Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Smooth Ambler Yearling Bourbon - An Infant of Power and Grace.

Smooth Ambler is an exciting, relatively new whiskey project in the heart of West Virginia.  Unlike a lot of craft distillers these days, John Little, Master Distiller, wants to make good bourbon in the classic style.  This is almost a rarity in the Wild Wild West of craft spirits where everyone is trying to do something wildly inventive, iconoclastic, and "break the mold" in one domain or another.  For many craft distillers this mean rapid maturation in small barrels, and sometimes even additional tricks to enhance rapid maturation ranging from high heat, low frequency sound, wood chips and stave chunks to enhance surface area or even mechanical pressure to force the whisky through the wood.  There's also a diverse creativity in mash bills and experimentation with what should go into the mash.  Smooth Ambler doesn't do any of this.  They make traditional spirits in the traditional way.  And they do it well.  The biggest novelty here is that they are doing it in the mountains of West Virginia.

Now a big reason that so many other craft distillers are all about rapid maturation is that they want to start selling whiskey sooner.  Smooth Ambler, like many other craft distillers, also sells a variety of white (unaged) spirits, specifically Greenbriar Gin and Whitewater Vodka (and a barrel aged gin as well).  But whiskey is the primary angle.  Instead of selling young whiskey that has been rapidly "matured", like so many others, Smooth Ambler went the route of bottling casks of bourbon and rye selected ("Curated") from other distilleries to tide them over until their own distilled bourbon was ready.  Many other craft distillers sell bourbon or rye they got from another distillery too (and many of them do not actually distill anything of their own either) - and there has been a bunch of controversy about dishonesty among what Chuck Cowdery has labelled "NDP" Non Distiller Producers because many of them play games with the labeling laws and hide the fact that they are selling someone else's juice.  Chuck asked:

"why do business with someone who makes you play stupid guessing games about the basic question of who made their product?"

Smooth Amber doesn't do this either.  About a year ago I wrote about Smooth Ambler's "curated" bottlings of bourbons and ryes from Lawrenceburg Distillers of Indiana, now MGP.  They have taken pains to separately brand and label their "curated" whiskeys - labelled "Old Scout" and "Very Old Scout".  They are completely, refreshingly, honest and up front about acknowledging what and where.  In that post I pointed out that Smooth Ambler did the whole brokered bourbon thing the right way - and for the right reasons (i.e. to help finance the development of a native West Virginia true straight bourbon whiskey.)  I said that buying Smooth Ambler was essentially a "patriotic act".   I stand by that assessment just as much today as I did a year ago.

John Little - nice guy - but lethal to fish
John Little, himself, is extremely appealing, by the way.  Craftsman, redneck, intellectual, and what the Yiddish call "Mensch".  Little is a complete person: family man, thinker, passionate, full of integrity.  I enjoy every interaction I have with him.  And I've had quite a few thanks to social media.  John is a redneck who loves to shoot (and teaches his kids to shoot), fish, and build stuff.  He also likes to argue politics.  Being at the nexus of a number of communities (i.e. whisky epicures, drinkers, and his West Virginia small town community) these debates tend to bring together people from across the usual cultural and political divides.  Little is Solomonic in these things.  He sees the good in every position.  In the polarized world of American politics people who can do this are a rarity.  I must confess I have come to like him quite a bit.

But what about Smooth Ambler's native West Virginia bourbon whiskey?  Over the past year or so they have released a product called "Yearling" which is a young taste of their bourbon.  This is analogous to many other new distillery's "work in progress" bottlings like Kilkerran's "Work in Progress"; Ardbeg" "Young" and "Still Young", Kilchoman's "Inaugural", and Mackmyra's "Preludium".  Yearling is Smooth Ambler's "Preludium"

It's made with a wheated mash bill (corn, wheat and barley) and the new batches (batch 11 is the current one) are aged in full size new oak barrels.  Older batches reflect Smooth Ambler's evolution.  Early batches were aged in  small kiln dried barrels and a mash bill with more wheat and less corn .  As they went along they tuned the mash bill, upping the corn, and changed the barrel management to exclusively large sized barrels.  (Specifics of the mash bill follow in Little's comments at the end of this post).   The bottle I picked up and carried around for months and months is one of the old ones.  It's under two years old - too young to be called "Straight Bourbon".  Young wheaters aren't supposed to be particularly tasty - but the proof is in the glass.

