John J. Bowman Pioneer Spirit Single Barrel

Single Barrel (2017)

MASH BILL – unknown (rumored Buffalo Trace mash bill #1)

PROOF – 100

AGE – NAS (rumored ~9-11 years)

DISTILLERY – A. Smith Bowman Distillery

PRICE – $55

BUY AGAIN? – Sure!

I’d enjoyed a bottle of John J. Bowman Single Barrel in 2016. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it had just won the 2016 World Whiskies Award for “World’s Best Bourbon.” A year later I picked up another bottle, shortly after it won “World’s Best Bourbon” again at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards. That second bottle has since rested in my bunker, shuffled around to and fro, as other bottles have come and gone. I remembered it as a nice sunny day pour. And so one sunny Autumn day I finally cracked it.

It was so immediately recognizable as a Buffalo Trace product, I had to laugh at the whole phenomenon of distilleries trying to squeeze out every variation of a distillate possible by bottling them with different names and packaging and proofs. Do they think we’re dumb?

Of course, if we’re honest, we whiskey fans can be pretty dumb pretty often. We stumble frantically after over-priced unicorns a few minutes after mocking them online. We pay three-digits for stylish new labels when the same whiskey can be found for two digits in a label that’s only crime is familiarity. We’re huge suckers for variations on a theme. (I’ve lost track of how many versions of Weller that Buffalo Trace now puts out—seventeen or so, right?) And we eagerly eat FOMO for breakfast.

But we also love that we’re like this. We’re obsessed, and the objects of our obsession are sensorial explosions, with the spirits of history rising in their aromas, and the tireless dedication of their makers swirling in their endless shades of yellow, orange, red and brown.

So here we are. Tasted in a simple brandy glass, about two weeks after uncorking and a handful of pours into the bottle, here are some notes in brief.

COLOR – a nice bright orange with autumnal variations

NOSE – baked apple crisp, lemon zest, cherry pie, caramel drizzle, nice dusty oak

TASTE – bright lemony caramel, crisp fresh apple, black pepper, sweet bing cherry juices

FINISH – the cherry aspects, dusty oak, caramel, all fading quickly at first but then lingering on low heat for a good amount of time…

OVERALL – an excellent, spicier alternative to the Buffalo Trace namesake bourbon

It’s great. After the fresh distillate is transferred from Buffalo Trace in Kentucky to A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia, it is distilled again in a copper pot and then aged. The added distillation in copper adds a ringing quality to the taste, a pleasing sharpness adding definition around all the gooey caramel and fruit pie flavors. If you like Buffalo Trace, you’ll like this too.

As the more sought after renditions of the Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 bourbons (e.g. Colonel E.H. Taylor, Stagg Jr., George T. Stagg) and the wheated Weller line continue to climb in price, John J. Bowman Pioneer Spirit Single Barrel may become a relatively more affordable means to enjoy those Buffalo Trace aromas and flavors. At 100 proof it’s got enough kick to push the flavors forward. The copper pot distillation offers a striking and inviting clarity. It has a nice desserty sweetness, with enough oak to keep it grounded. Perhaps its flaw is that it does taste so familiar. From that standpoint, it doesn’t stand out terribly far from the sprawling Buffalo Trace herd. But then neither do many of the other buffalos in that herd!

Buffalo Trace has a good thing going, and they’re constantly messing with it without significantly messing with it. What A. Smith Bowman Distillery achieves with BT’s mash bill #1 in John J. Bowman is but one example. Buffalo Trace Distillery’s endless annual variations—new label colors, slight variations in proof, blending barrels from this warehouse versus that one and calling it a whole new product—comprise a subtle spectrum. But it’s an undeniably pleasing spectrum. Their massive output and ubiquitous distribution may trigger popular anti-Goliath sentiments. But they do provide readily accessible, affordable, quality bourbons alongside their impossibly price-hiked unicorns. So, in the end, whatever! It’s just bourbon. And it’s good.

I recommend John J. Bowman Pioneer Spirit Single Barrel to any Buffalo Trace fan, and to anyone else who wants a less common label on their shelf that’s guaranteed to please most any guest, served any way, any time. (I’ve gone through four pours of it myself over the course of writing up these notes!) And despite its multiple awards, people aren’t hunting it down feverishly like they do other Buffalo Trace products. So you can actually get it. Everybody wins!


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