BBS vs Smooth Ambler. And BBQ. So much BBQ.

Article by WhiskyPilgrim for BBS

Well, September has drawn to a close, and with it a month of quite stupendous British Bourbon Society Tastings. We began in rare style; rating the full Van Winkle range blind after two courses of lobster. Then to our subterranean assault on the Michter’s flight, unicorns and all, in the storied Vaults beneath Milroy’s of Soho. And now, at the time of writing, it is less than twelve hours since our last September hurrah, as a motley crew of Society faithful huddled in an alcove of Bodean’s in Tower Hill, devouring barbecued delicacies by the plateful and turning our attention to Smooth Ambler.

Much like Michter’s, Smooth Ambler is a brand you usually discover once your first steps into American whiskey have already been taken. It’s a West Virginia success story, less than a decade old as a brand, but whose cupboards already groan beneath the weight of accrued silverware, and whose fans – on both side of the pond – are as fervent as any supporters of companies longer in the tooth. I should know – I’m one of them.

I arrived at Bodean’s about half an hour early, to discover that many of those invited had already arrived. Which, in itself, speaks volumes! As with the Michter’s tasting we were thrilled to be joined by one of the wizards behind the whiskey – in this case Master Distiller John Little.

A few words about the brand before we begin. Whilst the Smooth Ambler Distillery itself is pretty much still in short trousers, John and his partners have been releasing whiskey sourced from other distilleries under the name ‘Smooth Ambler Old Scout.’ What’s wonderfully refreshing is that they make no attempt whatsoever to imply through marketing that the whiskey has been made by them. Indeed they’ve made a virtue of the art of independent bottling, long practiced by whiskey companies on both sides of the pond. John also compared it to the wine industry’s négociant business – but for the time being let’s stick to grains!

An aspect of the tasting to which we were all looking forward was the opportunity to try whiskey distilled by Smooth Ambler beside that which they’ve snapped up on their ‘scouting’ trips. We kicked off with their most recognisable product to date; the Old Scout seven year old bourbon, passing it around the table as plates loaded with ribs were plonked down in front of us. To this drinker, at least, the Old Scout seven is one of the best American whiskeys you’ll find in the UK for south of £50. It’s very classic in style, and has amongst the most unctuous, mouth-coating palates you’ll come across for the money.

That richness of palate is partially due to John’s commendable insistence on bottling his whiskeys without chill-filtration. The ins and outs of this process are a science lesson for another day; essentially chill-filtration removes several fatty proteins from a whiskey to prevent it from going cloudy in bottle. The actual cloudiness in no way affects the taste, but uninitiated consumers might be put off by it. Don’t be. Those proteins add layers of velvet texture to your whiskey and therefore are a wonderful, wonderful thing which ought to be left in the bottle at all times. Smooth Ambler do, and it shows in the tasting.

Next up was the Smooth Ambler ‘Yearling.’ I was particularly looking forward to this, as it’s whiskey they’ve distilled themselves. It’s still very young, of course – a wheated bourbon of three years and six months – but there’s already a huge amount going on. John anticipates it being ‘ready’ after about six summers, but is releasing the Yearling so that fans of the distillery can track its progress. Scotch drinkers may know that Glengyle distillery in Campbeltown have been doing the same thing with their whisky for the last few years – and look how well that’s turned out. Safe to say, the BBS will be following the Yearling with no small amount of interest.

As platters of dangerously moreish burnt ends and beef ribs the size of house-bricks materialised in our alcove we moved on to the Old Scout ten year old single barrel bourbon. Which I have to say was my whiskey of the evening. What’s great about the Smooth Ambler range is that its viscosity and depth of flavour mean that the alcohol never gets too hot or unbalanced – and that was never better demonstrated than with the ten. Tasted blind you’d never put it at 55%; layers and layers of flavour coupled with that gorgeous mouthfeel keep the heat perfectly in check. In short – it’s a cracker.

Things got a little bit experimental after that, as John produced a bottle you won’t find on the market (at the moment!) A young blend of wheat and rye, this was one of the most unusual whiskeys any of us had ever tasted, boasting flavours I’d never encountered on a whiskey before in my life. Fascinating stuff – and whilst I can envisage it being a little polarising, it’s one to seek out if and when it’s released, because it really is unique.

As plates of food continued to swoop in our direction I looked at my watch and realised that I’d need to make an early exit if I was to get back to Reading at anywhere close to a reasonable hour. But I’m not an animal – there were two whiskies left in the lineup, and what sort of person would leave them unaccounted for? I nipped to the end of the table for a quick chat with James, from Maverick Drinks, explained the situation and had my glasses charged. The Old Scout American Whiskey is an intriguing blend of juice from Indiana and from Tennessee, whilst the nine year old single barrel rye vied with the ten year old bourbon for my pick of the night. It’s rye on steroids, sourced from a distillery who handles that wonderful grain as well as anyone, and clearly housed in an absolutely tip-top cask.    

I was gutted to be leaving early, of course, missing out on the last course of barbecue, as well as John’s presentation of the rye and the American Whiskey. My own fault for not being a native Londoner I guess. But I was so glad I was able to make it to what was a real highlight of the month, and a flight of whiskies from a company I have come to absolutely love.

I thought about the evening, as I always do, on the long series of tubes and trains and taxis home. They’re rich, fulsome whiskies, are the Smooth Amblers – particularly the Old Scout bourbons, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the Smooth Ambler juice itself stacks up when John deems it to have finally come of age. Expectations, as I say, are high. But in honesty, my contemplations were mostly focussed on the evening itself.

You’d not often go to a flight-tasting of Scotch with a Master Distiller in which fully-loaded plates of ribs and pulled pork (or the Scottish equivalent) were handed round with the bottles. Certainly not when it comes to bottles of the quality we enjoyed last night. That’s not a sneer at Scotland – I drink as much of their kit as I do American, and of course there’s a time and place for taking a nosing glass of whisk(e)y and quietly soaking up every last nuance.

But what’s wonderful about bourbon – about all American whiskey – is that you can have evenings such as that the BBS enjoyed last night. Tasting evenings where there’s no worrying about whether or not you’re capturing every aroma and no arrogant one-upsmanship on the tasting note front. Where there’s no call for forensic dissection, and crucially, no suggestion that the whiskey is the only thing that matters. Last night was about the culture surrounding bourbon as much as it was about the bourbon itself. Lose that, and you gut the drink of so much that is important. Which is why the British Bourbon Society embraces that culture. And will continue to do so.

Many thanks to Bodean’s, Maverick Drinks and particularly Smooth Ambler and John for a fantastic evening.