Insider's Guide to Spas
Smooth Ambler Spirits
Smooth Ambler

Food & Drink

From Spas to Spirits

Alia Akkam

Water has been a recurring theme in renowned architect & resort spa designer Tag Galyean’s work. It’s no surprise then that his new venture includes vodka called Whitewater.

After hearing the news of a lemonade-flavored vodka bound for liquor store shelves, Tinsley Azariah Galyean, Jr., simply known as “Tag” among friends and professional circles, said, “Or, you could just take our vodka and mix it with lemonade.”

A pragmatic purist, Galyean knows the country’s favorite white spirit is a mass-market enterprise, with countless brands flaunting countless flavor permutations vying for attention—yet he’s pretty confident in his own vodka, unadulterated, small-batch, West Virginia-made Whitewater.

Whitewater Vodka is part of Smooth Ambler Spirits, the company Galyean launched in 2009 with partner John Little to illuminate his native West Virginia. “I’m seventy,” he says. “You work very hard your whole life, you save money, but not a lot. I wanted to create a business that had a life of its own.”

So he did, a “grain-to-glass” distillery as he calls it, set in a 5,200-square-foot stillhouse in Maxwelton, in Greenbrier County, where the lush Appalachian hills are an inspiring backdrop. Blessed with a high altitude, waters enriched with limestone, and a local farmer who grows organic corn and wheat (the malted barley comes by way of Wisconsin for now), Smooth Ambler has assembled a quality craft portfolio in a short amount of time.

Beyond the thrice-distilled vodka, which embraces a three-grain mashbill for greater complexity, there is citrusy Greenbrier Gin, with hints of black pepper and juniper; un-aged Exceptional White Whiskey, a refined moonshine; Yearling bourbon made from corn, wheat, and barley (“We sold out our last issue,” Galyean points out. “People clamor for bourbon.”); bold Old Scout Bourbon, aged for nearly six years, with a high rye content; and the brand new 7-year-aged Old Scout Rye.

Galyean’s attention to detail has certainly helped propel the brand. As a long time spa and resort designer at the helm of TAG Studio, which he runs with his son Taylor — in fact, he pioneered the early 1900s, European luxury resort spa trend stateside at The Greenbrier resort in nearby White Sulphur Springs 24 years ago — Galyean brings an aesthete’s eye to Smooth Ambler. Grains, for instance, are milled at the distillery, where handwritten labels are affixed to each hand bottled spirit. Slow and meticulous is Galyean’s approach, and he’ll never waver: “You can’t make it any better.”

Smooth Ambler is a distinct, direct reflection of West Virginia. Galyean loves the locale for its small town feel (“This little place I live in has thirty-eight hundred people.”) and its stunning environs, including the rapids for which his vodka is named. But it’s the Mountain State’s rich, pre-Revolutionary War history that intrigues him most. “This is a rational place for a distillery,” he says. “The Scotch-Irish settled in Appalachia, and they were whiskey drinkers.”

Alia Akkam

Alia Akkam

A native New Yorker, Alia Akkam is a food, drink, travel, and design writer now living out her childhood dreams of Europe in Budapest. She misses Broadway and old-school steakhouses.