Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

Among the many great things about travelling to Kentucky for bourbon events is the opportunity to purchase harder-to-find products that just aren’t available here in my home state of Michigan.  While the local selection has certainly improved in the last five years, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what is available in the larger Kentucky stores, much less the more legendary stops in Bourbon country.

When we were in the Bluegrass State last month for the Bourbon Classic, we were able to fit in a bit of shopping.  Now, those expecting to run into those more well known unicorns – Pappy, BTAC, Four Roses Limited Edition, etc – will find themselves every bit as frustrated as they might in their own state.  But some good knowledge of stores and a bit of luck mixed with a willingness to search, and you can certainly find some unique bottles.

It was with that mind set that Jen and I stumbled across a unique variation on a brand I had reviewed in February.  Then, I tried the Buffalo-Trace produced, Virginia aged John J. Bowman single barrel for the first time, and found it enjoyable.  This time, we found a bottle of a Abraham Bowman limited release, aged in Vanilla beans.  It certainly seemed unique enough, so we brought the last bottle on the shelf home to try for ourselves.

Dan's (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey
Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

The Bowman distillery in Virginia has been putting out Limited Edition efforts for a few years now – past releases included a port-wine finish and a double barreled.  This year, they released a vanilla bean infused version.  The distillery explains this as quite a process – they “chopped up Madagascar vanilla beans in October, 2012″ that then “were added at various levels and tasted every ten weeks to observe how their flavor interacted with the bourbon as it aged. After a little over two years, all of the barrels were married together.”

What resulted was less a”flavored” bourbon and more of an interesting, enhanced version of their whiskey. Luckily for us, although the release was originally only supposed to be available in the Bowman home state of Virginia, we found a bottle in Kentucky, so a few got out.

Was it any good?  Jen and I gave it a shot (pun fully intended).

Our take:

Dan: The nose is certainly vanilla-infused, but not nearly as much as i expected.  There are serious rye notes here, as well as a nuttiness akin to walnut and pecan, and a soft oak smokiness.  That’s not to say there isn’t an abundance of vanilla – it’s definitely there – but it does downplay some of the other sweeter notes I would expect.  There’s no sweetness aside from the vanilla at all.  But I think it’s well balanced.

Jen: The nose is a bit too Bath and Body works for me. And I don’t have to sit around with my nose in a glass, so who cares if it smells like there should be coordinating lotions?

Dan: The taste is surprising.  I don’t get a flood of vanilla – this is no ‘flavored’ whiskey.  Cinnamon and spice, orange, with more of that nuttiness in there, along with a touch of bitterness I am going to assign to the vanilla bean.  Madagascar vanilla beans are known for being rich and creamy, and while the mouth feel here is thicker than the average whiskey, I wouldn’t call it creamy or buttery.  It has a flatness to it – exceptionally smooth, but not particularly sweet.

Jen: But the taste was very nice. I think the vanilla flattens the complexity of the whiskey giving it a simpler taste, much like a flavored whiskey. However, unlike other cherry or honey whiskeys, the vanilla is integrated very naturally and very skillfully into the rest of the flavor profile. So you avoid feeling like a sorority girl while you drink it. It’s a very pleasant drink, and very tasty.

Dan: Good call.  It is a bit flat, and very smooth, and has a medium finish that is ALL vanilla.  It’s hard to prescribe who this is for, other than the adventurous bourbon enthusiast.  It’s not complex enough for the aficionado, not soft enough for the flavored whiskey fan.  I bet it would make an awesome mixed drink. But at $70 and up a bottle, that’s a pricey mixer.

We both like it, and it’s fun and different.  A nice addition to the collection, but if it makes more than it’s current limited edition run, I probably wouldn’t seek it out again.

Dan’s take: 8.1

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

With all of the discussion and debate that swirls around “sourced” whiskey – whiskey produced in a facility not owned and operated by the bottler and/or brand name on the bottle – it can too often go unsaid that there are two different ways a whiskey can be sourced.  The first and often more controversial way is when a bottler or brand name purchases mass-produced barrels of an indiscriminate recipe distilled and aged at one of the larger distilleries and puts it out to market with less-than-transparent information.  The ‘artisanal‘ bourbon that is really 3 year old sourced Indiana rye, or the fancy bottled and elaborate storied family recipe that is actually excess barrels purchased from an unnamed distributor.

This form of sourcing can be harmless – I’ve enjoyed many sourced and mysterious bourbons.  But it can also be a gimmick, and there are many overpriced, underwhelming bourbons on the market made from a basic recipe by a bulk manufacturer and bottled with a ‘family heritage’ story and a hefty price tag.  Its unfortunate, and gives sourcing a bad name.  Legendary bourbon blogger Chuck Cowdery calls them “Potemkin Distilleries” and on the whole, I concur with his opinion: failure to demand transparency in what we drink only encourages others to be (at the least) disingenuous or (even worse) underhanded.

The other way whiskey can be sourced is much more interesting.  This form of sourcing involves a distiller, NDP, or brand having their recipe distilled to their specs at a larger distillery.  For example, everyone knows the name Pappy Van Winkle, but Pappy is distilled by Buffalo Trace to spec – the same as John J. Bowman.

John J. Bowman’s distillery (The A. Smith Bowman Distillery) is most interesting, because they are, in fact, a distillery.  They are owned by Sazerac, the same as Buffalo Trace (and Blantons and Taylor and Stagg and etc).  They are in Virginia, not Kentucky, and have been at the current location in Fredericksburg, since 1988.

What makes their process so different is that they have Buffalo Trace do the first distilling, to make the ‘White Dog’ corn whiskey.  Then the distillate alcohol is shipped to Bowman, where they distill it two more times.  Then it is barreled, stored and aged.  I have even read that the barrels are stored upright, which is again very different.

So how is this Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey?

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Take:

John J. Bowman Single Barrel comes without an age statement, a barrel or bottling number, or any other indicators that would allow me to match this single barrel with any others.  Its unfortunate, because there is much about this whiskey I would like to find again!  The bottle itself is quite lovely, with its image of Col. John J. Bowman exploring Kentucky on the back.  It’s no slouch at 100 Proof.  I just wish I knew a few specs.

The nose is fantastic – caramel, vanilla, oak, and a soft corn.  It was a sweet nose, and as the soft corn gave way to the oak and wood, I almost couldn’t help but forget it was the dead of winter and think of soft campfire and roasting corn.

The taste was as smooth – a thick texture, with a great sweetness up front, but never overwhelming.  Again, vanilla, and a vanilla almost sugary and frosting like on the front of the tongue, while the thick mouthfeel showed off a rich woodiness blended with a slightly tart citrus.  Orange and a tiny bit of raisin, before resolving to a smooth finish of cinnamon, walnut and dry oak.

A second sip showed me a bit more of the rye – along with the cinnamon, there was a hint of clove and even a bit more of that raisin, roasting corn taste.

I found the John J. Bowman Single Barrel to be outstanding – a wonderful sipping bourbon, and a nice addition to the regular rotation.  Most impressive. I can see why it’s competition scores have seemed to rise ever year.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7