Taste Test: Buffalo Trace’s Sister Distillery Has Made the Best Whiskey of the Year So Far

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The crown jewel in the Sazerac empire is obviously Buffalo Trace, the Kentucky distillery where whiskey brands like Pappy Van Winkle, the Antique Collection, Eagle Rare, and E.H. Taylor are produced. But travel east to Virginia and you’ll find the company’s A. Smith Bowman distillery, the oldest operation in the Old Dominion state that is also quietly producing some excellent whiskey. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the new Abraham Bowman Oak Series release, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best whiskey I’ve tasted in the first half of 2024.

At least some of the whiskey produced at A. Smith Bowman is initially distilled in Kentucky at Buffalo Trace (or another Sazerac distillery) using its mashbills, and then shipped to Virginia for a third distillation at the Fredericksburg facility. This is an unusual process that you don’t see very often, but clearly Sazerac has figured out how to make this work. According to a rep for the distillery, this was the case with French Oak, which was redistilled and barreled at A. Smith Bowman in 2012 and aged for 12 years in both charred and uncharred French oak barrels. They won’t disclose the mashbill, but the reason this is called whiskey and not bourbon is because it was not exclusively aged in new charred oak.

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These details are of interest, but the most important thing is how this whiskey tastes, and it’s delicious. The point of this series, as made clear by the name, is to explore the influence that wood has on whiskey as it matures, something that Buffalo Trace has also done with its Old Charter Oak lineup. The Spanish Oak release in that collection was a bit overpowering, but this French Oak expression from Bowman is deep in color and flavor without going overboard. There are rich notes of cherry, grape, and vanilla on the nose, with a woody, buttery undertone. Those berry and fruit flavors continue onto the palate, along with oak, custard, honey, brown sugar, maple, and black pepper notes. The palate veers towards the sweeter side of the spectrum, but it’s bright and complex and never cloying. According to head distiller David Bock, using different types of barrels was the key. “Once blended together, the vanilla from the no-char barrels helps balance out the pepper notes from the charred barrels,” he said in a statement, “creating a dynamic and delicious blend.” I concur.

Some whiskey makers estimate that up to 70 percent of the flavor comes from the barrel, which makes endeavors like this more than just a marketing tool. But there is no doubt that this whiskey would have tasted very different if it was aged in Chinkapin or mizunara oak instead of French oak—and who knows, those could be on the A. Smith Bowman docket (but please no amburana, I’m beg of you). The bottom line is this whiskey is fantastic and you should go find a bottle now… which might be a little bit difficult because the online lottery to get one is now closed. But if you see this whiskey on the secondary market somewhere close to its $100 asking price, you should absolutely buy it.

Score: 99

  • 100 Worth trading your first born for

  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet

  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram

  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market

  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable

  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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