Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton, West Virginia has been distilling its own products since opening in 2010, but cofounder and master distiller John Little says that even then, the company was late to the craft movement. In fact, Smooth Ambler doesn’t distill its most popular labels, Old Scout Bourbon and rye whiskey. Those spirits are sourced from MGP Ingredients in Indiana. “We tried to figure out how to market the sourced whiskies so there wasn’t any confusion,” Little explains. “We say we scouted it out. That’s where the name Old Scout came from.” The first batch of Old Scout Bourbon debuted in fall 2011 and sold quickly. “Old Scout has allowed us to expand and age our own inventory properly,” Little says. “It’s been the catalyst for our growth.”
Old Scout Straight Bourbon ($44 a 750-ml. bottle) leads Smooth Ambler’s line, accounting for about 50 percent of sales. The Old Scout range—which also includes Straight rye whiskey ($50), 10-year-old Bourbon ($58), Single Barrel Bourbon ($60), Single Barrel rye whiskey ($68) and Limited Edition rye whiskey ($85)—makes up 65 percent to 70 percent of sales. Smooth Ambler also offers Yearling ($25 a 375-ml. bottle), a wheated Bourbon that’s distilled in-house. Originally released after one year of maturation, Yearling’s current bottlings are nearly 4 years old. Blending 73-percent Old Scout 10-year-old and 27-percent Yearling, Contradiction whiskey ($50 a 750-ml. bottle) makes up 15 percent to 20 percent of Smooth Ambler’s sales. Small Batch gin ($35) and Whitewater vodka ($30) round out the line.
Road To Success
Being open and honest about provenance is an important part of Smooth Ambler’s identity. “The clarity about Old Scout’s source has helped a lot,” says director of sales John Foster. “The brand has given us something exciting to talk about in the marketplace. But it’s also relieved the pressure to release our own product sooner than we wanted to.”
Old Scout has also paved the way for Smooth Ambler to release other unique or limited sourced products. Last year, the company debuted Revelation rum ($60 a 750-ml. bottle), a blend of Caribbean rums that were aged for 23 and 28 years in Canada. “We have the agility and integrity to bring those sorts of things to market,” Foster explains. “People trust us. These products celebrate both what we do and what the distiller does.”
Contradiction launched in 2015, bridging Smooth Ambler’s sourced products and the whiskies it distills. “It’s been a huge success,” Little says, adding that he aims to create more blends of sourced and self-made offerings. While the company produces vodka and gin, they play a minor role in overall sales. Yearling is also small and neither Little nor Foster knows yet whether the product will continue. “We could double or triple sales of Yearling if we made it available,” Foster says. “But the more 3-year-old whiskey you sell, the less 7-year-old whiskey you’ll have down the line.”
This fall, Smooth Ambler will reach its next goal—offering a mature flagship Bourbon distilled on-site—with the planned launch of a wheated Bourbon that’s between 5 and 6 years old. But the company won’t discontinue its sourced labels, and it has contracted with MGP to ensure a steady future supply for Old Scout. It’s also seeking to add new offerings. This summer, Smooth Ambler will release a sourced American whiskey made in Tennessee.
“We treat the two parts of the business—the stuff that we make and the stuff we don’t make—very differently,” Little says. For sourced products, the company aims to take advantage of what’s available in the market. “We look at what we could buy now that will be good in three years,” Little explains. “We’ve got to build on what we have by looking for new spirits and developing new ideas and new blends.”
Smooth Ambler hasn’t settled on a signature character for its house-made products. “I don’t have a preconceived notion of exactly what we want our flavor profile to be,” Little says. “I want the consumer to tell us what they like and then we’ll move in that direction.” At the moment, the company distills four different kinds of whiskey: a wheated Bourbon, which accounts for about 75 percent of production volume; a high-rye Bourbon; a rye whiskey; and a wheat whiskey. The distillery makes roughly 80 barrels of spirits a month.
Smooth Ambler’s sales doubled annually until last year, when it took two price increases. The company also sold out of mature Old Scout rye whiskey midway through the year. Overall sales in 2015 advanced by 23 percent to about 11,000 cases. Little and Foster are confident that steady growth and careful decisions will pay off in the long run. Currently, the company is considering an increase in its production schedule from five days a week to seven. “Every step is a different challenge,” Little says. “Our current model is very different from when we started. Now we have a track record. At the time, we didn’t have anything except a really good idea.”
The company has a devoted following, with fans collecting dozens of different single barrel retailer-exclusive bottlings of Old Scout, and staff regularly interact with consumers in person and on social media. “That’s where we can be different from the big guys,” Little says. “All we’re concerned about is being open and honest and bringing people spirits that they enjoy—whether we make them or not.”