Walking into Smooth Ambler Spirits, a craft distillery in the unincorporated town of Maxwelton, West Virginia, feels a little like entering a secret clubhouse. Tucked behind a small airport in a town of around 300 people, the building could easily be mistaken for a barn from the outside, but inside, it feels more like a parlor: leather chairs, a large wooden bar, and a window to the distilling room with its myriad of impressive tanks and stills.
Maxwelton could be described as a suburb of Lewisburg, West Virginia, the county seat of Greenbrier County, which itself has a population of under 40,000 people. Voted America’s Coolest Small Town by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine, Lewisburg manages to be both hip and quaint at the same time.
“People think we’re a couple of guys with a little moonshine still sitting over in the corner,” says John Little, Head Distiller and Vice President of Smooth Ambler, “when in reality, we’re in some of the finest restaurants and bars in the world.”
[imgcontainer] [img:Smooth_Ambler01.jpg] [source]Photo byShawn Poynter[/source]
Bourbon aging in barrels at Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton, West Virginia.
I first visited Smooth Ambler Spirits in 2009, during its first year of operation. My friends and I arrived just as they were closing, but instead of hurrying us out, the folks at Smooth Ambler gave us a tour of the distillery and then sat us down at the bar and let us taste their gin, vodka and white whiskey. We chatted with John Little and Marketing Director John Foster about everything from the lasting effects of Prohibition to the question of whether you can make bourbon outside of Kentucky (“We better hope you can make bourbon outside of Kentucky. We have about a million and a half dollars of it aging in the back,” says Little).
Since that first visit, I’ve returned several times to visit with Little and Foster, and stock up on their products, though over the last four years I’ve found less of a need to stockpile. Their products are now available in liquor stores across the country, and I’ve noticed Smooth Ambler spirits on cocktail menus in bars from Nashville to New York.
[imgcontainer] [img:Smooth_Ambler02.jpg] [source]Photos byShawn Poynter[/source]
A bottle of Old Scout Rye sits on the bar at a party in Lewisburg, West Virginia.
The Southern Foodways Alliance recently sent me to produce a video about the distillery. During our interview, I asked John Little what it’s like to operate such a large scale operation in a rural setting. I told him that while I love how popular Smooth Ambler is becoming, I sometimes miss feeling like part of an elite group of folks who know about the distillery.
“We have people come in here all the time and try our stuff and say ‘You’re the best kept secret in Greenbrier County,’ but we’re doing everything we can to be the worst kept secret.”