I was tossing around a few different ideas for reviews recently and based on a conversation with a friend about “drinking the experience” I decided on this. It seems like this one fit the mold so here we go…
(Smooth Ambler Spirits – Maxwelton, West Virginia)
There are brands that can date themselves back hundreds of years and then there’s Smooth Ambler Spirits. SAOS was the creation of two long time friends and residents of the Greenbrier Valley and was founded Smooth Ambler in 2009 by Tag Galyean and John Little. Tag & John set out to produce fine artisan spirits by combining “patient Appalachian know-how with the finest of American ingredients”. What they have managed to come up with is a brand that the locals support in and around the rural valley the distillery is located in. In Austin, Texas this idea was called “Keep Austin Weird” or in more clear terms be local, by local. They DEFINITELY support the brand as I can attest having visited a few times. The West Virginia drawl is unique, so the people I talked to when I visited weren’t from Brooklyn.
Last year I decided to start my own consulting company building and selling golf technology and designing performance studios for nerds like me who happen to love golf and on one of my many business trips I took last year I had the bright idea to stop and “smell the roses” on what I initially thought would be a quick trip through the heart of Virginia. Several hours later…I found myself in the heart of moonshine country deep in the misty mountains of West Virginia deep in conversation at a VERY COOL spot. Tonight I’m sitting here sipping Smooth Ambler Old Scout’s 12 y/o cask strength straight bourbon whiskey while listening to one of the all-time great blues ax-men Duane Allman. There’s nothing quite like blues music & bourbon and I’m reminded again that longer detours are sometimes worth it.
The backstory: My buddy Mike Bonin loves SAOS…LOVES it and considering I was passing through in close enough proximity mid-September last year and I knew they had their 14 year old “Very Old Scout” available in the gift shop (which admittedly was his “holy grail”) I made a sharp right hand turn off the highway deep in the middle of Dave’s Picks Vol. 22 recorded at the Felt Forum in New York City on December 7, 1971. The great thing about Smooth Ambler is you really can get all of their stuff, but you can only buy one bottle per visit of some of their releases. This single barrel isn’t a problem and they were more than happy to sell me a palate, but VOS is another story altogether. This is SAOS’s way of sticking it to the flippers of the world who descend like locus on honey bottles and sell them for profit on the secondary market. One bottle per customer, per day and believe me VOS is worth every penny. Releases like that sell for three or four times what distillery’s charge in house to snobs with deep pockets who just want the latest and greatest. Anywho…I digress, I could go deeper on the secondary market, but I’ll take the high road (which in this case was quite scenic).
(Southern Virginia just south of the 64 west interchange)
Anyone who knows southern Virginia knows that before you get to Roanoke on Route 81 south you can jump off on 64 west and climb up into the mountains before you cross into West Virginia right near The Greenbrier Golf Resort. Sweet spot, better views (especially in the fall) with a rich golfing history containing one of my all-time favorite golfing rednecks, Slammin’ Sammy Snead. The drive is worth it…especially once I left the distillery and continued west to connect to 77 south on my way down into the Carolinas.
Once at the distillery I snooped around for some cool SAOS swag (barrel staves, glencairn glasses, bar mats, t-shirts…) in their gift shop/bar and met their bartender extraordinaire Valerie. She’s an absolute sweetheart and once she found out how big a fan of their bourbon my friend is she had the whole staff sign a bottle for him (see photos below). I also since stopped to pick up a few bottles of their Greenbrier and Barrel-Aged Gin which they are unfortunately discontinuing plus the two bottles Mike requested. One of the interesting side notes about Smooth Ambler beside how small the distillery actually is for me that they are VERY open to people understanding that they source some of their barrels through MGP of Indiana (Diageo is currently their biggest customer) and all bottles that are sourced say “Old Scout” as a clear indication that they aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Gin is Smooth Ambler, VOS is Old Scout. No trickeration, just damn good shit.
Nose: What I enjoy about bourbon is the variety of “like” mash bills with respect to smell, taste & overall experience based on barrel house placement, numbered char, weather patterns etc. MGP of Indiana sells barrels to a number of other distilleries and not surprisingly most everything I’ve tried is excellent. Visually this bourbon is appealing deep copper in color when you hold it up to the light. If I have one criticism it’s the mouthfeel. It’s smooth, but very thin. What I get on nose with this bottle is a combination of herbal, smokey and dry. Caraway seed, granny smith apples, black currant, cedar and in a fairly unique twist toasted balsamic rice. This one is also 105.8 proof, so not a lightweight. It’s a cask strength (AKA barrel strength) and as time passes these bourbons are growing on me. Everyone’s palate develops but the stronger stuff is what I’m really enjoying right now. Some people might need to knock out some of the heat with a splash of water, but I prefer it neat.
Palate: It has an astringent element to it, but it’s smooth and sweet with a slightly salty hint. Like salted caramel. It’s a bit “nippy” on the tongue, as it hits me on the tip and sides. I relate that to an acidic punch but nothing off-putting. I taste raisins and cherry cordial and as I mentioned my first impression is that it’s just a little on the lean end of the spectrum. It’s limited on berry & wood, but hits good notes on caramel and spice. If you asked me the age I would have said younger, based on the lack of flavor in certain respects.
Finish: Middle to long on the finish, nutmeg and faint clove are present, but what I like about this dram is the lingering toasted caramel, subtle cedar, leather & barrel char. You can taste these long after you’ve taken a sip, but it’s good enough to keep wanting to come back.
Overall: Very good representation. At $54 dollars per bottle this is very fair in my opinion as it hits all the right notes. What intrigues me is feeling like I missed something, so it makes me want to go back sooner rather than later to try it again. SAOS is a sweet spot with great people driving the brand. I expect to see the success they’ve achieved continue into the future.