Smooth Ambler is a West Virginia distillery founded in 2009 that, like so many other upstart distilleries lately, initially turned to sourcing and relabelling whiskey while waiting for its own new-make spirit to age. Like High West, Smooth Ambler has chosen the route of creative blending to add value and individuality to these sourced whiskies. The Old Scout and Contradiction bottlings are both examples of this, and the website is very transparent about where these whiskies were (not) made, stopping just short of offering the actual distillery names. Big Level Bourbon is Smooth Ambler’s first 100% in-house-distilled mature bourbon, and I look forward to tasting it.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout not only has an awkward name, it has an awkward composition: A “union” of two sourced American whiskeys blended in “hand-selected batches” that prevents the whiskey from being labelled as “bourbon”. The first whiskey is an MGP-distilled 36% rye (“high-rye”) 9 year-old bourbon. The second is a Tennessee-distilled whiskey made from a bourbon mash which is aged for 5 years in re-charred used ex-bourbon barrels. This use of refill casks, although prevalent in Scotland and for many other styles of whisky across the world, makes the entire vatting ineligible for a “bourbon” label. I couldn’t find reliable information on the source of the Tennessee whiskey, although I’m inclined to think that it’s Dickel.
The resulting American Whiskey is bottled without chill filtration at the oddly-chosen 49.5% ABV and retails for $30 or so. My bottle is from batch #22.
Nose: Antiseptic up front, with high notes of mango, tutti-frutti, and “0% fruit juice” bottled fruit punch. A rest in the glass dissipates those antiseptic notes, leaving a nose-piercingly tart assortment of energetic fruits. The 99 proof strength does come through, so don’t stick your nose too far in the glass.
Palate: Thin body (strange for a “bourbon”). More fruit punch, with some corn syrup sweetness and processed candy flavors. Plastic-y.
Finish: Medium-long. Warming. Echoes of the omnipresent fruit, faint wood, and a tinge of menthol/mint at the end.
With Water: Several drops of water have little effect on the aroma. The water adds a little much-needed balance in the mouth, with a little more oaky/caramel sweetness and a suggestion of rye spices. Water is not needed here, but doesn’t hurt anything.
Overall: Uhh. What probably started out as decent 9 year-old MGP bourbon is ruined by the fake-fruit overly-young Tennessee whiskey. I don’t care that a rejuvenated cask was used, nor do I care about the lack of a “bourbon” label. I care about too-young whiskey being blended into a product to spread out stock or lower its price… especially when that price is still nosing above the magical $30 level. I’ve tasted $15 whiskey that was around the same flavor profile as this. Here’s hoping that the whiskey distilled in-house is much better.