By Peggy Mackenzie
A Greenbrier County distillery is getting global recognition. Smooth Ambler Spirits (SAS) recently won a competition for the world’s best bourbon. The World Whiskies Award (WWA) blind-taste tested competition was presented by Whisky Magazine.
Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout 10-year-old single barrel bourbon is now the best in the world.
“This bourbon is very rich and has a butterscotch taste. While it does taste like a whiskey, it has a very nice smooth caramel overtone to it. I think that’s a reason it appeals to a wide array of drinkers, it’s really a crowd-pleaser of a whiskey,” said John Foster, director of sales, and one of the original distillers at Smooth Ambler, in a press release.
“We’re extremely proud of our product,” said Andrew Robinson, distillery and process manager at Smooth Ambler. “We’re a West Virginia-based business, and we’re really proud of that heritage. We like to call ourselves the spirit of West Virginia.”
No distinctions between large distilleries and small were made, or between distillers and non-distiller producers (NDPs) at the WWA presentation. All were welcome. Because the World Whiskies Awards is such a big tent, it is exciting when a small producer wins one of the top awards. The Smooth Ambler team has every right to be proud.
Another WWA award winner, Smooth Ambler Contradiction, also won a gold medal. It is a blend of house-made (27%), local wheated bourbon and (73%) sourced low rye bourbon. The “contradiction” is that distillers do not often blend house and sourced spirits, but Smooth Ambler is all about breaking bourbon taboos. The wheat makes for a smoother, sweeter bourbon, while the rye tends to compliment with a more “spicy” or “peppery” note. As Robinson says proudly, “This is our own product; our own original idea.”
Though SAS did not create or age the bourbon, it was partially aged and blended on site. They deserve credit for creating and marketing the Old Scout line transparently at a time when selected whiskeys is often a secret business. According to Val Colella, retail and office associate, Smooth Ambler has always been transparent about its spirits. As a small company that is both a distillery and an NDP, Colella says, “We’ve always disclosed which products were sourced and which are distilled in-house. Old Scout essentially were thousands of “orphaned barrels” sitting in an old Seagram’s distillery that had gone out of business in Indiana (LDI). We gave them a home.”
“Merchant bottling gave us an opportunity to bring an exceptionally unique aged product to market giving our bourbon time to develop. Old Scout put us on the map with the big distillers and enabled us to grow not only our local markets but our national and world markets,” Colella explained. When bourbon brokers contacted SAS offering “orphan barrels” from Seagram’s archives, owners John Little and John Foster sampled and bought a one time buy of several thousand barrels. “No other distillery has the bourbon we have, it’s unique to us,” she said. “Many people do not realize the skill it takes to blend as every barrel is unique. The challenge is to find barrels that reflect consistency in the product and that’s another thing our team does exceptionally well.”
A secondary market generating exposure for the industry, Colella says, is created by brand ambassadors or “bourbon geeks.” When they find a bourbon they like, they are loyal to the brand, which is then bought and traded, generating and expanding exposure and demand for the bourbon. Through these and other marketing efforts, SAS now has distribution in 33 states and eight overseas markets – in other words, this six-year-old company is global.
Bourbon, she claims, “is a completely sensory experience.” Her discussion of the depth and complexity of the palate placeholders include “the nose” and “the finish,” and are referred by such varied qualifiers as fruity, floral, oaky, spicy, malty, burnt dark chocolate, coffee bean, peppery, buttery, maple, woody, spice, leather, nutty, and balanced. There are as many as 50 different descriptive flavorings used to describe taste of the bourbon.
The bourbon name is ultimately derived from the French Bourbon dynasty, although it is disputed whether Bourbon County in Kentucky or Bourbon Street in New Orleans inspired the whiskey’s name. Bourbon tends to be amber-colored, and a little sweeter and heavier in texture than other whiskeys. Four legal requirements are needed for a whiskey to qualify as U.S. bourbon. 1) It must have at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill and depending on the distiller’s preference, barley and wheat or rye are used. 2) The distillate must come off the still at 160 proof or less and be cut to 120 proof or less before barreling 3) Bourbon must always be barreled in a brand new charred oak cask. 4) While whiskey is produced in many countries, by international agreement, and as stipulated in law, only the U.S. produces bourbon.
In addition to those requirements having access to very clean water, high quality grain and enough of a difference in seasons is what helps Smooth Ambler produce fantastic bourbon locally. “Our aging seasons are very similar to Kentucky, very hot summers and very cold winters which are the perfect conditions for aging whiskey.” says Colella.
“I can’t think of any other business that’s more American than what we do,” says Robinson. “Bourbon is an American product, you can’t make it anywhere else.”
Smooth Ambler Spirits was formulated by president and co-founder TAG Galyean and co-owner and master distiller, John Little. Located on Industrial Drive near Maxwelton, Smooth Ambler has been in operation now for six years. Foster, Robinson, production manager Paul Jackson, and Calella make up the core personnel of the distillery.
Smooth Ambler Spirits distill their house-made products using local grains from Turkey Creek Farm in Union, Monroe County. Their products are available at several liquor shops, restaurants and bars in Greenbrier County.