Sunday, July 26, 2015

Smoky Beast's barrel of Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye Shoots The Moon.

There has been a lot of excitement lately about a pretty special private barrel pick of Smooth Amber Old Scout Rye selected by Steve Zeller aka the "Smoky Beast".  Smooth Ambler's Old Scout Single Barrel Rye is typically 7 years old, cask strength, and very good; John Little's nice cherry picks of MGP/LDI's rye barrels.  There was some consternation recently when Smooth Ambler announced that the Single Barrel rye expression were going to disappear off the standard line-up and become a gift-shop exclusive.  That sad news implied that the honey barrels of mature rye in MGP/LDI's rickhouses were becoming scarce.  Hardly surprising:  part of the drum beat of scarcity afflicting high-end American whiskey all over the place these days.  
My connection with the story began in the dimming days of last autumn, October 17th, 2014 when Steve Zeller,  messaged me:

Steven Zeller:  i need your help on an urgent whiskey related matter

Joshua Gershon Feldman:  What's up?

Steven Zeller:  you wouldn't be free to come up to our place for a few minutes after work today would you?  B
lind tasting, american. will be the most consequential tasting of my young whiskey career. don't want to spoil it any more than that

Joshua Gershon Feldman:  ...dum dum dum DOHM!

I had been to blind tastings at Steve's before.  Some had involved some of the finest Bourbons possible.  One involved the peatiest whiskies on the planet.  (Finale post of that blind here).

I had no idea what I was going to be tasting - other than it was American.  But Steve was excited and that made me excited.  I was assuming very high end Bourbon.  When I arrived, I was facing this:
The blind flight of 5 with the blank tasting notes.
My job was to rank them.  I did so by writing out tasting notes and then numbering them in order of preference from #1 to #5.  I'll list my blind tasting notes (faithfully transcribed) below the reveal listed immediate below each note: 

1. Color: Amber
Nose: buttery nose (ND OC, IWH). Nougat wax vanilla w/touch of bitter herbal (rot).  Palate: Honey, juicyfruit, yellow florals, light citrus. 100 proof BiB. High corn Bourbon. #5 Reveal:  Michter's 10 yo Rye (2014)  I thought that this was a dusty high-corn Bourbon like Old Charter 7 or IW Harper.  I was completely wrong: it was a rye.  I ranked this one last.  Michter's Rye 10 experienced a big change in 2014 compared to previous years, going from a dark and very mature tasting rye to a much lighter profile, presumably because it stopped being old rye purchased on the bulk market when their contract distillate began hitting 10 years old.  Their contract distillate is apparently Brown-Forman (dsp-ky-354) - thus the same stuff as Rittenhouse Rye from a few years ago - but aged 10 years.  The comedy is that not only did I not recognize this as rye at all, but that I thought it was a low rye Bourbon mash bill!  The perils of tasting blind...

2. Color: Dark Amber red.  Nose: Rancio, herbs, big (high proof) dark KY tobacco peach compote bark. Lush  Palate: Huge lush honeyed herbal malty ivy, licorice (black) caramel cilantro rancio High proof (=- 57% (old Medley Rye). Intense. Bold. Long finish – honey herbal. #1 Reveal:  Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye - Barrel 990 (the winner) Yes, I thought this was an Old Medley rye - like Rathskeller or LeNell's or one of the big old Willett's ryes.  Blind, I thought that was a $1,000+ bottle of American classic rye.

