Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Smooth Ambler Old Scout & Very Old Scout - Brokered Bourbon As TheRight Thing To Do.

Smooth Ambler is an exciting new craft distillery in Lewisburg West Virginia started in 2009 by John Little (and his father-in-law Tag Galyean) . They make a range of white spirits (a vodka, a gin, and a white dog whisky) but what John really wants to do is make Bourbon. Their young juice, called "Yearling" shows great promise. It's not straight bourbon yet, by law. It just needs more time in the wood to be that, and while their own juice ages they are independently bottling some nice barrels of LDI bourbon. This business of selling brokered Bourbon is a topic that engenders some hand wringing in some quadrants - but shouldn't in this particular case. Why? We want our brands to be "real". Yet many of us enjoy brokered Bourbon, Rye (and Scotch) on a regular basis that is labelled with the names of distilleries that don't exist (or no longer exist). Have you ever tried Black Maple Hill, Noah's Mill, Rowan Creek, Widow Jane, Johhnie Drum, Bulleit, Hirsch, Corner Creek, Jefferson's, Michter's or Whistlepig? These, and many more, are independent bottlings (and or vattings) of other people's juice and are labelled with brands that aren't actual distilleries (or aren't any more). This isn't fraud - it's whiskey brokerage and it was how most of the Bourbon business operated in days of yore.

However, there is a measure of dishonesty in the branding of some of those listed products. I confess I was a disappointed when I learned that Michter's was a brokerage product, and not a product of the historic Pennsylvania distillery of the same name (which is gone gone gone - razed to the ground gone). Read Chuck Cowdery's excellent piece of investigative journalism "The Best Whisky You'll Never Taste" for a detailed account of that distillery and what happened to it (and it's brand name). I wish that American regulations compelled bottlers to make plain the distillery of origin - as Scotland does. I encountered similar feelings with Black Maple Hill.

Well, Smooth Ambler is a different story. It is a genuine Anerican Small Craft Distiller who has chosen the arduous and narrow path of making real West Virginia Bourbon (and soon to be Straight Bourbon Whisky). They are brokering older whisky to pay the bills. They are not alone on this path. Active distillers selling independent bottlings while their own juice matures include Willett's, Breckenridge. There are plenty of other variations too, such as Pendleton's who distill their own white, but bottle someone else's brown. Folks like Willett's, Breckenridge, and Smooth Ambler are real distilleries actually making new real American Bourbon. That, to me, gives them a higher standing for selling brokered Bourbon than companies that are just brokerage houses without stills. The money isn't just profit for a dealer - it's operating capital that acts an investment in whiskey's expansion in America.

Smooth Ambler is fairly unusual, though, in selling both their own young Bourbon, and bottling someone else's older stuff at the same time - often side by side on the same shelf. They are keeping the branding straight by having created a distinct label for their independent bottlings: "Old Scout". They currently have two lines: "Old Scout" at 5-7 years old, and "Very Old Scout" at 11-20 or so years old. The stuff is sourced from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). It's from a mash bill that features a very high amount of rye: 36% according to the Smooth Ambler web site. That amount of rye should isn't typical of Bourbon. Smooth Ambler is in pretty good company in getting juice from that big anonymous contract operation LDI. According to a very informative post last year on Sku's Recent Eats called "How do you know it's LDI?" the list of brands that use LDI juice includes: [High West & Templeton Rye] "Redemption Bourbon, Redemption Rye, Bulleit Rye, Temptation Bourbon, the new series of Willett three year old ryes, W.H. Harrison Bourbon, Big Bottom Bourbon, High Whiskey, Riverboat Rye and Smooth Ambler's Old Scout Bourbon."

FYI - Sku also recently reviewed Smooth Amber's Very Old Scout, Old Scout, and Old Scout rye:

So, be clear in your mind, when you buy Smooth Ambler Yearling or white spirits they are local products of West Virginia. When you buy Old Scout labelled whiskies they are from Indiana, but bottled in West Virginia. If this may makes you feel skeptical remember that purchases are political acts. When you buy a product you are supporting that business and that community. To that end, I personally feel good about supporting John Little and Smooth Ambler. I like the idea of someone making Bourbon in West Virginia. Real Straight Bourbon takes years to properly mature. We should nurture this project for the years required for Smooth Ambler's Yearling stock to become fully mature Straight Bourbon. It may turn out to be a significant gift to the world. Furthermore, West Virginia's economy is dominated by coal production - which isn't healthy for the inhabitants of WVa (or the World) from an environmental standpoint - or a long term economic one either. New business ventures succeeding in WVa are good for America. Given that you're going to drink Bourbon anyway - if all else is equal, supporting John Little's nascent project and WVa feels almost like a patriotic act to me. If the Bourbon is good that is...

Old Scout Batch 1 49.5% abv 5 years old

(bottle purchased at Park Avenue Liquors)

Color: Medium-light amber with copper glints.

Nose: Stewed apricot-peach compote, acetone, mint, corn pones with treacle syrup and distant lavender. A lovely nose. With extended time a musky sour & rich aroma like sourdough bread and marmalade and sweat come up. It all reads "Bourbon" to me and I like it.

