by Clay Barbour
To those who seek its warm embrace, bourbon is more than a beverage; it’s a passion that borders on obsession.
Serving that group requires years of dedication and more than a little divine intervention. So it’s no surprise that of the 61 distilleries in Virginia, about a dozen actually make that sweet brown liquor.
While Kentucky is the undisputed king – with Four Roses, Jefferson’s Reserve, Old Forester and a host of other Bluegrass notables filling the aisles of the liquor store – Virginia is no slouch in the bourbon department.
So we collected 13 of the state’s offerings and invited a host of local experts to sit down and taste them. This was no blind test. These were not certified experts. This was simply six experienced drinkers offering their opinions. Readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions.
John J. Bowman Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Single Barrel
A. Smith Bowman Distillery
100 proof | 9 to 10 years | $49.99 | Virginia ABC stores
Background: Fredericksburg’s A. Smith Bowman Distillery is one of the oldest in Virginia, but the company was sold in 2003 to the Sazerac Company. As a result it typically does not produce its own distillate, but the bourbon is aged and redistilled onsite.
Judges said: It is not surprising this drink has won several awards, including being named World’s Best Bourbon by Whisky Magazine. This delicious selection starts off with an aroma of caramel apple and bleeds into flavors of vanilla, cherries, chocolate and oak. It is not overly complex, but it does what it does well, including giving the drinker a pleasing, warm finish.
Blackback Straight Bourbon Whiskey
86 proof | 2 years | $79.89 | Tasting room or online
Background: Silverback Distillery opened nearly four years ago in Afton. Led by the mother-daughter team of Christine and Lauren Riggleman, it has quickly made a name for itself with several award-winning offerings. Blackback is its most sought-after product; made from all-Virginia ingredients and aged for a minimum of two years, it is not yet available in ABC stores.
Judges said: This tasty offering starts with strong scents of honey and banana and folds easily into flavors of honey, nuts and a little oak. Several judges noted a touch of salt. Overall a buttery bourbon that finishes with a pleasantly lingering bite.
Bare Knuckle Straight Bourbon Whiskey
90 proof | 2 years | $39.99 | Virginia ABC stores
Background: KO Distilling, out of Manassas, makes its wheated bourbon with 100 percent Virginia-based grain, which is milled, mashed, fermented and double-distilled onsite and then placed in charred new American oak barrels and aged there for at least two years.
Judges said: One of our judges dubbed this little delight the most “bourbonlike” of the batch, and that about sums it up. It starts with a balanced aroma with touches of wood char, caramel and unsweet apple. The taste is sweet and nutty, almost like toffee, with a mellow funk that does not overpower and a spicy caramel finish.
Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey
100 proof | 2 years | $84.29 | Virginia ABC stores
Background: Most distilleries add rye to the mash bill when creating a bourbon, but for this offering Reservoir, in Richmond, used 100 percent corn mash bill. It used Virginia corn and the quarter cask to create a bright bourbon that serves as a good midpoint for those who land between the heavy drinkers and the people who might take a snort now and again.
Judges said: The scent of citrus is the first thing that greets you with this one, though the judges differed on exactly which citrus it is: lemon peel, grapefruit or clementine. But most agreed the taste offered pleasing hints of walnut, dried fruits, caramel and what one judge dubbed “orange candy.” It finishes with a toasty flourish and pleasing mouthfeel.
Bowman Brothers Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Small Batch
A. Smith Bowman Distillery
90 proof | 6 to 7 years | $29.99 | ABC stores
Background: A. Smith Bowman is one of the oldest distilleries in Virginia, but Sazerac owns it now. The distillate is produced elsewhere; the bourbon is aged and redistilled onsite in Fredericksburg.
Judges said: This tipple starts with a pleasing toasty, oaky smell with hints of brown sugar and tastes of nutty caramel, cinnamon and what one judge called “sweet tobacco.” It finishes with a lingering spicy bite.
McCauley’s Virginia Bourbon Whiskey
Dome & Spear Distillery
90 proof | 1 year | $36.99 | ABC stores
Background: This homegrown bourbon is distilled and bottled by Dome & Spear Distillery out of Evington. Billed as artisanal bourbon-style whiskey, it’s handcrafted in small batches using locally grown Virginia corn, as well as other grains. Each batch is distilled twice, then aged in new charred oak barrels.
