Making Whiskey in West Virginia: A Visit to Smooth Ambler
All photos courtesy Keith Allison
It was mid-way through my day at West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler distillery that I had my revelation, something that probably should have hit me a long time ago but, you know, I’m dense. It happened because my time at Smooth Ambler was more than just a tour and tasting. I love tours and tastings, but they do tend to tread the same ground after a while. I ended up at Smooth Ambler the better part of an entire day, alongside a gent from DC who was there apprenticing for the week in advance of opening his own distillery. Off the standard tour, watching an entire day’s worth of work, I realized that being a micro-distiller isn’t just being a micro-distiller. When something goes wrong with the pipes, you’re a plumber. Electric on the fritz? You’re an electrician. Did something spill? You’re a janitor. Is there a truck outside full of grain? You’re unloading it. And those nice folks who don’t know what whiskey is but were sent over by the local tourist information center? Well, now you’re the PR man for your whole town.
And that’s just the surface. When you are a small distillery with just a few people on staff, making whiskey is only part of what fills your day. It’s a lot like working a family farm. Everything needs to get done, and you’re the person who has to do it. “They say at least half of this job is janitorial,” said Smooth Ambler founder John Little, who in between filling mash tuns and running the still with fellow distiller Nick Flora, was also taking care of a finicky boiler and overseeing the construction of the distillery’s new rickhouse.
Little and partner TAG Galyean started Smooth Ambler in 2009, nestled in the hills of Greenbrier County, West Virginia and across the street from the local airfield. The nearby town of Lewisburg -- “America’s coolest small town” -- is a collection of great little restaurants, cafes and art shops. Nearby is the Greenbrier River and the trailhead for the 85-mile-long bike/hike Greenbrier River Trail. It is an idyllic location for an Appalachian distillery, and while a whiskey nerd like me is expected to find himself at Smooth Ambler, I was surprised by the number of curious passersby who just dropped in out of the blue, a couple of whom weren’t even sure what whiskey is.
Smooth Ambler splits its business between sourcing whiskey (a practice they are very open about) and bottling under their Old Scout (or Very Old Scout) bourbon line, and distilling and aging its own bourbon (in full size barrels) to be released “when it’s ready” -- most likely as a four-year-old. Previews along the way have been released at one and two years as The Yearling. Smooth Ambler is at the forefront of craft distillers who are eschewing small barrels and short aging time in order to make a more balanced, more impressive spirit. And the patience is paying off. Their sourced bottles are exceptional (the 17-year-old Very Old Scout was my whiskey of the year in 2012), and the in-house bourbon and rye are coming along very well.
Through a door in the gift shop you enter the distillery proper. I only spent a small amount of time there before Little walked up and asked, “So are you ready to work?” In short order, he had me rolling, filling, and weighing
barrels -- a simple, single step in the process of distillation, but one that made it clear as new make spirit how much work goes into whiskey. Those barrels are around a hundred pounds empty, somewhere just over five-hundred full. And multiple records have to be kept at every step of the process lest the government come a-callin’. By the end of the day, I needed a drink. Luckily, the distillery’s tasting room offers the line of bourbons, whiskey and rye, along with their Greenbrier Gin, a barrel-aged gin, and Whitewater Vodka.
With fantastic hiking, climbing, and rafting nearby, not to mention Washington DC within four hours, little Lewisburg and Smooth Ambler make an excellent excursion into Appalachia. John Little and his crew were warm, welcoming, and more than willing to indulge the extremes of my whiskey obsession. Like I said, distillery tours can start to get a bit predictable. Smooth Ambler threw me into the deep end and let me come out of it with a much better understanding of what it is to be a craft distiller. Sitting in their tasting room, I was more than happy to raise a glass of them to them.