SHARE WITH: Fans of bottom shelf bourbons. Would be great for bourbon tastings of bottom shelf bourbons or for a progression of proofs.
WORTH THE PRICE: Certainly worth the price for a bottom shelf bourbon.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: Bottle, if you can find one.
OVERALL: “There was just one good drink left in the quart of Virginia Gentleman bourbon that had already lasted me two weeks, and I filled one of the best cut-glass tumblers with ice cubes and poured the bourbon over them, shaking the bottle to get out the last drop.”
This passage was spoken by Vivienne Michel, the female lead in Ian Fleming’s fictional spy novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. Why do I mention this? Because Ian Fleming was well aware of Virginia Gentlemen Bourbon.
Virginia Gentleman Bourbon has been produced by the A. Smith Bowman Distillery since 1934, when the distillery opened on the Bowman farm. That farm is now the town of Reston, Va., and the distillery is located in Fredericksburg, Va. Virginia Gentleman first came on the market in 1938 and is still available, mostly in Virginia (where I live), Maryland, Washington, D.C. area, but I have found it on web sites elsewhere in the U.S.
It is a bottom shelf, 80 proof bourbon, nothing special, not terrible, a little thin, and not complex. A little spice on the back of the tongue and a very short finish. About what you would expect for an 80-proof bourbon. A bottle at the ABC costs $14, or a handle for $28. You can even get it in miniatures.
I had the opportunity to tour the Bowman Distillery a few years ago: great tour, very informative.
Interestingly, Virginia Gentleman wasn’t mentioned during the tour, nor could you buy it in the gift shop. It is not even mentioned on Bowman’s website. But on a recent return visit to the distillery to grab the Abraham Bowman Cask Strength release, Virginia Gentleman was still there in the cabinet of historical Bowman Bourbons but still not in the gift shop. So why is it not mentioned at the distillery?
I had to know, so I reached out to the brand and was pleasantly surprised that the master distiller, Brian Prewitt, answered my questions. According to Prewitt, in the late 2000s, the decision was made to “focus on Small Batch Premium and Super Premium bourbon, moving away from value brands that our distillery was known for in the past.” (This appears to dovetail with the Sazerac purchase of Bowman in 2003 and its desire to label Bowman as a micro-distillery.) Mr. Prewitt said he was not privy to the decision about Virginia Gentleman as it was before his time at A. Smith Bowman—even before his predecessor’s time, the late Truman Cox.
When the Bowman distillery moved to Fredericksburg in 1988, it did not include equipment for cooking and fermenting. It entered into an agreement with what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery (later named the Ancient Age Distillery) to have its distillate made there and then trucked to Fredericksburg—for a second distillation, barreling and aging. This agreement continued after Sazerac purchased what was then called Ancient Age Distillery and later renamed Buffalo Trace. All Bowman bourbons begin at Buffalo Trace and are trucked, redistilled and barreled at Bowman.
My last question to Master Distiller Prewitt was about the mash bill of Virginia Gentleman. There has always been a bit of speculation about which Buffalo Trace mash bill becomes Bowman Bourbons, is it #1 or #2. Prewitt said only, “I can say that our mash bill is just that—our mash bill, and considered highly proprietary, our secret recipe. … Our mash bill is made to our specifications using our yeast at one of our sister distilleries and distilled to a transitional stage where we then complete the distillation and maturation in Fredericksburg.”
Strangely enough, unlike other expressions produced by Bowman, Virginia Gentleman is not bottled at the distillery. A few years ago, I looked closely at a bottle of Virginia Gentlemen in the Virginia ABC store and noted that it said bottled in Baltimore. This puzzled me until I recently discovered that Barton 1792 Distillery (located in Bardstown, Ky., and owned by Sazerac) has a bottling plant there. These days, Virginia Gentleman is bottled either in Baltimore or somewhere in Kentucky.
I have always been a big fan of Bowman Bourbons. Both, because of the historical aspect here in Virginia and because it is excellent bourbon. I have reviewed a couple here on Bourbon & Banter which you can find here and here. Virginia Gentlemen is still around. As the neck label states, “The Bourbon of Virginia.”