Judges said: Dome & Spear is relatively new to the bourbon game and this offering reflects some of that youth. It starts with strong notes of malt, raw oak and wood and hits you with the taste of black walnuts and sugar. It is reminiscent of baby bourbon but stronger, with a sweeter, albeit brief, finish.
Hunter & Scott Bourbon Whiskey
90 proof | 1 year | $38.89 | ABC stores
Background: Hunter & Scott Bourbon is distilled, aged and bottled by Reservoir Distillery in Richmond. Reservoir uses a speed-aging process that involves quarter-casks, which it contends gives its bourbons an older profile. This option, the distillery’s entry-level tipple, is made from corn, wheat and rye, all grown in Virginia. It gets its name from the middle names of the distillers.
Judges said: This one starts with scents of cinnamon, toffee and what one judge called “Play-Doh.” The taste is well-rounded and malty, with hints of banana, chocolate and dried fruit. It seems a good selection for a mixed drink, though several judges noted a waxy finish with a short burn.
Ragged Branch Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Wheated Bourbon
Ragged Branch Distillery
90 proof | 2 years, 7 months | $48.99 | ABC stores
Background: Ragged Branch Distillery, outside Charlottesville, creates its distinctive mash bill using locally sourced grains and local water. Interesting note: The remaining mash is fed to cattle, the meat of which the distillery also sells.
Judges said: This bourbon starts with a toffee or honey note with an underbelly of wet or green wood that can be common to younger offerings. The taste was fairly smooth, with notes of cherries and chocolate and a doughy center. It finishes with some spice and a touch of what one judge called “fruity Tootsie Roll.”
Ragged Branch Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Bourbon
Ragged Branch Distillery
90 proof | 3 years | $48.99 | ABC stores
Background: Ragged Branch creates its distinctive mash bill using local grains and water. The remaining mash is fed to cattle, the meat of which the Charlottesville-area distillery also sells.
Judges said: There was some disagreement over the aroma of this one, with some judges smelling green apple and malt, and others siding with a dried fruit like prune or raisin. But most agreed the taste was appropriately spicy and nicely balanced with a hint of what one judge called “black walnut.” It finished with a nice flourish that lingered on the tongue and hinted at citrus.
Filibuster Straight Bourbon Whiskey Dual-Cask Finished
90 proof | About 4 years | $46.29 | ABC stores
Background: Filibuster Distillery, out of Maurertown, specializes in dual-cask offerings. The bourbon we tested was distilled and aged in Indiana for less than four years, then finished in Virginia in California wine barrels.
Judges said: This little bourbon split the group, with two of our judges strongly in favor of it, and four coming down less enthusiastically. It starts off with a nutty smell, backed by an almost chemical quality. The taste is considerably better, starting exceedingly smooth with hints of butter, vanilla and citrus and finishing quick, with minimal flourish. To give you an idea of how split we were on this, one judge named it the best of the day; another called it “a grown-up bourbon for fans of Fireball.”
Great Dismal Distillery
80 proof | 3 years | $21.99 | ABC stores
Background: Like Filibuster and Bowman, Virginia Beach’s Great Dismal Distillery brings in its distillate from outside the state and finishes it at home. Silverfox is aged in charred American white oak barrels and charcoal filtered.
Judges said: Silverfox starts with an indistinct, almost generic alcohol smell then moves quickly into a mild vanilla and caramel mixture that does not offend but also does not challenge. The finish is likewise mild. We agreed this was not really the option for an experienced drinker, but not a bad starter bourbon.
Ironclad Bourbon Whiskey
90 proof | 2 years | $38.69 | ABC stores
Background: Ironclad, out of Newport News, is known for its brackish flavor, the result of the distillery’s location on the James River. The bourbon is double-distilled in six 26-gallon stainless steel stills and aged for one year.
Judges said: There is no missing the James River in this bourbon, from the slightly chemical opening with a heavy brine, to the oaky, salty taste that can be overpowering. The finish has a touch of caramel, but again the brine is what comes through.
Tarnished Truth 3-Year High Rye Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Tarnished Truth Distilling Company
86 proof | 3 years | $63.39 | ABC stores
Background: The distillery sits in the basement of the restored Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach. The team worked with Kentucky distillers to produce bourbon ahead of opening, which was then finished and bottled on site.
Judges said: The high-rye featured a mash bill of 60 percent corn, 36 percent rye and 4 percent malted barley. The judges noted a slight mineral aroma, with a touch of fruit and mint. (One said, “crushed ants.” The taste was warm and spicy, with strong flavors of caramel and orange with a short, hot finish.