May 15, 2010
Greenbrier distillery makes small-batch spirits
Chip Ellis
Smooth Ambler Spirits opened in Maxwelton, Greenbrier County, in April. The red barn-like house houses a full-scale distillation operation and a state-of-the-art tasting room.

MAXWELTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has a long history of innovating, producing and enjoying handcrafted spirits. Now, two Greenbrier County men are renewing that tradition.

"You've seen 'buy local.' I don't think there is anything wrong with thinking 'drink local,'" said John Little, one of the two founding partners of Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton.

"We get most of our stuff from this region, our grain is from a couple hours away. Even if you're not in West Virginia . . . you're still drinking local. It's not like we're from France or Scotland."

Smooth Ambler opened its doors at the beginning of April, and has been drawing tourists since then. The distillery, which is fully run and operated by business partners Little and John Foster, turns out just 1,200 bottles of liquor a week.

Smooth Ambler uses local organic wheat, corn and whole grains in its artisan liquors, and all the raw ingredients are bought from area farms, Foster said.

"Except for growing the starch ourselves, everything else we handle by hand all the way to the end, including writing on the bottle when we bottled it, what the batch number is and who bottled it," Foster said. "Everything starts and ends here."

Right now, the men are only mass-producing their high-end Whitewater Vodka. Soon, they'll have gin and white whiskey. They're also aging bourbon.

White whiskey is basically a refined moonshine that's been distilled to a higher proof than moonshine, without any sugar or additives. "It's like if moonshine had a fancy cousin from the city that was a lawyer," Foster said.

As a small-batch, local micro-distillery, the Smooth Ambler guys have a different perspective on the liquor business than some of their larger competitors.

"The big guys say small-batch all the time, but small-batch to them means 100 to 150 barrels at a time, which isn't small at all," Little said. That many barrels will put out around 30,000 fifths, he said.

"For us, everything that goes in one barrel is out of one mash and one fermentation. So for us, it's a much smaller, much more hands-on approach."

Right now, Little and Foster don't know another product on the market to compare their liquor to.

"The proof is in the pudding. Thanks to [Little's] recipe for the way we make vodka, we don't fiddle with it too much because it is made out of corn and has a natural caramel, butterscotchy flavor that we keep," Foster said. "Not so strong that it tastes like a flavored vodka, but it has a lot more natural character than most vodkas you're used to."

Most vodkas have a sort of medicinal or rubbing alcohol smell, Foster said, "and you're lucky if they have a little sweetness. Ours is a lot more pleasant than that, and that is absolutely on purpose."

Brewing the booze

When starting distillation, all the whole grains go into a hammer mill, then into a mash tank, or cooker. Water is pumped into the tank and paddles inside turn the mixture into a slurry.

Each grain is added at different temperatures and different times, per the secret recipe. The whole process takes about five hours to get ready and then cool. After it's cooled, yeast is added and everything is transferred to the fermentation tank, where it will stay for up to five days, Foster said.

Distillation is "a pretty basic method, but it changes depending on what product is being run," Little said.

When making vodka, the liquid is moved through the tank and is taken through a steel column with a varying number of plates inside.

"When the vapor hits that plate, it will condense back down and then the heat from the steel and the pressure will make it evaporate again," Little said. "What is above each plate is a cleaner product and stronger in proof, so the more plates you go through, the higher the proof of alcohol and the less of those impurities are left in the product."

For that reason, no plates are used in the whiskey process because "you want [it] to interact with the barrel to produce all the flavors you love," he said. All of the clear products, like gin and vodka, will be run through the plates in the still.

The right stuff

The brewing recipe is one of the most guarded in the micro-distillery business. And although Little and Foster are willing to spill the composition of their vodka - 60 percent corn, 20 percent wheat and 20 percent barley - their gin recipe is sealed behind tight lips.

"The only regulation is that it has to be 51 percent juniper," Foster said. "And that's all you're getting."

Traditionally, any number of spices or aromatics - cardamom, pepper, coriander, lemon and lime peels - can go into gin, but the Smooth Ambler distillers aren't sure just what ingredients they'll use yet.

"I wanted to use ramps," Foster said, "but [Little] wouldn't let me.

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