3. Color:  Coppery dark amber. Nose:  oak varnish, herbs.  Palate: Big 55-60% high rye bourbon. Candied orange peel \blonde VA tobacco. Peach/citrus stewed fruit.  Four Roses vibe #3 Reveal:  Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye (a different barrel, not selected)

4. Color:  Copper penny.  Nose:  Oak sandalwood nougat, honey, citrus, leather, dust, vegetable oil.  Palate:  50-55% high rye bourbon. Candied citrus, blond VA tobacco, honey, vanilla BT (Buffalo Trace) vibe – ER17. Big bold assertive tobacco spice leather rich rancio bitter.  #2 Reveal:  Thomas H. Handy Rye 2012The biggest shocker for me.  Thomas H. Handy rye is among my favorite ryes; a benchmark for me.  Here I didn't even recognize it as a rye.  To my credit, I recognized the distillery (Buffalo Trace), and that it was from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  But I thought it was probably the most different member of that group possible: the Eagle Rare 17.  Yes, I'm making my humiliation public.  This was the real kicker of the group.  I had ranked my favorite rye SECOND after Zeller's barrel pick.  This was utterly shocking to me.  Friends who have drammed with me recently know that I have been putting some century old Old Hermitage pro-Pro rye up against Handy 2012 in tastings.  I do that because Handy is a benchmark for me.  Such are the perils of tasting blind.

5. Color: Copper.  Nose: Peanut, rancio, honey, light tanned leather, vegetable oil, floral vanilla, sawn oak.  Palate: Vanilla! Honey. Rancio. Ivy herbs. Mint. High rye Bourbon. #4. Reveal: another unselected barrel of Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye
When the smoke cleared I had only correctly identified one of them as a rye at all.  I had incorrectly thought the rest were Bourbons.  Pretty humiliating.  But I knew which ones I liked best - and in that I was dead on correct.
The big reveal.
The rest is history.  Steve picked barrel #990, which yielded a whopping 56 bottles.  The massive amount of evaporation suggests storage in a very hot part of the warehouse.  This would explain the massive amount of wood extraction and rich flavors.  Steve generously gave out samples to a selection of very interesting people who showed pictures of their hoards.  Steve picked the most outrageous ones, figuring they must have a story.  Their notes have appeared on his blog all week.  They are good reading.  Steve's voice, in particular, is often laugh out loud funny. and my favorite:

I recently had another sip.  Here are my official (sighted) tasting notes and score:

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Rye Single Barrel - Smoky Beast Barrel #1 - 8yo 64.1% abv.

Look at that color...
Color: dark reddish amber - a stunning color.

Nose:  Big, forward, dark and rich loaded with swirling kaleidoscope of aromas:  honey, sap, citrus, sandalwood, blond tobacco, balsamic, ivy, licorice, aloe, flax oil, vanilla, char, and oak.
Palate:  Richly sweet and powerful on opening with dark cooked honey, raisin, and citrus compote, then vanilla, the sap of herbs cut vegetation.  The expansion is all about black licorice root - woody, herbal, sweet, and richly "black".  The expansion also adds some delicious cognac-like rancio (a rich nutty flavor of noble rot usually associated with madeira, sherry, and Cognac).  Then, as the mid-palate begins to turn towards the finish, a big dose of acid - like balsamic vinegar or pickle juice which turns to char, and then sweet oak.  The finish goes on and on with plenty of char, herbal bitters, more black licorice and all manner of darkness.

Adding a drop of water - automatic at this big proof amplifies the sweetness and thickens the mouth feel.  This stuff feels big, bitter, dark, rich, and old.  A magic trick of faux maturity from an amazing honey barrel.

*****  93

Bottom line: the best rye I've ever tasted out of MGP/LDI and probably the best 21st century rye yet.  This particular honey barrel, which tastes so rich are dark and mature at only 8 years old, is one of those astounding examples which make you question what you know about maturation.  If a rye can be this good at 8 years old, maybe there's a way to repeat it?  I hope so.  But I'm not holding my breath.  Congrats, Steve (and also Anthony Colasacco of Pour, Mt. Kisco who went in on the barrel with Steve).

Full disclosure:  the blind tasting and follow up tasting was from pours provided by Steve - as a host in his home.  I do own a single bottle of this whiskey - which I purchased.  I would have owned more if I had been allowed to purchase more.

Steve Zeller is a happy man with this honey barrel.
Blind tasting notes.  Read it and weep.