prompted the distillery to relocate to Fredericksburg in 1988. I’m sure economics were involved, but I also get the impression from some of the articles I’ve read that the Bowman’s didn’t get along all that well with Robert E. Simon. Until their move to Fredericksburg, their bottles continued to state “distilled and bottled by A. Smith Bowman Distillery – Sunset Hills, Fairfax County, VA.” Perhaps they didn’t appreciate how big and busy the area had become and didn’t want to be associated with Reston, longing for the days when their original tract of land was still named Sunset Hills.
There’s a lot more to the A. Smith Bowman distillery and family history, and I’ve only just scratched the surface, I’m sure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no historian. I was motivated to write this blog post simply because I’m a fan of the distillery and I was so surprised and pleased to learn that the history of the distillery surrounded me while I was living in Reston. If only I had known back then. I probably would have spent more time sitting on my bike, admiring the old warehouse and trying to picture how it was used in the distillery operations. Perhaps I’d even have some whiskey in my CamelBak, although I don’t think that would have helped with my trials riding skills. Cheers y’all!