What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Entries in gin (3)


Field Trip: Smooth Ambler Spirits, West Virginia

Smooth Ambler Spirits fired up for the first time in April 2010, and had three white spirits on the shelves by June 2010. That’s not an uncommon trajectory for start-up microdistillers: get the white spirits out the door to generate cash-flow and brand awareness. Meantime,  put up some of the higher quality stuff in barrels for aging. Smooth Ambler has done that as well, and the first of aged products are about to roll out.

I visited the distillery in Maxwelton, W.V., earlier this month. It’s got a staff of four, headed up by master distiller and co-founder John Little, who was kind enough to show me around with John Foster, the director of sales.

Their white spirits include Whitewater Vodka, Greenbrier Gin and Exceptional White Whiskey. The vodka’s made from corn and malted barley and was slightly buttery and river-stone smooth. The gin, made from the vodka redistilled with seven botanicals, had a pleasing sort of lilac flavor, and a hint of juniper in the background.

The white whiskey is distilled twice and bottled at 100 proof. It’s based on a bourbon mashbill, with corn, barley and wheat. Little says he hopes to distance their brand from moonshine, the idea of which clings to West Virginia like lime to tonic. “We're more in line with the farmer-distiller,” he says.

The Smooth Ambler name was inspired by a type of horse — “horses are a big deal around here,” Little says — that has a particular gait that’s not a walk and not a run, but something in between. “It reflects what we like about living here,” Little says. “We’re not hicks, but we don’t wear Bluetooth earpieces in the barn like we’re expecting some call from the President.”

Following in the tiny footsteps of Tuthilltown’s Baby Bourbon, Little was getting ready to release his Yearling Bourbon, aged in 15-gallon new oak barrels for, well, a year. It’s a wheated bourbon, with the mashbill at 68 percent corn, 16 percent malted barley, and 16 percent wheat. It’s very good — with a slightly creamy taste and texture, underlaid with a pleasing gingery sharpness. It retails for about $42 for 750ml. Look for it in July.

I also got an advance sip of the triple malt bourbon, made with 60 percent corn, and the rest a blend of wheat, rye and barley malts. I sampled some barreled just two months ago at 120 proof in a five gallon barrel. Not surprisingly, it had a raw wood aroma, which will no doubt mellow with age, but the taste was full and nicely pungent, with a trace of acrid tobacco, and — as yet — none of the barrel's mellowing caramel notes. It still had a shaggy, white-dog aggressiveness about it, but it give it time. I’m guessing it will be worth paying attention to. Limited quantities possibly available as early as September.

A rye may also be on the horizon, but Little is concerned that the party may be over by the time they show up. That’s a justifiable concern given all the scrambling underway to fulfill demand for traditional ryes.

For a young start-up, the distillery, in a new building in a rural industrial park next to an airport, looks pretty settled. They operate a Christian Carl pot still with two columns, and a Vendome pot still. They’d just erected a new outbuilding for storage and aging a few days before I’d arrived, and they report they’re growing faster than they’d anticipated. They appear to be managing growth well. The distillery is open for tours, tastings and retail sales.

Look for Smooth Ambler in a dozen states to date: West Virginia, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, and D.C.
Smooth Ambler Spirits,, Maxwelton, WV, (304) 497-3123


“Three cocktails,” he said, acidly.

In this installment of “cocktails from the crypt,” we turn again to acid phosphate. (Briefly touched upon in this dispatch from 2009.)

And we do so again thanks to Darcy O’Neil and his relentless research. In the April issue of The Atlantic, I wrote about Darcy’s rediscovery of acid phosphate, and how a few enterprising bartenders are playing with this potent souring ingredient, lending new life to old drinks. Adding a touch of acid phosphate is more or less putting your finger on the scale — making sweet taste less sweet, and twisting other flavors around slightly. You might say it’s a form of cheating. But, hey, cheating is fun.

The space for the magazine column is tight, so there’s rarely room for cocktail recipes. And that always seems a bit churlish — I mean, don’t you want to try these? — so I've posted three of the recipes mentioned below.

Oh, yeah, you’ll probably need to obtain some acid phosphate. To order this and Darcy’s excellent book about soda fountains (available in print or as a pdf), visit his storefront: Extinct Chemical Company.

Uncle Morris
Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, came up with this nice creation, in which the acid phosphate knocks down the sweetness of honey while maintaining its rich flavor.

2 oz gin
1 oz honey syrup (3 Parts Honey; 1 Part Water)
.5 oz lime juice
1 tsp acid phosphate
1 dash celery bitters
1/2 medium Kaffir lime leaf
2 oz tonic

Shake all ingredients, except tonic water, with ice and fine strain into a 
Collins glass with cubed ice. Top with tonic water. Garnish with a lime
 wedge and pressed kaffir leaf.

Wet Grave
This is Darcy’s creation, which he came up with in advance of a presentation in New Orleans. (Wet Grave is a nickname for the city.)

1.25 oz Maker’s Mark Bourbon
.5 oz claret syrup
1 tsp dry vermouth
1 tsp acid phosphate
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir over ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

Note: claret syrup is red wine (traditionally Bordeaux) mixed 1:1 with simple syrup.

Cherry Bourbon Phosphate
I’ve been playing around with phosphate and cherry, mostly because I'm mildly infatuated with the phrase “cherry phosphate.” And I love bourbon. As such, the future was easily foretold. This drink should be approached as a work in progress — it’s not quite there yet, but I’m encouraged by the direction it’s headed.

1.5 oz bourbon
.5 oz cherry juice
.25 oz simple syrup
1 tsp acid phosphate
1 or 2 dashes Jerry Thomas bitters
Soda water

Add first five ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice. Pour into collins glass and top with soda water and crushed ice. 


A visit from ghosts of gins past

“That’s pretty fresh, don’t you think?” asked the vendor of a new premixed cocktail with bubble gum notes. It was one of many new products I sampled, often regrettably, at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America convention. And his question could have been asked at about eighty percent of the tables — WSWA is a place where producers are looking to push the next new thing into going viral and sell a million cases, or be bought out by Diageo for a hefty fee, whichever comes first.

So I really enjoyed meeting Christopher Hayman, chairman and managing director of the U.K. firm that makes Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. He’s part of the Burroughs family, which in the gin world is like being related to the Pope. (The family has historic connections to Burrough’s Gin, Beefeater, and Hayman’s.)

We got to talking about gin history, and with little prompting he pulled out of a plastic envelope a scrapbook he’d started as a kid, collecting labels his father brought home from work. Here was a history of gin through the latter half of the 20th century, pasted neatly in yellowing pages. Especially nice was the Beefeater Old Tom Gin label, and coming upon it felt a bit like finding a rare missing link. Just flipping through the book felt like stumbling upon an lush, peaceful oasis amid a clangorous, violent, and neon-pink world. It was a nice break.