Tour and taste at this distillery in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley.
By Hope S. Philbrick
After a couple of hours sitting on a bus as it weaves through the mountains, you’re pretty darn happy to get out and put your feet on solid ground. Even happier when it’s at a distillery where you’re promised tastes await. So what if it’s only 10 a.m.!
Smooth Ambler Spirits was established in 2009. “We’re a small distillery and we bust our ass every day,” says John Little, vice president and head distiller. (I am not editing his quote; we’re all grownups here.)
He’s not exaggerating: On any given day, Little and his team are distilling 1,500 pounds of grain, which means they’re carrying heavy bags up and down ladders to reach their stills and fermenters and other equipment. And that’s just part of the distillation process story.
Smooth Ambler uses all organic corn, wheat and rye. Most of it is sourced locally (which, given their geography includes Virginia and Pennsylvania), “except in the rare circumstance when a farmer runs out,” he says. “And it’s all organic, but may not have certification as organic”—since that certification process is elaborate, Little sympathizes with farmers navigating the red tape, since, as he says, “we’re regulated enough as it is, making spirits.”
Smooth Ambler will produce all spirits except rum.
“All of our spirits are distilled at least twice,” says Little, leading our group through the distillery on a tour. “Vodka is distilled three times, gin four times—gin is the original flavored vodka; you make vodka first then make a ‘tea’ with just the vapor—and whiskey is distilled twice.”
“Whiskey, unlike other spirits, improves over time,” he explains while walking to the rickhouse. Yes, it comes out of the still clear and gets all its color (and lots of flavor) from barrels. All whiskey produced in the distillery is aged in the nearby rickhouse barn, currently holding 742 barrels. A total of 26 barrels of bourbon will be released in 2015. (Each barrel will yield approximately 180 bottles.) Another 110 will be ready in 2016; beginning in 2017 the plan is to release 400 barrels a year. Reaching that production level means producing “40 barrels a month,” says Little.
After the tour, it’s time for tasting—and by this time, mouths are watering.
My verdict: Thumbs up on everything in the portfolio I tasted (and I was fortunate enough to get to taste twice: first during this visit and then days later at a culinary event in Charleston WV). Good stuff! I’m not the only fan. Smooth Ambler Spirits has won awards from the Beverage Tasting Institute, San Francisco World Spirits Competition, New York International Spirits Competition, Wine Enthusiast magazine, and the American Distilling Institute.
Smooth Ambler Spirits is located 1/2 mile from the Greenbrier Valley Airport. It’s open for tastings Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tours are given on Fridays at 2 and 4 p.m. and on Saturdays at Noon and 2 p.m. Call to make other arrangements.
Smooth Ambler Spirits are sold at the distillery; in 30 U.S. states; Paris, France; the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Smooth Ambler Spirits
745 Industrial Park Rd.
Maxwelton WV 24957-0133
– Photos top image courtesy West Virginia Tourism; remainder © HSP Media LLC
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