Bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky—except when it’s not. Smooth Ambler is shaking up the bourbon market—from West Virginia. The burgeoning brand just released their third expression, Big Level Wheated Bourbon. The latest offering is the capstone of a textbook model for building a brand.
Big Level is the first whiskey from Smooth Ambler entirely produced at their Maxwelton, West Virginia distillery. However, Big Level is not Ambler’s first whiskey by any means. In fact, the company’s decade-long implementation of a unique “merchant, marry, make” model provides a virtual blueprint for building a distillery in a crowded market.
The Origin Story
In 2009, Smooth Ambler opened shop in the mountains of West Virginia’s Greenbrier County. Co-founder and Master Distiller John Little explained the location simply, stating “We didn’t chose West Virginia, it chose us.”
While official bourbon is relatively new to the area, Appalachia has a long history of distilling dating back to colonial times. Little said the Ambler wanted to respect the distilling and bootlegging history, but also avoid being lumped together with backyard booze. “The issue with making whiskey in West Virginia is overcoming the myths,” recalled Little. “We tried to distance ourselves from the cheap part of the moonshine—what made it feel less than the standard.” After a couple years of planning, the distillery opened its doors in 2010.
As many would-be whiskey makers before Little learned, the difficult part about jumping into the market is that, by definition, good whiskey requires several years aging in the barrel. That means that it is years between opening a whiskey distillery and the point where the distiller actually has whiskey to sell.
Merchant, Marry, Make
Initially, Smooth Ambler tried to solve the time issue by multi-tasking their equipment. After laying down, their first batch of bourbon, the team used their stills to produce spirits that do not require aging. “What we learned is the vodka and gin from West Virginia doesn’t really make sense,” noted Little. “The whiskey was the strongest part of our portfolio. Whiskey is what we grew up making.”
To get the whiskey biz going before the barrels were ready, the company decided to source pre-aged whiskey from Indiana’s MGP mega-distillery as a stop-gap. “We tasted some samples [from MGP] and they were great. So, I called our distributor and asked, ‘Can we sell something that we don’t make,’” recalled Little. “We decided to model Old Scout after independent Scotch bottlers.”
The decision to source was not unusual; MGP’s client list is huge, including High West, Templeton, Angel’s Envy, and dozens of your favorite craft brands. What was unusual is that indie Scotch model. When Smooth Ambler launched their first line, Old Scout, they made no attempt to hide it’s provenance. Rather than acting as if they distilled the expression themselves, Ambler instead marketed their company as a curator of fine whiskeys.
The first prong of Smooth Ambler’s “Merchant/Bottle, Marry, Make” strategy was born. Within a couple years, some of the barrels of the West Virginia distilled began to mature, but there was still a very limited supply. So, Ambler moved onto the “Marry” stage.
Contradiction, their second whisky, is the marriage of Smooth Ambler’s own wheated bourbon with MPG’s rye heavy whiskey. The blend is then put back into the original barrels for some more aging before bottling. Once again, no pretenses were made; the label clearly states, “Expertly Blended form whiskeys distilled in both West Virginia and Indiana.” The formula’s success was evidenced by a fast following from the whiskey community.
A Big Year
2017 was a watershed year for Smooth Ambler. The distillery progressed to the “Make” phase. Finally, the barrels they laid down in 2012 were ready and a very limited edition of bourbon made entirely on-site was released. In another milestone that year, Pernod bought a majority stake in the company.
“We were looking for someone to sell us barrels. We were turning over any rock. There’s been a shortage for about three or four years. We called our barrel broker who knew some folks at Pernod who might be able to help,” explained Little. “They did not have any barrels, but were interested in Smooth Ambler. Took us a little while to get a deal worked out.”
Little was motivated by the glut in his sector. “I was concerned about the way that the market is changing. People are creating strategic partnerships. I didn’t want to be on the outside looking in. The distribution was already saturated,” he said.
The small release of West Virginia distilled whiskey and the partnership with Pernod provided a preamble for a larger offering in 2018.
“This is our first national release: Big Level Wheated. We didn’t make much five or six years ago,” noted John Foster, National Director of Sales & Marketing. “Think of it as allocated. We’ll release a couple thousand cases a year for the next couple years.”
After six years of rest, Big Level was bottled at 100 proof, but you wouldn’t know it. Neat Pour‘s expert tasting team discovered that the whiskey lives up to its name: smooth. There is very little heat on the tongue which allows notes of oak, toffee, and vanilla to shine through.
The mashbill is comprised of 71% Corn, 21% Wheat, and 8% Malted Barley. “The mash build is different than anything we’ve ever sourced. No rye whatsoever. It’s smooth, but also very sweet,” said Foster. “It lacks some of that Kentucky traditional spice, but is incredibly smooth for any bourbon.”
Smooth Ambler’s plan is working well. The company grew from three employees in 2009 to 21 employees today. Production is only increasing. Foster explained that the West Virginia made line is set for expansion. “We really picked up our pace in April 2015 and then picked it up some more recently. So, in 2020, supply will grow.”
However, they are not neglecting the other lines. Little is excited to “marry more stuff into Contradiction” and Foster dreams of making a Contradiction Rye.
We’ll be patiently waiting.