Many little kids fantasize about running away to join the circus. As adults, we learn to give up that dream – or at least trade it in for another. For example, how many of us who are whiskey aficionados have ever dreamed about quitting the day job to open our own distillery in order to manufacture an amber-colored spirit that would bear our very own name? I know I certainly have. Alas, I never had the kind of courage it required to take such a mighty step. But John Little did. John is the Head Distiller for Smooth Ambler, a West Virginia-based craft distiller that has been rapidly growing in popularity during the short time it has been in existence.
Attending a class called, “How To Make Your Own Whiskey” at The Astor Center Of New York City, I eagerly listened to the story behind how John created Smooth Ambler from scratch and in only a few years, made it one of the most talked-about small distillers in the entire country. Oh, and the fact that we would also get to sample their array of product wasn’t exactly a painful experience, either.
Starting out life as a purchaser of furniture and fixtures for hotels, one day John decided that he wanted to be a manufacturer. After trying his hand at making belts, he read an article in Time magazine about micro-distilling back in 2008 and got the idea that he could begin by building a small distillery in his own garage. Shortly thereafter, he attended a conference to learn about the distillation process and business, then took classes in college to further extend his studies. Equipment manufacturers and suppliers of grain and yeast contributed initial supplies to help John make his initial product as an independent, in a field known as Merchant Bottling.
We started our tasting with three variations on Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout brand, each subsequent one increasing its content of rye. Beginning with Old Scout 10 Year, it contains 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malt, and is 100 proof. Sweet tasting due to the high concentration of corn, clearly identified in its taste are vanilla, honey and caramel.
Next was Old Scout Bourbon, which contained an unusually high 36% rye; most bourbons contain only about 15 – 20% rye. As a result, this 99 proof bourbon is less sweet and more spicy due to its high rye content. Aged seven years, this is a mingle of seven and eight year old barrels; the rye component is used as what is called “the flavor grain” to balance out the corn’s sweetness.
Last was the Old Scout Rye; at 99 proof, it contains 95% rye – the rest is malt (there is no corn here). Between the large amount of rye and the high alcohol content, its taste seems considerably hotter than the first two. It’s got something of a minty nose, which can sometimes mask some of its other aromas – honey, straw and grass.
John then treated us to a couple of cask strength samples which were considerably higher in alcohol content. The first was the Old Scout 10, but this version was 120 proof. Best sampled without water, this expression experiences something called flocculation, which causes small white flecks to appear in the bottom of the bottle; while some people see this as a flaw, it is actually the oils produced during the aging process – these oils add flavor to the spirit.
This was followed by the cask strength version of the rye. At 126 proof, this one had more nose than any of the others.
Wrapping up the evening, we were offered their 92 proof Yearling Bourbon and the Barrel Aged Gin. Aged for only two and a half years, the Yearling is known as a wheated bourbon because it contains 20% wheat. The gin contains only seven botanicals in order to keep the recipe simple, but it is nevertheless distinctly aromatic; aside from the required juniper, there is also lemon peel and cardamom. The gin is just slightly yellow in color due to the fact that it is aged in a barrel, but only for three months.