Smooth Ambler is a West Virginia distillery founded in 2009 that, like so many other upstart distilleries, 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.
Apparently running with the “awkward naming convention” thing, “Big Level” is named after West Virginia’s local mountainous terrain. The bourbon is made from a mashbill of 71% corn, 21% wheat, and 8% malted barley, making it a wheated bourbon in the style of Maker’s Mark, Weller, or yes, Pappy Van Winkle. The process water is local West Virginia Appalachian spring water, and some of the grain comes from both local West Virginia farms that produce non-GMO grain. The rest of the grain needs are supplied by Midwest farms.
The distillery utilizes both its continuous column still and its original copper pot still to produce the distillate, which is aged onsite in new #4-char oak barrels for at least 5 years. The final whiskey is bottled without chill filtration at 50% ABV. This process and aging length allows it to be called Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the label.
My bottle is from Batch 18.
Nose: The aroma is full of soft, round, sweet, bready wheat. This comes with an assortment of caramels, blonde fudge, and – way in the background – corn syrup. It’s a little shy on the nose – you need to get right down into the glass to find it. After a rest in the glass, there’s a faint tart note, like sourgrass or gooseberry, with even fainter dark chocolate. A longer rest adds a toasty note of popped corn.
Palate: Very full body, almost syrupy. Robust tongue burn, maybe a little hotter than expected at 50% ABV. Most of the aroma notes come through, plus a nice kiwi / tropical fruit note. Aside from that, a very standard bourbon palate with a mix of sweetness from the corn and dryness from the oak.
Finish: Medium-long. Becomes slightly tannic and nicely mouth-drying, with even more oak coming through. The sweetness has vanished. Fades slowly but without evolving.
With Water: A few drops of water adds to the fruit notes, but only slightly. The finish seems a bit more coherent, with a better balance of sugars and oak notes. Water doesn’t hurt here.
Overall: A round, full bourbon with a good mix of flavorful sweetness from the grains and robust oakiness from the barrel, without too much bitterness. I’m not sure this is really a $50 bourbon, though, as I can’t detect anything that sets it apart from standard wheated bourbons in the $20 range. Still, if you’ve been waiting for real West Virginian bourbon, or are a fan of wheaters, you owe it to yourself to at least try a bottle.