News and notes from Reston (tm).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Reston Real Estate: The 'Ole Distillery's Up Fer Sale, Jeb!

Once upon a time, in a kinder, gentler era before Design Review Boards or mauve paints marketed under names like "russet," there was a town called Wiehle. A kinder, gentler town, where the men were men, the women were women, and apparently everyone was drunk out of their minds 99.9 percent of the time, given that the one enduring establishment was a distillery.

In 1886 Carl Adolph Max Wiehle, a doctor from Philadelphia, purchased 3,228 acres of land located where Reston is now located. The distillery was built in about 1892, and originally served as the Wiehle Town Hall and the Wiehle Methodist Episcopal Church.

According to the documents, Wiehle wanted to create a planned community of about 4,000 residents, but the town began to struggle after Wiehle died in 1901.
Hmmm... Talk about a man ahead of his time, with a humdinger of a dilemma: Create a series of planned urban developments with arbitrary landscaping regulations and covenants... or get hammered? Tough choice there, for the hardy residents of Wiehle.
A. Smith Bowman purchased the land on which the town was located in 1927, and he renamed the area, which he made his farm, Sunset Hills. When prohibition was repealed in 1934, Bowman decided to convert the building into Virginia's only legal whiskey distillery, selling Virginia Gentleman bourbon. The distillery stayed in the area for 54 years before the growing business relocated to Fredericksburg, Va., in 1988.
Where it remains today, producing hooch so undrinkable that only obnoxious fraternity types from a certain state college can swallow it. But, anyhoo, why dredge up the past?

Because the distillery is now up for sale, for a cool $1.6 million.
The Bowman Distillery on Old Reston Avenue has sat vacant and slowly deteriorating for years, but last month the building went up for sale, sparking new hopes of the historic structure's revitalization. The $1.6 million asking price includes the 14,000-square-foot lot that contains the old distillery, as well as a 5,000-square-foot lot that is adjacent to the building.

John Scira has owned the building since 1998 and originally planned to convert the piece of Wiehle history into a bed and breakfast or condominiums.
Hard to believe that B&B idea didn't work out. Who wouldn't want to get away from the daily grind of suburban life by "roughing it" with a 150-yard walk to the nearest Pizzeria Uno? (We won't talk about the untenable two crosswalks separating it from the Macaroni Grill.)

Anyway, prospective homeowners, be warned. We're guessing it's going to take a bit more than a couple of cans of russet-colored paint to bring the 1892-era building up to DRB standards.


  1. Only in a place with no history would an 106 year old derelict, rat trap and eyesore be considered "historic."

    The two battle fields of the English Civil War don't even have a marker. We declare every spot where Washington's or Lee's horse defecated an historic land-mark.

    Get a grip. Pull the arson hazard down, put up a plaque, and move on.

  2. I'm from New England, where the wealthiest people often live in the oldest houses. I still have a really visceral reaction to packed in peasant housing that I see in our area. I cring at mcmansions. My hometown had houses that were well over 200 and I'm not sure if any of them were historic, except for the fact that they were just darned old (and well preserved). I tend not to want to call anything that is simply "old" something that is "historic."

    One thing that could be done with this property is to keep the facade and build something new with it. The facade doesn't look half bad and it's an interesting structure. I wouldn't call it an eyesore, but I wouldn't want to live next to it, either. I tend to agree with anonymous that it probably isn't much use to keep it as it is, but if the best we come up with is more ugly, Soviet style condos, I'm not with that, either.

  3. I find it interesting that, according to news accounts, John Scira paid $80,000 for the building in 1998 and now is asking 1.6 million. Considering that the building has not been improved in these past ten years, that's a darned good markup. Probably it's more than buyers will offer...which may explain why the property remains unsold.

  4. I noticed it up for sale last month, and drove past it today prompting my Google search that landed me on your blog. Thank you for posting some back story. I'd thought the building might be fun as an art space (maybe like a small version of savage mill) or perhaps a co-op studio/gallery like up at Lake Ann but perhaps a tad bit younger and hipper. Or perhaps a performance space/coffee house, art gallery, though the location is not really the best for that sort of thing. If I had 2 mil lying about, perhaps I could...

  5. That building is far from an eyesore. I walk past it often, and think how tragic it would be to see it being torn down. I agree with "the mishka" that it could be renovated and made into a stylish restaurant, art gallery, even an office building. What are eyesores are the rest of the buildings going up in Reston, and the appalling decimation of trees and green space.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more John Henry. There's something very special about a very old building. It still bothers me very much that they tore down Tiger Stadium and Yankee Stadium and replaced them with stadiums that have virtually no history. Old buildings are sort of like elderly people. They may not look so great on the outside, but they have such an interesting history and should be valued greatly.

  6. I can't agree with you more John Henry. This building is truly historic. It's the original Reston for cying out loud! This is one of the last remaining buildings from Wiehle Town and it would be a shame to tear it down for what, three more condos? This building has been a town hall, church, dance hall, club house, and distillery. Why can't we add one more use? And for goodness sakes, it's a church, even Micheal Landon didn't tear down the church at the end of Little House on a Prairie. At least Dr. Wiehle's mansion is being preserved.

