As I was typing the title, I imagine many people, when they hear “West Virginia Spirits”, immediately think of moonshine. Given the popularity of shows like “Moonshiners” on the Discovery Channel, that’s probably not a stretch–even though the show takes place in western Virginia, not West Virginia.
But, I’m talking about some top notch spirits not of the clandestine nature: Smooth Ambler Spirits, made right outside of Lewisburg, West Virginia.
At least, as far as I’m aware, West Virginia has never had a distillery before this one. And, as far as I’m concerned, it rivals the well-established and historic distilleries of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
I spotted a deal on Living Social from Smooth Ambler for a distillery tour, tasting and two free t-shirts for two people, so I grabbed it up. I’d had their gin and vodka before, because they sell those at retail stores in Charleston, However, in the past few years, I’ve become more interested in seeing how these things are made. I appreciate a cocktail as much as anybody, and I think it’s just interesting to see what goes into making them and gives me a deeper appreciation, especially when it’s essentially in my back yard.
Right now, Smooth Ambler offers gin, vodka and a yearling bourbon that is made exclusively at the distillery. Since bourbon ages for around 4 to 6 years in oak barrels, and the distillery has only been operating since 2009, it doesn’t have any Smooth Ambler-made bourbon yet. But it won’t be long. The distillery does sell a bourbon they call “Old Scout” but it was purchased from another distillery that actually produced the bourbon. The folks at Smooth Ambler don’t try to hide this fact. They told us that they had an opportunity to try this bourbon, and really liked it, so they arranged to buy it and bottle it for sale under their label. And, it is very good. It is also available at retail stores in Charleston, and the Hubs and I bought a bottle of the Old Scout to enjoy in our “Presbyterian” egg nog at Christmas time.
The thing that I like about visiting distilleries, wineries and small breweries is how low-tech they really are compared to everything else in this day and age. The process of producing spirits, wine and beer hasn’t changed much over the years. Recipes are tried and true and the process depends a lot on Mother Nature than many people realize. For example, bourbon barrels are not kept in climate controlled storage while they age. The reason is that the fluctuation in temperature is needed to properly age the bourbon. As the temperature fluctuates, bourbon leaches into the charred oak and contracts over and over again, giving bourbon it’s characteristic oak taste. That is essentially what makes bourbon, well, bourbon.
Smooth Ambler has a small but streamlined operation. Essentially the same equipment is used to start making all the spirits. At the beginning, the process is basically the same. A mix of a starchy substance (usually grains) and water, called a mash, is heated so that the starches turn to sugar that can be fermented. Yeast is then added that will turn the sugars in the liquid into alcohol. Then, you basically sit back and wait for this process to run it’s course. That’s Distilling 101 in a nutshell.
I’m not a huge spirits drinker. I’d rather have a nice cold beer or a glass of wine over liquor on most days, but I’m fascinated with the process of making them. That’s not to say I don’t like liquor, but it’s kind of a special occasion thing for me. I’m not a huge vodka fan at all. I could take it or leave it, but my favorite spirit is gin. So, I was very surprised to learn that Smooth Ambler’s gin and vodka are basically the same recipe, but for gin, a bouquet of aromatics is infused into the product for the gin flavor. I guess as it turns out, I really do like vodka when you think about it that way!
The aromatics are added in one of the little port hole doors at top of the pot still on one of the distillations to make gin. Both the gin and vodka are distilled more than once to yield a purer product.
The tour also included seeing the rack house–which is my favorite part. The smell absolutely will make you swoon! It’s an oaky, charred, bourbony mustiness that is the most delicious smell ever. It smells better than bourbon actually tastes is my opinion. The smell is caused by the constant expanding and contracting of the bourbon in the oak barrels that I mentioned.
Smooth Ambler offers a Yearling Bourbon that has only been aged a year (duh) instead of the full 4 plus years. We sampled some of this, and it was good, but I like the fully aged stuff the best. It’s that oaky flavor.
Also, we sampled both the rye whiskey and the barrel-aged gin. The rye is like the Old Scout, and actually not distilled by Smooth Ambler–yet. I’ve tried rye before, and I didn’t care much for it, but this was surprisingly tasty.
The barrel-aged gin blew me away! I mentioned that gin is my favorite, but this takes the cake. After they make the gin, the age it in a spent oak bourbon barrel for 3 months to impart some of the oaky charred goodness. The final product has just a hint of that bourbony taste and is a slightly darker color. We bought a bottle of the barrel-aged gin to bring home with us, and we used it to make gin and tonics. It was delicious. Unfortunately, you can’t find it at retail stores here in Charleston yet, but I’m hoping eventually it’ll show up.
While you may not get the same deal we did through Living Social, I’d encourage anyone who is in the area to check out Smooth Ambler. The folks who led the tour and were working in the shop were exceptionally nice! Then again, I think that would pretty much be the perfect job, so who wouldn’t be happy doing that? Lewisburg is a great little town (America’s Coolest Small Town 2011, as a matter of fact) with lots of funky shops selling crafts, knick-knacks and goodies. There are a number of locally-owned eateries to have lunch or a quick snack in, and the surrounding natural beauty is absolutely stunning. It was a great day road-trip. Especially since I picked up some flour from Reed’s Mill Flours while I was down there. That’s where I’ve been buying my flour at for the past couple years. It’s so neat, it deserves a blog post all by itself.
At the very least, if you’re not able to visit Lewisburg and Smooth Ambler, if you see it in your local liquor retailer, pick a bottle up. You won’t regret it!