Smooth Operator: Virginia Bourbons to Celebrate a Delicious Heritage

by Patrick Evans-Hylton | Posted: Sep 12, 2014 | Updated: Feb 28, 2017

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September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a time for folks to enjoy an imbibe that is truly American.

The celebration was set aside by a Senate resolution in 2007 and reads in part:

“Whereas the history of bourbon-making is interwoven with the history of the United States, from the first settlers of Kentucky in the 1700s …”

As a Virginian, I couldn’t agree more, for when the first settlers came to that region, that region was Virginia. In fact, it was Virginia until the commonwealth of Kentucky was established in 1792.

The geographical area today famous for the spirit – Bourbon County – was Virginia until this separation.

Re-enactors making whiskey at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Photo:

Re-enactors making whiskey at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Photo:

And the man noted as the father of modern bourbon, Elijah Craig, was born in Orange County, Va. in 1738 and began distillation in that region in 1789 in charred oak casks that, he writes, is “a process that gives the bourbon its reddish color and unique tastes.”

But the road to bourbon began before the 18th century.

The process of making distilled spirits using grain mash (from barley, rye and wheat, among others) as a base is millenniums old. Among the round-up: gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey.

Corn, being a New World agricultural product, was new indeed to European settlers coming to the Americas. And bourbon is made from a mash of corn.

A key crop for Jamestown settlers, corn cultivation and use was introduced to the English by Native Americans. It was used to feed livestock, and to feed people.

Another use was found around 1620 by preacher, physician and surgeon George Thorpe, at Berkeley Hundred (now Berkeley Plantation,) just a short distance northwest of Jamestown along the James River.

Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that,” he writes.

Not exactly bourbon, but a good start to crafting truly American whiskeys in the developing nation.

Virginia fostered this corn whiskey, and many farmers found that they could make about three gallons from a bushel of corn, and that the price they could fetch on their distilled spirits surpassed that of the corn at market.

This tradition made its way as the frontier opened up into the Shenandoah Valley, and across the Allegheny Mountains into what is now West Virginia and Kentucky.

A proposal to tax this drink to cover war debts from the Revolution caused the Whiskey Rebellion in those parts, the first armed conflict between citizens and the newly formed American government.

But it wasn’t just farmers that got in on the act; what would become Virginia’s largest commercial distillery of the day opened in 1797 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Rye and corn grown on the estate was used in the mash, and production leapt from 80 gallons the first year to 11,000 gallons the following year. By the early 19th century, however, the distillery ceased operations.

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

A. Smith Bowman Distillery

In 2006, the site was excavated and a reconstructed distillery was built on the foundations, and tours are available as well as limited productions of whiskey using George Washington’s recipe. 

Whiskey was in abundance during the 19th century, but by the early 1900s Virginia moved towards Prohibition, adopting laws in 1914 that forbid alcohol production, sales and consumption across the state. The whole country went dry in 1920.

Although A. Smith Bowman Distillery began operation in 1935, shortly after Prohibition’s repeal, quality production of bourbon and other spirits were slow on the return, but the Old Dominion now has more than a dozen distilleries now offering artisanal quaffs flavored with history.

And what’s better than enjoying some of the imbibes from across Virginia than actually visiting some of the businesses, seeing the operations, and speaking with the distiller themselves? We’ll raise a glass to that.


Be it bourbon, or another distilled spirit, that calls your name when 5 o’clock comes, Virginia has more than a dozen distilleries offer quality quaffs for enjoying in a cocktail, on the rocks, or served neat.

Look in state ABC stores for the offerings.

Many distilleries offer tours to see the process up-close. Check with distilleries for details as not all are open to the public.


Stillhouse Distillery at Belmont Farm

Stillhouse Distillery at Belmont Farm

Belmont Farm Distillery
13490 Cedar Run Rd., Culpeper

Offerings: Kopper Kettle Virginia whiskey, Kopper Kettle vodka, Virginia Lightning corn whiskey (original and apple pie or cherry flavors.)


A. Smith Bowman Distillery
1 Bowman Dr., Fredericksburg

Offerings: Bowman Brothers Virginia small batch bourbon, John J. Bowman single barrel bourbon, Abraham Bowman small batch whiskey, George Bowman small batch Colonial Era-style dark rum, Deep Run small batch vodka, Sunset Hills small batch gin, Virginia Gentleman bourbons.


Catoctin Creek Distilling Company

Catoctin Creek Distilling Company

Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
120 W. Main St., Purcellville

Offerings: Roundstone Rye, Roundstone Rye 92 Proof, Watershed Gin, Roundstone Rye Cask Proof, Mosby’s Spirit (rye), 1757 Virginia Brandy, Pearousia (pear brandy), Short Hill Mountain Peach Brandy,


Chesapeake Bay Distillery
2669 Production Rd., Virginia Beach

Offerings: Blue Ridge Vodka, Chick’s Beach Rum


Cirrus Vodka
1603 Ownby Lane, Richmond

Offerings: Potato-based, hand-crafted, small-batched vodka.