Smooth Ambler Yearling Bourbon Whiskey 46% abv.  

375ml bottle.  Aged 1 Year and 10 Months.  Batch 4, Bottled 5/28/12 by TJH.

Color: light amber and dark gold with russet glints.

Nose:  Gentle bourbon aromas of stewed stone fruits, citrus, and candy.  Lightly floral with elements of violets and mint, with a vegetal and nutty quality like unroasted peanuts.  Underneath is a lovely exotic oak aromas that come off like patchouli or sandalwood incense.   The nose is lovely.  It takes 20-30 minutes to really bloom in the glass but when it does it gets bigger and sweeter than you'd think it could.

Palate:  Sweet and gently spicy.  The opening is sweet with treacle, peach, solvent, and corn syrup and spicy with red pepper flakes.  The expansion follows quickly with a prickly warm earthy musky quality I find reminiscent of Beam: loamy and farmy - like digging in the earthen floor of an old barn.  The whole mid-palate has an elegant lean lithe quality that reads "sophisticated spirit" to me.  There's some bready yeasty notes in the late expansion.  This is the area where I most notice the youth.  At the turn to the finish there's a bitter herbal turn that curbs the sweetness of the opening.  There are notes of new leather and classic herbal bitters here.  The finish is gentle with oak and char and earthy glow.  The herbal bitter aspect lasts longer than you'd expect for such a young whisky.

 The mouth feel is gentle and light - but flavor dense and never thin.  Despite the sweet opening the whole balance is almost dry.  This is lovely, nuanced, elegant bourbon already.  At 46% there's head room to experiment with water.  Water adds to the musk on the nose, but notches down the attractive incense aspects.  A few drops amps up the heat and spice on the palate, slightly enriches the mouth feel, but also adds to the bitters on the finish.  I prefer it neat - without water.

Final verdict:  delicious.


It's fine bourbon now and it shows enormous promise for the future.  Wheated bourbons, in particular, tend to age well.  This is a fine distillate.  With John Little's shepherding, there is no reason to expect anything less than great things from Smooth Ambler's own bourbons in the future.  

I discussed these points explicitly with John Little.  He described the evolution of Yearling's mash bill and barrel management as follows:

"Yearling started off as 60% corn, 20% wheat, and 20% malted barley. It was all originally barreled in small casks (5-15 gallons). It was kiln dried, I believe. I think it adds to the one real negative in small casks...popsicle stick or sawdust notes. Now the recipe is 73% corn, 15% wheat, 12% malted barley....all in big barrels. So, the first stuff we release will be the old recipe and we will transition into the new recipe...but all will be from big barrels."

My bottle here is the early mash bill small barrel stuff.  That means that later batches of Yearling should be even better.  I'm going to seek out a later sample and do a head to head.  As for when the flagship Smooth Ambler native bourbon will be coming out, Little says:  

"I think it's good now but we are going to wait until 2015 for the release of our "flagship". It will be named something else, but we can't quite nailed the name yet. Suggestions?"

I'll be thinking of names.  If you have any suggestions put them in the comments below and I'll be sure to pass them along.


  1. I might be a litle boring. But I would like a name like "Smooth Ambler Straight Bourbon 5yo", this makes Smooth Ambler the name of the product

    1. That's better than calling it "The General Lee" or "Whiskey Rockets". I was thinking "Smooth Ambler West Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey". I like the State pride angle. "West Virginia Pride".

  2. Hey Josh,

    Have you had a chance to try Smooth Ambler's Rye yet?

    Also, do you know how widely available Smooth Ambler is? Especially the Yearling bourbon?

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