Sweet & solventy on the open with an immediate salty earthy quality on the expansion. "Peanuts & violets" is how I put it to myself as sort of a metaphoric shorthand. There is floral sweet in sharp and solventy entry. Mint, and lavender play in the strong acetone of youth. The mouthfeel is light, but not thin. The mid palate is black pepper heat and earthy tang followed by a clear flavor of the aftermath of eating salt on the mid and sides of the tongue. I've noticed salty notes like this before in Wild Turkey 101 and Rittenhouse Rye. It meshes with the earthy dusky corn to come at a clear salted peanut effect. In fact, tasted blind I might mistake this for Wild Turkey 101 - buy there is more going on here, with the florals of the opening reflecting the high rye content of the mash bill. The finish is rather gentle compared to the fierce opening and mid. The spicy heat of pepper and drying salt fade without much wood tannins filling in. You are left drying, faintly oaked, basking in warm musky loam.

All in all, a wonderful bourbon experience. It's not state of the art value (Four Roses Single Barrel lives at this price point) but it's solid. Interesting. On the whole worth drinking. Be aware that current batches are older: 6 and 7 years old - but still LDI.


Very Old Scout 50% 14 year old

(sample generously provided by Smooth Ambler)

Color dark coppery amber

Nose: Nice bourbon nose of acetone, toffee citrus, phenol polish, faint glove leather and young pale tobacco. A bit more rounded and plummy and less solventy than the younger Old Scout.

The palate entry is sweet with caramel corn and oak filigree (yes, oak perfume up front), daisies and mums florals, and char. The midpalate thins and dries slightly at first, with a surprising lack of density in the mouth feel, but then the expansion hits, focused on a big 100 proof spirit prickle glow that brings radiant stewed stone fruit and citrus flavor slamming the back of the palate, with whiffs of mint. Dark salty olives emerge at the turn to the finish and oak and char join the dark and salt in the embers of the finish which is ultimately tannic, drying, and lighter than you'd think. This is big old bourbon. It's got the lean-ness in the mouth feel and the dryness in the mid palate I associate with age, but sweetness on the tongue up front and isn't overly wooded. I suspect that the vatting is giving additional amplitude fore and aft. There's a lot going on in the palate.

It's interesting to me to see the interplay of sweet and salt read as peanuts and violets in the younger Old Scout ends up like oily Kalamata olives in the Very Old Scout. I like both flavors and they aren't ones you get every day in Bourbon.


Update: If you put a nice dollop of water in your dram of VOS and let it air for a half and hour or so thinks open up dramatically with lots of sweet soft apricot peach citrus, leather, jujubes, cinnamon apple candy and red hots on the opening & mid. The back end Kalamata olives tease apart into a dose of complex oak incense trending into bitterness. VOS flirts with glory in this fashion. The dense cinnamon red hots are very very nice. A tad less oak bitters in the balance and this would be a solid five star selection.

Bottom line - these Old Scouts from Smooth Ambler are fine sipping Bourbon and are part of an interesting project well worth keeping an eye on.


  1. With all the new whiskey distilleries popping up, I'm almost thinking I should gang up with a few of my fellow booze loving bloggers and start our own distillery! We could totally make something amazing...

    That's my random thought for the day...

    1. A brilliant idea, Bob. However, I must caution you, distillers work very hard and take big risks. But most of them seem pretty happy! I think it's a dream a lot of us share...

  2. I served the Yearling for a group of my whiskyfriends and they were impressed with the bourbons quality at the young age.

    I recently visited the distillery


    I randomly snapshot a cask end and it seems like it's bourbon from DSP KY9 (Four Roses)

    Maybe the sourced casks from LDI can be partly Four Roses produced. Both used to be owned by Seagrams


    1. I saw your post, Steffen - it's brilliant. I'm basing the LDI info on the percentage of rye in the mash bill (which matches LDI's "40% Bourbon" at 36%. The barrel end you've got a picture of is definitely Kentucky "KY9". But 4 Roses is KY8. KY9 is the Old Continental / Owl Hollow DSP for Bernheim (who also have KY1 and KY2). I'm not sure what that is doing there - but maybe some of the old Bourbon they scouted is old Bernheim stuff? There's a story there for sure.

  3. Sorry , I remembered wrong. It actually looks like KY8, which also makes a lot more sense with the Seagram label. So I doubt it is KY9 ? Very blurred, but KY9 I can't see fits any theory :-)

    1. You are 100% correct. The photo pretty clearly shows KY8 - Four Roses - which fits perfectly with Seagrams. What a wild looking barrel head. I just noticed that Park Avenue Liquors has the 19 Year Old VOS (for $90 - a pretty good value for such a senior Bourbon). I'm quite curious about it. The point here is that there are many batches of VOS. Perhaps one of them had Four Roses juice (and old, pre-Kirin Four Roses juice to boot). Maybe they all do. The LDI story for VOS is based on circumstantial evidence.

      I will say this. Old Scout and Very Old Scout taste like the same juice, at different ages. I would wager pretty hard that they are from the same distillery.

  4. I don't know where the younger casked were distilled. All I know is they all were sourced from LDI. I should have paid more attention, but we were going to taste some stuff :-)
    But it's pretty interesting that Four Roses Casks were also maturing in Indiana


    1. Indeed it is. I wish I could taste what's in that cask.

      I'm also quite curious about the origins of many contract bourbons. What's in Willett's Single Barrel? Rowan Creek? Black Maple Hill?

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