Saturday, August 13, 2011

Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, WV

Last weekend, my wife threw a dart at the Googleboard and hit on West Virginia's Pipestem Resort State Park as a nice place to get away for a few days.*

Once our destination was chosen, a secondary question for me was, is there any chance of shoehorning a visit to a distillery into this trip? Which is to say, given that it's a six hour drive to our hotel, how many more miles can I convince my wife and son to drive just so that I can have a taste of someone's white whiskey?

As it happened, I'd only recently heard of Smooth Ambler Spirits, a West Virginia craft distillery. I knew they made gin as well as whiskey, and I knew my wife likes gin, so if it were any reasonable distance from where we were going, I figured I could talk her into allowing joining me. I typed the address into Mapquest, and learned the distillery was 4 miles out of our way.

Yeah, I could swing that.

Smooth Ambler Tasting Room

We arrived mid-afternoon on Tuesday, and we had a chance to taste all of their white spirits -- whiskey, gin, and vodka (they were sold out of their very small run of bourbon).

Some vodkas, intended to have as little flavor as possible, wind up with nothing but a medicinal tang. Smooth Ambler purposely makes its vodka with a pleasant, bready flavor that doesn't need to be covered up by chilling or mixers. I imagine it would be pretty tasty sipped along with fresh-baked rolls spread with butter.

As for their gin: It's not that I don't like gin, it's that I hate and despise the very idea of gin. It took me years to get to the point of accepting that it is not necessarily a character flaw to drink gin on purpose.

I had been planning on passing on Smooth Ambler's gin altogether, but after four and a half hours in the car, I figured I could stand one small taste. And in fact, though I'm sorry to say the stuff smells like gin, the citrus they add to the botanicals makes it... well, potable in extremis. Or, as my wife the gin-drinker said after tasting it, "Oh, we're getting a bottle of this!"

Which left the white whiskey, bottled at 100 proof. I wasn't left alone with a bottle and a glass long enough for a proper tasting, but the couple of swallows I had were of a good quality moonshine with a lively complexity, particularly compared to the mellow homeliness of the vodka. (For the record, my wife couldn't stand the stuff, but then, you know, she drinks gin.)

Smooth Ambler's bourbon is their white whiskey aged in ten gallon barrels (they may have put some up in the standard 53-gallon barrels that will be ready in another five or six years). As I said, they were out of stock at the distillery, but they'd recently shipped some bourbon out, and I will definitely keep an eye open for it in my local liquor stores.

When it came time to leave, I for some reason decided to limit our purchase to one bottle, and since my wife had already spoken up, that one bottle was gin. I wasn't too concerned about leaving without any whiskey, since I had already learned that a liquor store a couple of miles from where I work carries Smooth Ambler. The next bottle of moonshine I buy will be Smooth Ambler -- unless I find Smooth Ambler bourbon first.

Two things particularly struck me during the visit. One was the quality across the Smooth Ambler range; they seem to take equal pride and care with each of their spirits. The other was how altogether different each of these three clear liquids was, though the equipment and processes, and even many of the ingredients, used are the same. The tours I've been on explaining how various beverages are made have given me the sense of a very technical activity, but sitting in the Smooth Ambler tasting room, looking through the windows at the stills and filters used to make their spirits, I gained more of an appreciation for the craft involved.

* My craft review of Pipestem Resort State Park: As a state park, it's great! As a resort, it's... a great state park!

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