Southern WV Wine & SpiritsOctober 6, 2015
Mountain moonshine, fruit wine, cellar cider, mead & more
Kirkwood Winery & Isaiah Morgan Distillery
Want to get a true taste of Southern West Virginia heritage? Fill your glass with moonshine and fruit wine– both of which you can get at the Kirkwood Winery and Isaiah Morgan Distillery (It’s one farm, but 2 different productions.)
The tasting room shelves are super-stocked: for wines, you’ll find traditional grape varietals, but with the diversity of other fruits and flavor bases, there are more than 30 options. The labels read like an old country pantry.
“All the wines we make are wines our grandparents or great-grandparents had access to, like fruits and berries,” said Shirley Morris, owner.
The most traditionally Appalachian wines come from all the wild plants you can find in the backcountry fields: blackberry, strawberry-rhubarb, spiced apple, ginseng. There’s even a ramp wine, a nod to the springtime ramp feasts at local churches. It’s best for cooking, but it’s interesting to give a sip, too.
The distillery focuses on smaller-scale production of 3 core spirits: a moonshine-style whiskey, a rye whiskey and a grappa. The moonshine is one of only a few old-time mountain shines you can buy, and it’s definitely authentic.
“I hadn’t made moonshine myself before, but I’ve been around it all my life,” Shirley said. “I was raised in Nicholas County. It’s always been around, and it’s always gonna be here. Only difference is, we’re doing it legal.”
Taste all 30+ flavors with a trip to the farm tasting room.
Smooth Ambler does their distilling the old-fashioned way: handcrafted and honest.
Every step of production is a personal matter. The spirit makers hand-select local grains, which are milled there in-house. They craft with only pure spring water from the West Virginia mountains. They hand-label every bottle. The craftsmanship is truly grain-to-glass.
The most popular spirits (so far) are the Old Scout bourbons— which aren’t actually distilled by Smooth Ambler, but a collection of personally selected favorites they bottled. But that’s only because these artisanal distillers are so committed to taste that they’re giving their own bourbon its sweet time to age perfectly.
“Smooth Ambler was always meant to be a bourbon distillery, and we’ve been doing that since our first day of operation,” said Randi Smith, business manager for Smooth Ambler Spirits.
That was more than 5 years ago. The original plan back then was to release the bourbon this fall. And when they gave it a test sip, it was exceptional— but, not quite what they wanted. So the bourbon will be spending an undetermined few more months in the barrel until it’s perfect.
“It will be a little bit of a transition for the fans that love the Old Scout,” Randi said. “Its mash bill is corn, wheat and malted barley, whereas Old Scout’s is corn, rye and malted barley. Wheat is typically softer than rye, and doesn’t have as much bite.”
There’s no release date for the Smooth Ambler bourbon, since the timing is dictated by taste. But in addition to their Old Scout, they have a lineup of other award-winning spirits, including vodka, gin and rum. Try them all in the cozy antique-wood bar in the tasting room, in view of the stills and equipment.
If you want to know more about the grain-to-glass artistry, they’ll be glad to walk you through a tour, too.
Hawk Knob Cidery
When you think of mountain spirits, what usually springs to mind is moonshine. Not for Josh Bennett.
“I’ve been making it since I was young,” he said. “It was very traditional in my region. Everybody kept a cider barrel in their cellar.”
With hillsides full of fresh apples, West Virginia actually has a long history of cider-making. But despite that heritage, the soon-to-open Hawk Knob Ciders and Meads will be the first commercial cidery in the state.
"Tradition is very important to us, and we want to go back to how we traditionally practice farming."
Keeping true to their roots (and their tastes), Josh and his partner at Hawk Knob will be fermenting traditional Appalachian taste— so don’t expect the same sweet stuff you find in the grocery store. Homemade Mountain State cellar cider is dry.
The first few releases from Hawk Knob will be by-the-book. They’ll start with a straight “Appalachian standard,” from heirloom and heritage apples. That same recipe will also be available barrel-aged, another callback to tradition.
“All cider used to be made in barrels,” Josh said. “They would scavenge old whiskey barrels.”
Rounding out the repertoire will be an innovative but regionally inspired creation, a cider blended with mountain elderberries. And last, a unique ‘wild fermented’ batch.
“Usually, when you ferment cider, you use champagne or red wine strands of yeast,” Josh said. “But apple skin has all it needs. With wild fermentation, you kind of let nature do its thing.”
He said the wild fermentation should bring out a more nutty, yeasty, bready flavor— but you can’t totally know what to expect.
“The most significant difference, people will probably not notice until they’ve tried it from season to season,” he said. “The apple skin is a multiple-yeast culture, so depending on the climate of that season, each different species in the population will be higher or lower. Other cideries want their drinks to taste the same every time you open a bottle. But that’s not natural.”
Hawk Knob’s focus on nature and tradition isn’t just a preference of taste. It’s also the core of the business.
“We really feel it’s important to move back to a regional, sustainable agriculture system,” Josh said. “Small-scale agriculture in this state can drive a new economy. Tradition is very important to us, and we want to go back to how we traditionally practice farming.”
All their apples are sourced within the state, including many from their own farm. They’re looking for more orchards so they can grow next year, and for more local honey to make their meads, too. They want to offer incentives to encourage more farmers to contribute, even if it’s only a small bit.
The only holdup on the cidery opening is label approval, which they expect to happen in a few weeks. But they’re already hearing from other West Virginians who grew up around cellar cider, and are thrilled to taste it again.