Monday, October 31, 2011

A day at A. Smith Bowman Distillery

This past Saturday I traveled to Fredericksburg, VA with about a dozen other folks to meet up with Truman Cox, the new Master Distiller at A. Smith Bowman Distillery. The day started off with snow, and plenty of it. I've lived here in the Northern VA area for 26 years and don't ever remember snow in October and that's because maybe it hasn't. The last snowfall in October was 1979. I'm not a lover of snow so clearing my vehicle of about 2 inches of snow wasn't a good start. Thankfully the weather didn't temper the anticipation of the distillery visit as well as the planned barrel tasting.

We arrived shortly before 11:00 a.m. and were met outside by Truman. I'm not sure what a typical Master Distiller is supposed to look like but Truman reminded me more of my brother in law ready to sit down with a beer and watch the Sunday game or maybe grab his bow and spend an afternoon sitting in a tree stand. Truman was affable and polite at first but shortly he realized that our group were a bunch of wiseacres and quickly adjusted his posture to dishing it out which kept us laughing throughout the afternoon.

Sazerac purchased A. Smith Bowman late in 2003. At the time and up until about two months ago the Master Distiller was Joe Dangler who worked for Bowman for about 32 years. Back in 1927 Abram Bowman moved to Virginia and purchased about 4,000 acres in the area now known as Reston and started Sunset Hills Farm establishing a dairy and eventually added cattle where the beef and dairy were sold to the local community as well as the White House. After prohibition Bowman began distilling around 1935 and produced Virginia Gentleman. Reston, VA was the first planned community in the U.S. and as such zoning laws were rather strict so while the reasons for moving the operation to Fredericksburg in 1988 may be multiple, Truman indicated one of the reasons for the move was due to increasing real estate prices which my own speculation would include an increase in personal property taxes.

Sazerac is investing some serious capital into the distillery which interestingly enough, the land is still owed by the Bowman family. Upgrades and renovations are currently underway as the distillery buildings smell of fresh paint and fresh coats of sealer on being applied to the floors in some of the buildings. The bottling operation for the Bowman value bourbons has been moved out of the facility and is now operated out of the Barton-Maryland (formerly Majestic) plant. The visitor center will reside in one of the existing buildings and is currently going through construction.

For the most part, Truman was forthright and answered some aggressive questioning in an honest and open manner. When he couldn't answer the question directly, he made that known.

The tour finished up in the storage warehouse where pallets were stacked one on top of the other with barrels of bourbon stored upright. On the floor in the corner were five barrels of 14 year old bourbon ready for tasting. The particular group I associate with have purchased 15 barrels of bourbon in the last 2 1/2 years so this process was nothing new to us. It was new to Bowman as our group is the first to conduct an on-site pick of the new Bowman barrel selection program. We were thrilled that this tasting included a nicely aged selection. Truman popped the bung on the first barrel (like a pro, bung was out after two hits). He asked for volunteers for the second barrel to which I happily stepped forward and four strikes with the wooden mallet on the barrel next to the bung hole produced the expected result. Each barrel was tasted at proof and again at 100 proof. These barrels would be bottled as John J. Bowman which is labeled at 100 proof. My personal preference would be to take it at barrel proof but at this time (repeat, at this time), that's not an option. After tasting through the barrels, a selection was made and now we'll discuss as a group on how to go forward.

During the tour Truman brought out three Bowman products; Bowman Brothers Small Batch (replaces Virginia Gentleman "The Fox"), John J. Bowman a single barrel and Abraham Bowman barrel strength. John J. and Abraham were both very nice both of which I purchased in the makeshift gift shop. I'll provide reviews in a separate blog entry.

I would like to thank Truman publicly for being a gracious host and taking the time to have lunch with the group after the tour and tasting. In spite of the crappy weather, it was a great day touring the distillery, tasting some great whiskey and socializing with likeminded dorks.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hey your fair share

Jack Daniels distillery, located in Lynchburg, TN has been pumping out whiskey goodness for more than a century. Jack Daniels, owed by Brown-Forman Corporation, pays approximately $1.5M in taxes which accounts for a full 1/3 of the Moore County tax base. They are also the largest employer in the county.

The local government sees Jack Daniels as a cash cow and now proposes an increase in taxes on Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. The tax equates to a "pittance" 3.4 cents on each bottle of Jack. Well that pittance adds up to a whopping $4M a year in additional tax revenue as the distillery sells in excess of 100 million bottles a year.

Now, just to do some simple math, this additional revenue would actually add up to MORE than the current county budget to the tune of an extra $1M. A local concerned citizen stated (who of course is cheering on the increased taxes) that the county is "entitled" to more money because the distillery uses the small sleepy town image to sell it's product. Oh, and let's not forget that Jack Daniels attracts over a quarter million visitors to Moore County each year. In fact, the Jack Daniels website features local attractions and eatery's there in Lynchburg. I call that being a good neighbor.

Approximately 60% of the retail price on a bottle of Jack Daniels comes from taxes. Tommy Beam is none too happy about the proposed increase and has stated that the addition of $4-$5M in increased taxes is going to make it harder for them to compete, grow and take on additional staff.

Tommy Beam believes that the idea of taxing due to success is fundamentally unfair. "That's not free enterprise and that's not what this country was built on." he said. "I saw a quote the other day that said that a person used to look at a successful person and say now, what do I have to do to become like that? Whereas now, they might look at him and say, what can I do to get what they've got." What's next? #OccupyLynchburg?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Free Trade, Whiskey, George Washington and Iranian Buffoonery

Last week an annual event was held at Mount Vernon in Virginia; Spirit of Mount Vernon. This annual dinner sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council supports the George Washington Library.

After three years of languishing in the White House inbox, there were a number of free trade agreements set to be voted upon with one in particular of interest to the Spirits industry. The free trade agreement with South Korea included a lifting of a 20% tariff on Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. To the chagrin of some whiskey enthusiasts, the Pacific Rim has been a growing market for American whiskey. The attendees at the Spirit of Mount Vernon knew the vote for the free trade agreement was happening that evening and there was some anticipation passage was imminent. But then news came of a bizarre Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC as well as attack the Saudi and Israeli Embassies. It was reported that the Senate was being briefed on this late breaking news which had the potential of delaying the vote.......groan goes the crowd.

Many of us already know that Japan consumes a great amount of American Whiskey as does many European countries. Spreading this golden wealth to the world can certainly have an impact to those of us here in the homeland looking for current and limited release labels. Is it a good thing that the world loves our product? Maybe, maybe not. Considering the economics of supply and demand let's hope the increased interest (and lower tariffs) don't make it harder to find the good stuff on our own turf. We've all seen label changes over the last number of years from lower proofs to dropping age statements (e.g. Old Weller Antique) and some labels disappearing altogether. Is it a crazy idea that increased international interest has affected these changes? Hmmm.....let me dig out my tin foil hat and think on that one.

The trade agreement with South Korea did pass later that evening and the Mount Vernon crowd cheered. Should we be cheering? I'm undecided.