Several years ago when I was participating in my first Eat Local Challenge, I had had a particularly stressful day and was thinking maybe a cocktail was in order. I went down to my local ABC store (that is the Alcoholic Beverage Control for those of you who don't live in the Old Dominion) and started looking through the shelves -- no tequila, that's from Mexico, Rye is from Canada, and Vodka, well Russia or Scandinavia but not Virginia --wait -- is that Virginia Gentleman? Surely that is made in Virginia. Then I carefully read the label...hmm, distilled in Kentucky, finished in Virginia. Surely that wasn't really a local product. Well, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery seems to have a few other tricks up their sleeve in addition to refining Kentucky Sour Mash Distillate.
Welcome to the A. Smith Bowman distillery. Oh wait, this is going on the internet? cover your faces. (and yes, my sister knew I would put up both pictures.) The neicelets are home schooled and see the twin in the blue dress? She wants to be a chemist when she grows up. Well, a chemist or else she wants to sell snow cones. These things are hard to decide at 5. (Mom is encouraging both interests as long as that snow cone truck will pay her way through college...organic chem doesn't come cheap these days.) What better place for a field trip to show chemistry at work. So, they jumped in the trusty mini van (Aunt Jas in tow) and headed up to Fredricksburg, VA to the site of the old FMC Corp Cellophane plant. (Oh, and a former superfund site...apparently cellophane production is some toxic stuff.
The tour started out with a basic definition of bourbon.
- An American made product
- made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- aged in new charred oak barrels
There are some other stipulations about the proof of the drink at given stages of the process that go into the definition as well. I had no idea that the smokey flavor (and for that matter the color) came from burnt wood. Interesting. Next we met Mary, their copper still.
Apparently a copper still of her size is quite unusual. Most of the distillers only line their stainless steel stills with copper. (Copper being important to remove sulfur from the ethyl alcohol which eventually cause the need for repairs due to erosion for an entirely copper still. Repairs are necessary about every 8 years). Basically ethyl alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water and collects in the ball pictured above and then condenses in the coils. They only use the middle part of the distillation process referred to as the heart, as this is the best flavor. This middle part of the process is determined by human tasters. As subjective as that sounds they are way more accurate than any machine (which can only taste to parts per billion while the average human can taste to parts per trillion -- or at least that is what the tour guide said).
Eventually the bourbon is barrelled and left to age for 7 years. During this process quite a bit of volume can be lost 3-7% per year. So the more it is aged, the less it yields. The barrel aging room was stacked floor to ceiling.
The bottling and packing was a small corner of the main room -- a two person job. Small batch production is quite evident when you realize how manageable the whole production is and they only have 10 employees and two of them are giving tours. Last there was a wee little taste...has me thinking of an old fashioned, even now.