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Grain to Glass: Distillery Showcases Everything Great About West Virginia

smooth ambler distillery

With MEP Centers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico dedicated to serving small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs), the MEP National Network™ has published more than 1,200 success stories during the past five years. These success stories show the positive impact the program has on manufacturers, including those that make beer, wine and spirits.

As I stated in a previous blog, one of my hobbies is to visit breweries, distilleries and wineries. While I travel to some, I make it a point to explore the local establishments. It’s not just about sipping a tasty beverage, it’s also about supporting the local economy.

My most recent outing took me to a neighboring state, West Virginia.

What makes West Virginia unique?

Travis Hammond
Travis Hammond

Located in Maxwelton, West Virginia, and nestled within the Greenbrier Valley, you can find Smooth Ambler Spirits Company, a small manufacturer established in 2009. The owners tried to identify a product that showcases everything great about West Virginia. They realized some of the best things the state has to offer are clean water, clean air, dedicated workers, local grains and lots of white oak trees. A distillery made the most sense. To top it off, West Virginia has a natural cadence of seasons that allows for balanced aging in oak barrels.

After the company took off, it was acquired by Pernod Picard, the world’s second largest wine and spirits seller. It was growing, and it became apparent to a young and ambitious Travis Hammond that Smooth Ambler needed him as an operations manager. He had interned there in 2012 and though he was still young, he convinced ownership that age was just a number. He was hired in 2017 and had an immediate impact on the operations and expansion of the distillery.

One of those impacts was making a connection with the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WVMEP, the MEP Center in West Virginia), which is part of the West Virginia University Industrial Extension Service.

All in a day’s work

Heat imaging instruction
Heat imaging instruction.

In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the WVMEP tried to figure out which firms were still open. The WVMEP staff, including Associate Director David Carrick and Business Development Manager Jamie Cope, sent emails to several SMMs to let them know they were available to help. Travis responded to the call. Smooth Ambler was hoping to make large quantities of hand sanitizer, but a shipment of key ingredients had been canceled.

By contacting its previous clients, WVMEP found chemical vendors to provide the necessary isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon does not apply to West Virginia – it’s more like one degree of separation in the tightknit manufacturing community. Explaining the original connection, David said, “All this networking happened within five hours from a sofa on a Saturday afternoon.”

According to Travis, “Those were the three components no one could get at the time. Even the big manufacturers had supply chain issues due to COVID-19. Jamie connected us to several West Virginia outlets that manufactured or were brokers of that product.” Combined with ethanol the company made on-site, Smooth Ambler manufactured 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, which it donated to the community.

Building a lasting relationship

After their initial engagement, Jamie followed up with Smooth Ambler to see how else the West Virginia MEP Center could help the distillery. They identified room for improvement in quality standards and energy efficiency. WVMEP connected the company with the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), a partner within West Virginia University, which provides no-cost energy assessments to small and medium-sized manufacturers.

Group by tower at smooth ambler
Group doing evaluation.

Dr. Bhaskaran Gopalakrishnan, along with graduate students, leads the IAC’s efforts. The group toured Smooth Ambler’s facility and inspected boilers, lights, air conditioning units – basically every aspect of energy consumption. It became a reciprocal relationship. The distillery allows the graduate students to gain hands-on experience with a manufacturer, and in return, Smooth Ambler receives recommendations to improve its energy efficiency.

Jamie said, “Most students don’t get on the floor of real manufacturing facilities. It’s rewarding to help them because there is a disconnect between what happens in the classroom and real life.” The students take the opportunity and assessments seriously. According to David, “The reports are ridiculously detailed. These reports have full calculations of costs and return on investment, and the report could be anywhere between 60-100 pages.”

Group evaluating a compressor
Evaluating a compressor.

Travis found it easier to sell the recommendations to leadership with the detailed report. The suggestions reduced the company’s carbon footprint and supported the quality standards of its parent company. The report suggested several quick projects, such as fixing a boiler that wasn’t operating correctly, which had an immediate impact on energy usage. It also provided a blueprint for continuous improvement. Travis said, “Once a month, I look through the report and look for the next project we need to tackle. It’s been extremely helpful.”

Even after the initial assessment, the IAC has followed up on its recommendations and the students have returned to work at the distillery. When discussing the students assisting at the small manufacturer, Travis said, “I hope when they visit here they realize you can make things on a smaller scale and still impact your community.”

Making connections

Barrels at Smooth Ambler

One connection with a small manufacturer leads to a connection with another one. The folks at WVMEP knew that there was a market for whiskey barrel-aged coffee. Jamie used his one degree of separation to reach out to his buddy at Hill Tree Roastery and connected them with Travis. Smooth Ambler offered a used whiskey barrel for aging coffee beans and Jamie took it upon himself to throw a barrel into his rental car to deliver it personally to the roastery. The limited supply collaboration sold faster than most of the coffee roastery’s other products.

Reflecting on their work in West Virginia, Dave said, “This West Virginia mindset lends itself to connections and folks helping each other out, such as lending a barrel. Jamie has done an awesome job making connections and growing our database.”

Longer aging leads to more accolades

True to the original vision, Smooth Ambler is recognized as a world class product from West Virginia. It won several medals in the Tasting Alliance’s 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Fred Minnick’s Ascot Awards even acknowledged Smooth Ambler as the 2022 Breakout Distiller of the Year.

Kentucky is world renowned for its whiskey, and it helps that it also has the change of seasons, but Travis thinks the slightly colder winters of West Virginia give it a leg up on the competition. He said, “If you take a little more time and go a little slower, you end up with a little better product. That is what the procession of the seasons does for aging whiskey in West Virginia.”

Some things are just worth the wait.

About the author

Andrew Nobleman

Andrew Nobleman is a Resource Manager for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. He enjoys taking in the extracurricular activities offered at NIST's main campus, volunteering for the NIST...

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