Distillery Focus

Smooth Ambler: The Curators

Sourcing whiskey in the Allegany mountains
By Fred Minnick
More than 2,200 feet above sea level near the Allegany Mountains, where black bears roam and bald eagles soar, West Virginia's Smooth Ambler distillery follows the tune of its leader-John Little, a sturdy 5ft 9ins red blooded American who's developed one of the most fascinating brands in American whiskey.

Part sourced whiskey, part craft distiller, Smooth Ambler enjoys a cult-like following for a simple reason, disclosure. 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). Smooth Ambler was also making gin, vodka, white whiskey and even aging its own product. But it would be these LDI barrels under the Old Scout label that would shape Little's future. They build the customer base that foams at the mouth for a bottle, frequently snapping social media pics when they find a special bottle in a liquor store. On the Old Scout label, it reads 'a fine, curated whiskey: scouted during our efforts to find an exceptional American whiskey with smoothness and flavour we admire.' The labels also disclose the fact the whiskey was distilled and aged in Indiana.

Around the same time, other companies were doing the same, but chose not to disclose the state of distillation and tried to pawn off the fact that the whiskey was distilled in the so-called craft distiller's home state. "I wish people would be 100 per cent honest," Little says. "We pick barrels from Indiana. So what? It's great whiskey. We are rooted in truth, and ethics are 100 per cent our guiding principle." If Little's words sound like hogwash, marketing speak or flat out spinning, take into consideration this story: Smooth Ambler received 21 barrels of whiskey to create a new blend. But one of them lacked the usual identification sticker. The taxes were paid on the barrel as bourbon, but when Little sampled the barrel, he noticed something was off. It was lighter in colour than the other 11 to 21 Years Old bourbons and lacked the nose and robust flavour profile of Little's standards. After closer examination of the barrel, Little saw the barrel contained the old Seagram's stencil, which originally led the broker to believe the barrel was a 21 Years Old bourbon when in fact, the barrel was in its second use and contained corn whiskey, not bourbon. Legal counsel advised Little he could sell the whiskey as bourbon because it was transferred as such despite being aged in used cooperage. (US law requires bourbon to be aged in new charred oak containers.) "I had to figure out a way to sell it but not classify it as bourbon," Little says. "I couldn't ethically batch the stuff, so we sold it to Party Source in Louisville, Kentucky and called it American whiskey. I am not 100 per cent we got it right, but I felt like it was the ethical thing to do. A lot of people would have put it in as bourbon." After the initial 40 Indiana barrels sold quickly, Smooth Ambler purchased another 3,500 barrels from MGP and worked with liquor stores like Party Source and consumers to establish private barrel selections. Anybody can buy a barrel directly from Smooth Ambler, which will bottle at barrel strength and non-filtered. The sourced barrels are stored in Indiana, but Little brings in 20 to 40 at a time to age alongside his West Virginia bourbon. "A funny thing happens to our barrels, they leak a lot. I think it might be the high elevation," Little says. "We've got all the heat and cold of Kentucky with the extra elevation." The Future Little admits he's running low on the bourbon and rye whiskey that made Smooth Ambler famous, and he can't find aged whiskey like he used to. For that matter, nobody can. So, instead of resting on the great run of whiskey, Smooth Ambler is increasing its distilling, bottling and warehousing capacity. With Nik Flora as the lead distiller, Smooth Ambler's hybrid Carl still is churning out clean bourbon distillate of 60 per cent corn, 20 per cent wheat and 20 per cent malted barley as well as a bourbon from 73 per cent corn, 15 per cent wheat and 12 per cent malted barley. Smooth Ambler sells its distilled bourbon under the "Yearling" label; and at 2 years, 11 months, Yearling shows promise with herbal, fresh cut grass, saddle leather and cornbread batter notes on the nose and a lovely palate of pumpkin, light caramel and baking spice. Smooth Ambler is combining its two bourbons - from Indiana and West Virginia - in its latest product called Contradiction. A blend of 73 per cent low rye Indiana bourbon and the rest of the Yearling wheated bourbon recipe, Contradiction isn't so much its namesake as it is a transcendent whiskey that easily rests upon the palate with spice and sweetness, and smoothness and firm structure. More importantly, it sets an example for all start-up distilleries that a business model exists for sourcing whiskey and distilling your own whiskey. In fact, Smooth Ambler could not finance its new construction, employ 11 people and lead West Virginia's adult beverage tourism without relying on the Indiana distillery. Says Little, "Old Scout gave us the ability to sit on whiskey and build more." But that more will likely go where the market calls it. Smooth Ambler's modest bright red tin facility is adding buildings and Little is inundated with customer phone calls, while the distillery is becoming a tourist destination for those visiting the nearby historic town of Lewisburg. The small distillery is beginning to dabble in sourcing other premium spirits. Recently, Little purchased a few hundred gallons of 21 Years Old rum and will likely be bottling it under the Old Scout label. When these stellar rums hit the market, Smooth Ambler could find itself in a unique predicament - a 'curator' of fine rums and whiskeys. Perhaps that's why Little posted this sign outside the facility: 'Notice. The premises of Smooth Ambler Spirits is a US Government Bonded Facility. Trespassing without the presence of a registered official is prohibited...

Tasting Note

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 Years Old, 100 Proof

Deep Amber in colour.

Nose: Honeysuckle, crushed dark cherries, cinnamon, toffee, caramel and vanilla.

Palate: Spicy with caramel undertones that tickle throughout the tongue.

Finish: Medium finish with a splash of ginger and cinnamon.