Time to once again risk embarrassing myself with a blind tasting.
I have toyed with the format before, in a couple different ways. I’ve done pure blind, as well as blind to expressions (but not the distillery). I’ve even tasted whiskey prior to researching the brand and source, in a sort of “intellectual blind.” I didn’t fare too poorly in any of these instances, though my detractors’ hopes spring eternal. Might today be their lucky day?
The reason I ask is because I have been provided a blind sample (thank you, Jay) about which I know absolutely nothing. I’m not certain whether it’s Scotch whisky or American whiskey, bourbon or rye, or something else entirely. I don’t know if it’s a contemporary expression, or one from days gone by.
Like I did previously, I’ll give you my tasting notes and impressions. Hell, I’ll even up the ante by guessing about what this might be, in terms of the distillery, expression, and era (exposing myself to maximum ridicule). You’ll have to trust that I competed all this before the actual identity of the whiskey (or is it whisky?) was revealed to me. Without further ado…
Mystery Dram – Review
Color: Medium golden brown.
On the nose: Starts with the distinctive aroma of bubblegum; Dubble Bubble brand, if I’m being really specific. There’s another layer of airy sweetness here; I’m thinking confectioners’ sugar. It takes some concentration to get beneath this, but after some time I am picking up a more nutty note, some lemon-scented furniture polish, and a richer sweetness of butterscotch candy that becomes the dominant note the longer I nose it. Not quite sure where to place this; it nods toward older styles of bourbon, but I’m not yet convinced.
In the mouth: Starts with that airy sweetness, but this time with the creaminess of cherry-flavored ice cream (again, to be specific: Graeter’s cherry chocolate chip flavor). In the middle of the mouth this takes on more of the polished woodiness from the nose, which mutates into a more astringent, tannic wood note at midpalate. This tacks toward a rich, citric fruity note of lime and then… nothing. Confoundingly, the flavor development stops dead in its tracks at the exact moment this should be reaching a crescendo. The mute pause lasts for a second before the whiskey sings out again, this time sotto voce. On the finish, lingering flavors of tobacco and another tannic, green stalkiness are faint reminders of the whiskey’s presence.
I am almost certain this is older Wild Turkey, perhaps from the 80’s or 90’s? It doesn’t taste quite as potent as the proof implied by 101, though. Now I’m second guessing myself; maybe that cherry note is actually Buffalo Trace? Regardless of the origin of this whiskey, I am a little disappointed. The nose has an interesting evolution, but that abrupt halt in the mouth is jarring, and the whiskey never really recovers. Not knowing anything about price, I’d score this just below the middle of the range on its own merits.
Now that I have completed my evaluation, it’s time to ascertain the true identity of this whiskey. To quote the driver of The Mystery Machine, “Let’s see who this really is!”
I sent these notes to Jay, who immediately provided me the answer to my query: this is Smooth Ambler Old Scout Cask Strength Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Specifically, this is barrel 3300, bottled on 6/7/2016, at the age of 10 years, at an ABV of 59.7%. The back label informs us that this was “Distilled in Indiana,” pointing to MGP as the source of the bourbon.
OK, so, I was way off with my guesstimation of the source of this whiskey. In my defense, this didn’t have any of the telltale dill notes that are commonly associated with MGP. However, I also way underestimated the proof. Just goes to show you, folks: I’m not as smart as I pretend to be. Nonetheless, I am supremely happy to have tried this sample without any prejudice, for reasons that will become clear to you in the next few paragraphs.
Smooth Ambler is a brand I’ve meant to tackle for a while. Like many brands built on the back of sourced whiskey, the luminous reputation earned by inspired early releases has begun to tarnish as the company has put out more pedestrian product in recent years. Other than the increasingly critical word of mouth, however, I know comparatively little about Smooth Ambler.
A perusal of the folksy “Our Story” section of Smooth Ambler’s website would have credulous neophytes believing that this is a scrappy upstart employing the “hard working, creative, and resourceful folks of West Virginia” to make craft whiskey in the Mountain State.
In fact, Smooth Ambler was founded in 2009 by John Little, who remains with the company following its 2017 acquisition by international beverage conglomerate Pernod Ricard. There’s a nice intro to the brand in this Whisky Magazine article:
“In 2011, to help fund the new company, Smooth Ambler purchased 40 bourbon and rye whiskey barrels at $980 apiece from the former Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Seagram’s distillery called Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, aka LDI that was selling whiskey stocks to distillers and independent bottlers around the country. (LDI was later sold to the MGP Ingredients company).”
Of course, 2011 was a much different time in terms of the supply of (and demand for) whiskey, thus it stands to reason that the barrels were probably pretty darn good for the price. As mentioned above, they were sufficiently impressive to create fandom and brand loyalty among some segment of the whiskey consuming public.
Reading other coverage of Smooth Ambler (in both the specialist and mainstream press), another theme emerges: the company is praised for its transparency. Indeed, that article asserts “Smooth Ambler enjoys a cult-like following for a simple reason, disclosure.” Setting the bar as low as the Appalachian mountains are high, apparently simply not lying about the source of a whiskey (“disclosed” in this sense meaning: in small font tilted vertically on a back label) is enough to earn plaudits for honesty. This is the sad state of whiskey in the year 2022, yet here we find ourselves.
Is this reputation for forthright admission of the brand’s components still warranted? Navigating to the “Whiskies” page of the Smooth Ambler site reveals the range of “procured” Old Scout whiskies, in addition to the “mingled” Contradiction range, in which bourbon and rye from Tennessee and Indiana is blended with Smooth Ambler’s own whiskey in undisclosed proportions. I know what these words denote, as I’m sure do many of our readers. However, it would be easy to imagine a novice whiskey enthusiast falling for the more prominently placed yarns about good ol’ fashioned West Virginia grit and miss these finer points.
Does the experience of drinking this whiskey, and my subsequent investigation of the brand, make me want to seek out more Smooth Ambler whiskey? Not especially. Like other NDPs that started early, Smooth Ambler seems to have lucked into some honey barrels in the early days (this sample wasn’t one of them, for my tastes) and ridden that hoss all the way to a fat check from a big foreign buyer.
I’m told that this whiskey was probably priced near $50 on release, though bottles like this are said to trade hands for more than $300 nowadays. Based on this example, I’d be a polite “pass” at retail price. As for the inflated secondary market price: you can take this horse to the Old Town Road and ride until you can’t no more.
Bottle images and sample courtesy of Jay.