  7. I too would like to see the building preserved (especially in an environmentally friendly way). I heard that Fannie Mae used to own the land next to this property along American Dream Way. Does anyone know who Fannie Mae sold this land to? I heard it was another company.

  8. I think the history of the building, from the town hall to, most importantly, the Virginia Gentleman Bourbon Distillery, solidifies it as a significant part of the regions history. Far to many of the "historic" structures in this area have been leveled to build over-priced, cheaply crafted dwellings and strip malls. To even consider tearing it down to erect yet another Starbucks is truely sad. I feel it should be preserved.

  9. Last month I was told this place is down to the low asking price of $875k. It's actually zoned for 3 condo's according to the realtor. Tearing out some windows and putting in HVAC, power, etc... 2 million sounds about right for a finished product.

  10. It is sad that no one will buy it to restore it to kind of a historic site. The small part of Reston history many are unfamilar with. Raised in this area many people always ask about it, I cant see condos working in that space. Thanks for the background!

  11. I still have a very visceral reaction to packed houses of peasants in what I see in our region. I made a face to McMansions.

  12. Please, can someone tell me if the bowman house is still around?When I was a child,the pond & gazebo was one of my favorite places to see.The last time I was up,the lady at Herndon visitor ctr was cluless & so were service stations on Rt 7 & a local bus driver.Tell me it's hidden in a corner somewhere & it's address.THANKS

  13. It's now part of an office complex off Reston Parkway, just north of RTC. Here's a link to a picture:

  14. I too grew up there and remember Sunset Hills when it was vibrant and then Reston came. All the great forests, open fields and the houses in Sunset Hills were destroyed. The distillery had to move because the new Restonians couldn't stand it. Now the last remaining building is an eyesore - that old building will outlast the Reston buildings built in 1962

  15. I used to go swimming and fishing in what we called Bowman's Lake, near the railroad tracks, where we saw old crates with Virginia Gentleman markings. This was in the 1970s. Anyone know if the 'lake' is still there?

    Surprised by the "undrinkable hooch" comment. Where most bourbons are double distilled for smoothness, VG is triple distilled. Where most are aged 2 years (and some just 6 months), VG is aged 4 years in oak barrels. The result, IMHO, is much better than many big name labels. Don't let the price tag fool you.

    Agree with those who say the building is historic. So does the National Park Service which placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. Here's to the visionary who restores it.

  16. A little whiskey geekery for your reading pleasure... :)

    Bowman bourbons are not currently being distilled in Virginia. (They're imported from Kentucky, where the company's owners, Buffalo Trace, are based.) Some of them do receive a final distillation in Virginia, but mostly the barrels are just aged at the rickhouse in Fredericksburg. However, that is hopefully going to change soon, with more distillation taking place onsite.

    Virginia Gentleman is a bottom-shelf bourbon, but Bowman also makes some high-end bourbons, including the Abraham Bowman 18-Year which is very highly regarded.

    And for those keeping score at home, in order to legally be labeled as bourbon, the spirit must be aged in new oak barrels. Usually it's aged for at least 4 years, although technically it can be aged for just 2 and still be called Straight Bourbon. (However, the label would have to indicate the young age, and a big 2 on the bottle would kill all sales.) So the facts that Andrew lays out in VG's favor aren't really pertinent.

    As the distillery is one of the few pieces of history that exists in Reston, it would be a shame to tear it town. But that's progress for ya...

  17. didn't know there was ANYthing old in Reston at all... my kid lives there. Discovered this link, and about the distillery, because it came up as a mention in relation to Robert E. Lee IV, who, if he's still alive, would be about 86-90 now, and who apparently at one point, served as a spokesperson for Virginia Gentleman bourbon... yes he's the great grandson or great grand nephew of THAT REL. Apparently Reston was all beef range and bourbon for about 40 years. Oh, and the new barrels have to be charred, it's what gives the bourbon its distinctive colour!

  18. Anticipating the move of the bourbon maker from Fairfax County to Fredericksburg, I bought a bottle of Sunset Hills distilled Virginia Gentlemen in the mid to late 1980's from the ABC store in Merrifield. Who wouldn't want a bottle if the real thing? It''s been suggested it was the local spring water used by the Bowman brothers that gave Virginia Gentlemen its unmatched signature flavour.

    That same bottle, with its old tax label still intact across the cap, has moved with me from Fairfax, to Arlington, to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey. I consider it a preserved piece of Virginia history.

    I suspect by now it might be one of the last, if not the last, remaining bottles of the true and original Virginia Gentlemen Whiskey actually distilled and bottled in Fairfax County, Virginia.

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  20. Seems to me a smart one per center might like to buy the structure and convert it into a truly great historic home where none other exist. If I had the money, that's what I would do with it. Come on - it's over 100 years old and there aren't too many of those buildings around Reston.

  21. my brother in-law was the "cook" there for years until it shut down. I liked going there to look into the large vats (20 ft across) and smell!


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