“We’re a couple of guys who do everything by hand except grow the grain.” —John Foster, Smooth Ambler Spirits
I know what you’re thinking. West Virginia = Appalachian Mountains = veritable fountain of illegal, rot gut moonshine production. While in certain parts of the state this assessment may still prove to be true, in Maxwelton, West Virginia, where local booze gurus John Little and John Foster (a.k.a. The Johns) oversee Smooth Ambler Spirits, such is not the case. Instead of makeshift copper stills hidden away in clandestine hillsides, the Smooth Ambler boys are whipping up real-deal small-batch white whiskey, vodka, and gin in a 5,200-square-foot state-of-the-art facility. And the best part is it’s totally legal.
It’s 9 a.m. in Smooth Ambler’s tasting room, which is located only a few miles from the famed Greenbrier Resort, and we’re starting early with hair-of-the-dog-styled Bloody Janes made with Smooth Ambler’s signature Greenbrier Gin, which is infused with citrus, black pepper, ginger, coriander, angelica, cardamom, and juniper berries via a bouquet garni that’s dangled over the tank (versus being submerged). Referred to as “vapor infusion,” this lesser-employed method of production is one of four distillations Smooth Ambler’s gin goes through before being bottled, labeled, and sealed completely by hand.
The Whitewater Vodka is equally unusual with nary a potato to be found during its triple distillation process. Instead, like the Greenbrier Gin and potent 100 Proof Exceptional White Whiskey, Smooth Ambler’s vodka starts with a classic bourbon mashbill made from corn, malted barley, and wheat. What results is a vodka spirit that offers something many others don’t — flavor. Earthy, nutty, and almost doughy on the nose, it’s a vodka built for enjoying straight-up or on the rocks.
As sales and marketing man John Foster tops off our glasses, I’m regaled with local hunting and fishing tales, and I come to the realization that these are simply regular guys living out the dream.
Founded in 2009 by businessman Tag Galyean and John Little, Smooth Ambler is a family–owned and operated company. Grains are milled on-site and combined with West Virginia mountain water to make expertly handcrafted spirits with regional organic corn and wheat being sourced locally. Even the product’s packaging hails from Roanoke, Virginia, about 90 miles down the road, and any resulting waste stream or grains that are lost to insects is returned to local farms, where it is either replanted or used as cattle feed.
The Johns refer to this cyclical, sustainable business model as true “grain to glass” or more specifically, “from when the grain arrives at the back of our distillery to when the ice clinks in the well-deserved glass in front of you.” Without question, the term “handcrafted” has been dutifully earned here through long days and plenty of sweat as evidenced by the 80-plus hours The Johns put in each week.
And, they’re just getting started. Currently, production is around 4,000 bottles a month. In the works and slated for debut later this summer will be their first aged bourbon as well as an increased production to roughly 10,000 bottles per month overall, but these guys aren’t looking to be the next Jim Beam. Instead, Smooth Ambler’s focus is to continue to make small-batch spirits in limited quantities with exact attention to detail using only pure, local ingredients.
As The Johns delight us with more West Virginia tall tales, I suddenly find myself staring at a shot of Apple Pie Moonshine made with Smooth Ambler’s Exceptional White Whiskey. “Try this” John Foster remarks. “It really does taste just like apple pie.” It’s only 10:30 in the morning, but down it goes, and for the record, it really does taste just like pie filling. Great company, an early morning buzz, and it’s not even noon. I’ll toast to that.
Next up, part 2: Smooth Ambler’s 100-proof Exceptional White Whiskey.