Copper Fox Distillery

Copper Fox Distillery

Copper Fox Distillery
9 River Lane, Sperryville

Offerings: Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky, Copper Fox Rye Whisky, Copper Fox VirGin, Wasmund’s Single Malt Spirit, Wasmund’s Rye Spirit, Wasmund’s Barrel Kit (to craft your own whiskey at home.)



The Ironclad Distillery

124 23rd Street, Newport News

Offerings: Ironclad Bourbon Whiskey


KO Distilling

10381 Central Park Drive, Suite 105, Manassas

Offerings: Virginia Moon White Whiskey, Battle standard 142 Gin


Laird & Company

Although based in New Jersey, the company obtains all its apples from orchards in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where it owns a distillery. It has been distilling apple brandy since 1780.


Offerings: Laird’s Applejack (apple brandy)


Reservoir Distillery
1800 Summit Ave., Richmond

Offerings: Bourbon, Wheat Whiskey, Rye Whiskey


Silverback Distillery
9374 Rockfish Valley Hwy., Afton

Offerings: Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin, Blackback Whiskey, Blackback Bourbon, Blackback White Whiskey, Beringei Sweet Tea Vodka (coming soon.)


Virginia Sweetwater Distillery. Photo: Jason Barnette

Virginia Sweetwater Distillery. Photo: Jason Barnette

Virginia Sweetwater Distillery
760 Walkers Creek Rd., Marion

Offerings: Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine, War Horn Whiskey, Revelations Single Malt Whiskey


George Washington’s Distillery
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon

Offerings: a limited production is offered at the distillery – sign up on the website for email notifications when new batches of whiskey become available; folks can also get a taste of George Washington Rye Whiskey Estate Edition through a partnership of Mount Vernon and Hillrock Estate Distillery (


Williamsburg Distillery
7218 Merrimac Trail, Williamsburg

Offerings: Williamsburg Bourbon, Jamestown Gin, Yorktown Silver Rum


Woods Mill Distillery
1625 River Rd., Faber

Offerings: Woods Mill Harvest Apple Brandy; note – a bourbon is in the barrel aging and should be available within a year

Also of note for your travel plans: the Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop


So you’ve visited Virginia and toured several distilleries. You have a couple of bottles of bourbon as souvenirs. Now what? It’s cocktail time. Here are three of my recipes for making some drinks that will carry you back to the Old Dominion with each sip.

Of note: one of the most famous bourbon cocktails, the Mint Julep, is also a Virginia native: the first reference was in 1803 and described as “A dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”

The classic recipe is attributed to The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, then in Virginia, now in West Virginia.

Bourbon Slush

This party punch puts local spirits to good use and satisfies the southern palate for boozy, sugary drinks with equal parts bourbon, lemonade and sweet ice tea.

This recipe is from my cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia.


  • 4 cups Virginia bourbon
  • 4 cups lemonade
  • 4 cups sweet ice tea
  • 1 cup ginger ale (like Virginia’s Northern Neck Ginger Ale)


Combine the bourbon, lemonade and tea in a 9-by-13-by-2 inch baking dish. Freeze overnight.

Remove the frozen mixture from the freezer 30 minutes before serving. Break up the mixture slightly and transfer to a punch bowl. Add the ginger ale. Stir until a slushy consistency is reached and serve immediately.

Yields 12-16 servings

The Virginia Highland

Virginia is the southernmost state that produces maple syrup, and we combine that delicious flavor with Virginia bourbon, complimentary orange bitters and garnish with a tasty slice of Virginia bacon just because.


  • 1/2 ounce Virginia maple syrup (from Southernmost Maple)
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • 2 ounces Virginia bourbon
  • 1 slice extra crisp Virginia bacon slice


In a highball glass add the maple syrup and bitters and stir. Add one or two ice cubes and add bourbon. Garnish with Virginia bacon slice

Yield 1 cocktail

The Winchester Wink

Winchester is the Apple Capital of the World, and we combine Virginia bourbon with Virginia cider along with complimentary flavors of lemon and ginger in this cocktail.


  • 3-4 thin slices of fresh, peeled ginger
  • 2 ounces Virginia bourbon
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Virginia cider


Add ginger, bourbon and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker; fill with ice and shake to combine. Strain into a highball glass and add one or two ice cubes. Fill to the top with Virginia cider.

Yield 1 cocktail


One of the first Native American tribes that English colonists encountered is named after food.

The Chickahominy, whose name translates to “The Coarse Ground Corn People,” is today among the 11 officially recognized by the state.

The Chickahominy River, named after the people, feeds into the James River just to the west of Jamestown.

Congress declared bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964, making it the only spirit distinctive to this country.


Patrick Evans-HyltonPatrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at



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Bart Cubbins
Bart Cubbins

I needed a Virginia bourbon as a gift- my liquor store of choice, Schumers in midtown Manhattan, had a batch of FILIBUSTER bourbon, which I sampled, like it, and bought/ gifted a bottle. Happy to report that it was a big hit with the recipients of the gift- old line folks from Richmond.

Gina Ippolito

Thanks, loved reading this – FYI – Bowman’s will be one of the many featured bourbons at our upcoming Smithfield VA Bacon, Bourbon & Beach Music Fest. If you are in town, contact Judy Winslow at Tourism – we would love to see you! Check out all of this event’s festivities at
Happy National Bourbon Month!