When many of us think of Appalachia, coal is typically the first industry that comes to mind.
But whiskey, specifically bourbon and rye, is as much a historical part of the Appalachian economy as coal.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, whiskey was used as currency; it was worth more as a distilled product than the grain it came from. Corn was plentiful and operating a still was easy and inexpensive, so making whiskey and sending it over the mountains to cities in the east or down the Mississippi was profitable for farmers and distillers in the Appalachian region.
Prohibition put a stop to the legal production of alcohol (though entrepreneurial distillers didn’t let that stop them) for 13 years. Even today, distillers still face regulations that wine and beer producers don’t. In spite of our country’s sometimes contentious social and political relationship with liquor, the production of whiskey by small batch, or craft, distillers has surged in popularity over the last two decades.
According to the American Craft Spirits Association, the number of active craft distillers in the U.S. grew by almost 21 percent last year; as of August 2017, there are 1,589 craft distilleries in the country.
The craft spirits market continues to grow as well, with a growth rate of 25 percent and $3 billion in sales last year. And the industry is employing more people: In 2017, employment grew 47.8 percent.
That kind of economic growth is not common to most industries that call Appalachia home. But in places like Greenbrier County, West Virginia, craft distilling helps to create positive economic growth.
Smooth Ambler, which calls Lewisburg, West Virginia, home, opened in 2009. The distillery started with three people, but the business has been so successful that by the end of this year, it will employ 21 people.
John Little, Smooth Ambler co-owner and master distiller, said that he and his father-in-law Tag Galyean decided they wanted to produce something made in West Virginia that showcased local resources.
“West Virginia has a lot to offer … wonderful people who are smart and friendly. Land is cheap, the air and water are clean,” Little said. “So, we wanted to make something here that showcased the people here, and something that we could export from West Virginia. Show people that, hey, we can make the best quality product in West Virginia.”
But it wasn’t just making a high-quality product in West Virginia; one of their goals is to give people a way to earn a solid local paycheck, too.
“People are trying to figure out how to make a living in West Virginia, or how to get back to West Virginia and make a living. We’re trying to give people a reason not to leave West Virginia,” Little said.
About 6,000 people visit the distillery’s tasting room every year, most from out of town and many of whom are either simply driving by on the interstate and see the sign or come in because they’re staying in town. The people visiting the distillery create a ripple effect in the area’s economy.
Smooth Ambler is actively working to attract visitors to the region. They work with the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the distillery was just honored with the Spirit of West Virginia award at the West Virginia Governor’s Conference on Tourism. The distillery puts on special events for new releases, and when people come into town for the event, they often stay at a local hotel and eat at the restaurants.
So, the production of whiskey results in jobs in the distillery, as well as in the local restaurants and towns. And for the local farms.
Smooth Ambler buys about 80 percent of its grain from Turkey Creek Farms, in Union, West Virginia, and all the grain the farm grows goes to the distillery. But as Smooth Ambler expands, they need more grain.
Little notes that in a place like Greenbrier County, which has a population of about 35,000, even a relatively small number of new jobs in the area makes a huge impact.
The West Virginia Great Barrel Company announced in October that they will build a manufacturing facility in Greenbrier County, which will bring 138 new jobs to the region. This kind of adjacent industry creates another positive impact on the local economy.
The company produces oak whiskey barrels using West Virginia timber – before, the timber was harvested and sent out of state to be processed. It makes sense that a whiskey barrel manufacturer would want to locate themselves both where the raw materials grow and in the center of whiskey country (with places like Lexington, Kentucky, Charlotte, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Ohio and Washington, DC, all within a five-hour drive).
As the Appalachian region look at ways to transition away from economic sectors such as coal, reaching farther back in its history can inspire new economic growth.
When asked if he thought Smooth Ambler’s success could be recreated, Little said, “If we’re the unicorn now, I don’t believe there’s a reason we should stay the unicorn. If there’s viable business here, if we’re improving the image of West Virginia, the only outcome of that can be that there’s more opportunity here. Every little bit counts.”
Craft distilleries employ local people to create a local product and a local economy that the whole state can be proud of.
Sarah Ramsey is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, Virginia. She focuses on the intersection of public policy and small food and beverage businesses.