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, www.smoothambler.com, Maxwelton, WV, (304) 497-3123