The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

West Virginia Gin Comes Up Short at ‘Food Oscars’

You may have read earlier this month that an up-and-coming West Virginia distillery was nominated as a national finalist in the prestigious Good Food Awards.

Considered the Oscars of the industry, the Good Food Awards reviewed nearly 1,400 entries before selecting Lewisburg’s Smooth Ambler Greenbrier Gin as one of only 184 finalists from 31 states to make the cut for this year’s ceremony.

The awards were handed out last week and, alas, Smooth Ambler didn’t win. But as they say at the Oscars, it really is an honor just to be nominated among such great company.

Smooth Ambler’s gin was nominated based on product quality (as judged through blind tastings) and their approach to environmental and social responsibility. It was West Virginia’s only finalist, although 14 honorees come from a Washington, D.C.-anchored “food shed” that covers West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Although I’m not a gin aficionado by any means, I have sampled Smooth Ambler and have to say it’s pretty special. Earning a score of 91 (and comments like “it really sings” and “it’s perfect”) by American Craft Spirits, Greenbrier Gin blends its juniper base with citrus and black-pepper spice to create a crisp, smooth and luxurious finish.

To learn more, visit and

Annual surveys by folks who care what we imbibe always show that West Virginia’s drink of choice — at least when it comes to high-octane refreshment — is vodka. We Mountaineers purchase (and, presumably, consume) more of that crisp, clear liquor than we do whiskey, bourbon, scotch or what have you.

I do enjoy the occassional vodka martini (Ketel One, up, dusty, bleu-cheese olives) so you’ll get no argument from me now that the people have spoken.

And if you’d like to learn some of the more civilized ways to sip, savor and appreciate this popular libation, the folks at Iceberg Vodka (now available across the state) offer this bit of information and advice:

Vodka 101: Steps to becoming a Vodka Connoisseur

 The word vodka comes from the Russian word for water (“voda”) and means literally “little water.” With so many different brands of “little water” on the market, how do you know which one’s for you?

“Generally, the purer the water used to make the vodka, the better the taste,” says Frank Heaps, CEO of the Newfoundland-based distiller. “There is a wide range of vodka brands on the market, all distilled differently, and people should taste test them, as they would wine, to understand and appreciate the differences.

“The secret is to take the time to savor and enjoy vodka, not just as a shot or in a mixed drink. Knowing how to taste vodka and discovering a personal favorite can mean the difference between mixing an okay drink and an amazing drink.”

His five steps to becoming a vodka connoisseur? 

1.      First and foremost, use a chilled glass. Sipping vodka that has been slightly chilled brings out the natural flavours and “nose” and allows you to savor the taste. Don’t just chug it back, tempting as that is,  instead sip slowly in small swallows. The purer the vodka, the easier it will go down and its lack of hard edge will be very noticeable. Keep the vodka bottle in the fridge so it remains cold. Note: A square bottle sits better on the shelf, takes up less room and won’t roll over onto the leftover meatloaf. Never store vodka in the freezer. Extreme cold can ruin the “nose” and taste.

2.      Before taking a drink, put the glass to your nose and breathe in. A pure, high-quality vodka will have a subtle aroma of fruit, grain or spice and identifying these will ensure that you are drinking superior vodka. 

3.      Now have a drink! Depending on what it is distilled from, you should be able to identify the differences in flavor and craftsmanship of the vodka, much like with a fine wine. Corn, potatoes, rye and wheat are used for distilling vodka. Try to taste the difference!

4.      Forget about your mixer. The only way to taste vodka’s true characteristics is to drink it straight up!

5.      Pour another and enjoy your next sip! Experts became experts by practicing! (EDITOR’S NOTE: Within reason, of course.)

Hankering for Something New? Try a Belgian Brew

If you’re looking for something fun (and delicious) to do this week, check out Bridge Road Bistro’s “Belgian Beer Tasting” at 6 p.m. Tuesday. You can sample four different Belgian-style beers – each paired with food to complement it – for just $29, plus tax and gratuity.

On the menu:

  • BAVIK PILS: A light Belgian pilsner with a fine white head, great aroma and forward aftertaste. It will be paired with smoked salmon tartar with avocado and tomato.
  • WITTEKERKE: An unfiltered Belgian wheat beer, which will accompany a grilled duck and Thai basil spring roll with citrus chili peanut sauce.
  • PIRAAT: A Belgian Triple Ale, which is much more bold and rich. You’ll sample it with grilled skewered flank steak seasoned with Caribbean mango jerk.
  • GULDEN DRAAK: This Belgian Dark Triple is a dessert-like sipping beer similar to barley wine. It will be served with a rich flourless chocolate torte with caramel sauce.

Reservations are required by calling the restaurant at 304-720-3500.

Here’s a toast to great West Virginia tastes

Last night’s tag-team Ambler Spirits/Bridge Road Bistro tasting was a blast, most notably because it showcased some mighty fine West Virginia food and drink.

As the evening started, guests were offered their choice of special cocktails: a “Candy Apple Vodka” (nicely light and sweet) or a “Cucumber Gin” made with fresh cucumber puree and a touch of simple syrup. Both were tasty.

Next came shots of Smooth Ambler vodka, and later gin, each paired with a trio of bite-size appetizers. I enjoyed the Georgia Caviar (from across the waters, not from the Peach State) and really liked the New Potato with Caraway Seed and a delicious Smoked Trout with Apple Relish.

Both spirits were good, too. I’ve tried Ambler’s vodka before, so I was really taken with the gin — something I’ve seldom tried. What a nice blending of herby, slightly floral and piney notes with a smooth finish!

Before the evening started, Smooth Ambler owner Tag Galyean shared a little history about his new distillery and announced the small-batch spirits being produced there are already scoring among the highest brands in tasting competitions. And they’re all made right here in the Mountain State. Love that.

Nothing to Whine About at Expanded Wine Shop

So I finally had a chance to check out the newly located (and larger!) Wine Shop at Capitol Market. Since moving down the hall to the space formerly occupied by Perdue’s, the shop has been able to rearrange and, more importantly, expand its offerings. There’s now room for more craft beers, more imported cheeses and, of course, more wine. The most exciting change for me, is the addition of a special climate-controlled room that houses a nice collection of premium wines. Not that I’ll be a frequent purchaser of these pricier bottles, but it makes me happy knowing they’re being well taken care of.

And the service is still great. After years ago proclaiming a Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch one of the best red wines I’ve ever had — and recently going ga-ga over a Rustenberg Chardonnay — I’m pretty much ready to declare South African wines the best in the world. (And that’s a big statement coming from this French and California-loving wineaux.) When I asked owner Ted Armbrecht for something similar, he directed me to a few bottles of Pinotage, the wine that put South Africa on the map. My favorite was the Wildekrans Estate Pinotage from the Walker Bay area. At $17.99, it was worth every penny.

Just like walking into a room in your house after the furniture has been rearranged, browsing through the new Wine Shop takes a few minutes to get used to. You have to re-learn where things are and the new lay of the land. But that’s a small price to pay for progress. And pampered bottles.

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Speaking of libations, I’ll be heading down to Bridge Road Bistro tonight for a special vodka and gin tasting featuring Smooth Ambler spirits paired with some of the Bistro’s tasty morsels. (Check out the full story here: I’ll post all the juicy details after the event tonight or tomorrow morning. Or tomorrow afternoon, depending on just how potent these potables turn out to be!