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Warming the Insides 

Specialty bourbons uncork a comeback.

With an idyllic Southern accent befitting a fox hunt, Jay Adams Jr., chief executive of Bowman’s Distillery, explains: “People are discovering that small-batch bourbon is similar to a fine single-malt scotch. It’s smooth and never blended with anything else.” The Bowman family, which started producing its famed hooch on a farm in Reston during Prohibition, has been a favorite of Whiskey Magazine. The small-batch VG90 was recently recognized as Best American Whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Richmonders proudly carry on the Southern bourbon-drinking tradition — we rank 41st of U.S. metropolitan bourbon markets — a fact that’s emphasized by the proximity of Bowman’s, one of the country’s oldest family-owned distilleries. According to the Adam’s Liquor Handbook, Virginia is in the top five markets for bourbon sales, lagging behind only California, Texas and Florida. The commonwealth even beats good ol’ Kentucky, although they do boast top bourbon sales per capita.

Just as only a handful of distilleries produce this specialty, only a select number of Richmond establishments offer a setting appropriate for its high-powered nature. Despite changing owners in recent months, Buckhead’s consistently manages to nab some of the best brands in town. With an authoritative manner, General Manager Bob Talcott points toward more than 20 single-barrel bourbons and notes that Richmonders increasingly order brown spirits as the weather cools. “Our most popular bourbons are Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, and the original small-batch bourbon, Makers Mark,” he says. As he pours a full 2 ounces of Woodford Reserve ($6.50), with hints of orange and toasted pecan notes, it’s clear why this 90-proof bourbon is rapidly gaining cult status.

Sheri Julian, the manager and maitre d’ of Morton’s, sees the timeless hustle and bustle of a traditional steakhouse as the perfect atmosphere for small-batch bourbons. “An atmosphere of excellence with white linen, mahogany, leather booths and subtle lighting is fitting for such fine sprits,” she says.

Julian says Basil Hayden and Booker’s ($9 for a highball), both aged 8 years on charred oak, is growing in popularity. Spicy, with a long finish, these options are house favorites because they’re a small-batch variety from the Jim Beam distillery. Morton also offers Baker’s (107 proof), known for its pronounced vanilla and peach aromas with a hint of cedar.

Although truly tailored to sipping by itself, single-barrel bourbon also makes for one seriously delicious mint julep. Bill and Amy Cabaniss, owners of Julep’s New Southern Cuisine, clearly understand the simplicity of muddling sugar, mint leaves and water before adding one of their best small-batch varieties. The Capital Club, an athletic and fine-dining club downtown, has also proven the versatility of this corn-based mash with its annual bourbon dinner at the James River Grill. In fact, more restaurants nationwide are promoting the happy marriage between food and boutique bourbons, plus a separate menu of premium and superpremium spirits.

Judging by the number of patrons retiring to Richmond’s bars after dinner for a small-batch bourbon (not a Popsicle-sweet cosmopolitan or chocolate martini), it’s obvious that these distinctive grain spirits aren’t going anywhere; they’ve weathered this storm before. S

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