Every Fall for the last few years we’ve tasted it, become tempted to release it, and ultimately resigned ourselves to the impatient truth that it would just get better if we waited. And as good as it is today, it would only get better if we decided to wait again. But we’re not going to. We’re ready to drink a little.John Foster, Smooth Ambler
Smooth Amber Wheated Bourbon
- DISTILLER: Smooth Ambler Spirits
- MASH BILL: Undisclosed wheated mash bill
- AGE: Not stated, but acknowledged to be 5 years old
- YEAR: 2017
- PROOF: 100 (50% ABV)
- MSRP: $54.99 (Gift shop only)
TASTE: The first thing I noticed was the incredibly thin mouthfeel. Lots of heat on the tongue prevent any flavor from popping. After a little water, the heat is tamed, and a little more corn comes through, but no wheated smoothness and it feels even thinner.
FINISH: Short to medium in length, it builds on the tongue over time. The burn comes without a whole lot of flavor.
The Weller 12 (W12) and the Rebel Yell 10 (RY10) have such outstanding noses, with caramel sweetness playing alongside vanilla and oak, but the SA Wheated is something altogether different. Young and tropical, you can pick this one out blind. That continues on the palate and into the finish. I find the W12 a little bland these days, but it’s still enjoyable enough to drink. The RY10 is terrific, as the higher proof elevates it above the W12 and makes this the wheater I recommend first to anyone. I wouldn’t even know the SA was a wheater if I hadn’t been told first. It’s simply too young and too hot for me to figure out if this is ever going to be a winner.
I may be an SA fan, but I’m a whiskey fan first and foremost. There are a few people I’ve seen rave about this whiskey and suggest that once it’s had a chance to breathe for a while, it’s spectacular. I let my glass breathe for up to an hour, and that didn’t help. I’ll go back to it again in a few weeks, but my guess is more time in the barrel is the only thing that could truly help.
SHARE WITH: If you were able to get a bottle from the gift shop for the $54.99 price tag, then you should share this with your friends who love Smooth Ambler since it’s something they won’t see very often. It’s Batch One of a new whiskey from the hottest name in bourbon and the opportunity to taste it is a special one.
WORTH THE PRICE: If on the other hand, you are willing to pay the $160 secondary price because it’s an unbelievably cool bottle and you’ll buy anything with a Smooth Ambler label on it, then your dollars are better spent on a psychiatrist. For me, it’s not even worth the $54.99 price tag, since any SAOS bottle blows this one away by a wide margin.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST: For me, this was a bust. I have heard from people who like this bourbon, just as I heard from people who liked the SA American Whiskey and the Orphan Barrel Gifted Horse. Obviously, there are others who will like this because it says ‘Smooth Ambler’ on the label. My review is based upon my palate, and in that regard, I just can’t recommend this bourbon. I’ve begun to scratch my head a bit at the fact that I love the Old Scout products so much, yet the SA-distilled spirits just aren’t working for me so far. I’ve never attempted to make whiskey, so I can‘t speak to the challenges involved. I just keep hoping they get it right at some point.
OVERALL: I have a confession to make: I was mentally writing a review before I ever opened the bottle. This was going to be the bourbon that would surprise me. I was prepared to heap praise on Smooth Ambler and admit my ignorance and stupidity in doubting them. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way I expected.
On the other hand, in the ad most people will see is a large quote from Foster calling this “F*cking Delicious,” leaving me a tad confused.
I give John Foster a lot of credit for admitting this wasn’t quite ready for a wide release, as I assume they will continue to fine-tune the product based on feedback. On the other hand, in the ad most people will see is a large quote from Foster calling this “F*cking Delicious,” leaving me a tad confused. I’m not sure what another couple years in the barrel will do for this one, but I am sure they know a lot more than I do about bourbon. It pains me to write reviews like this about people who have given me more to be happy about than anyone else in the whiskey world. These are good people, and I want nothing more than to celebrate their success. In that spirit, I will continue to try every new Smooth Ambler release I can, while savoring my prized stock of Old Scout bottles in the meantime.
Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon Background
Like many new craft distilleries, West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits began sourcing whiskey while developing its production facilities. They have been wildly successful in building a cult-like following for their Old Scout label (SAOS), largely on their ability to select excellent barrels of higher-proof bourbons and ryes. The surge in demand claimed the incredible ryes as its first victim in 2015. Like Willett Family Estate Bourbon, you can now only buy limited edition releases of SAOS ryes periodically at their gift shop. A bottle of any SAOS Rye is snapped up immediately for a high multiple on the secondary market.
In September 2016, Smooth Ambler was forced to discontinue their standard 7 and 10-year SAOS Bourbons, leaving the private store pick and single barrel cask-strength SAOS Bourbons as the only sourced products remaining. One would have expected Smooth Ambler to recognize their sourcing plight by that point and dial back the SAOS releases. In fact, the opposite occurred. All through Fall and into the Winter, every store but Walgreen’s seemed to release a store pick of SAOS bourbon. I even joked that Smooth Ambler must be for sale since they were blowing out every barrel they could to jack up their numbers.
Well, the joke was on me. In early December, Smooth Ambler’s majority interest was sold to an affiliate of Pernod Ricard USA. What the Bourbon world wanted to know was whether the party was over, or was it just getting started?
In mid-January, Smooth Ambler released two large news items simultaneously. The first was very exciting: Their long-awaited Wheated Bourbon was now five years old and finally set for its first release.
Every Fall for the last few years we’ve tasted it, become tempted to release it, and ultimately resigned ourselves to the impatient truth that it would just get better if we waited. And as good as it is today, it would only get better if we decided to wait again. But we’re not going to. We’re ready to drink a little.John Foster, Director of Sales and Marketing
This was either an overly humble statement or a warning to its customers. Since it was to be released only in their gift shop first, and then only to stores in West Virginia, most of us would never get to drink it at anywhere near its retail price.
Immediately following that news came the second announcement that “in the face of a constantly dwindling supply of older whiskey, and despite [SA’s] best efforts to acquire more at reasonable prices,” they would be immediately suspending production on ALL custom barrel projects (the remaining SAOS bottles). In other words, the sourced whiskey was running out. This was obviously a serious body blow to die-hard SAOS fans (myself included), as those bottles have been some of the best value and most reliable bourbons available.
So to recap: SA discontinued most of their rye program because they ran out of rye. Next, they discontinued their standard bourbon program to focus on their private barrel releases. Next, there was an explosion of private barrel releases. Next, the company was sold. Immediately after, they discontinued their private barrel program. Draw your conclusions.
In November, with SA in mind, I asked David Perkins of High West (who sources much of their whiskey) if he was worried about running out of aged stocks to blend into their products. He dismissed that concern by saying they’ve had long-term contracts in place and priority standing with their suppliers. Perhaps Pernod Ricard will give SA the financial strength required to source in a big way again, or perhaps they will focus solely on their own distillate now. There isn’t a brand I am rooting for more than Smooth Ambler, as I have been a fan for several years now. I have proudly worn a Smooth Ambler baseball hat and converted many by sharing the closet full of Old Scout bourbons and ryes I keep at my house. However, I was very disappointed in their American Bourbon (see review), and hoped this was just a bump in the road for my favorite new whiskey brand. As a fan of wheated bourbons, I could not wait to get my hands on a bottle of their new Wheated Bourbon. And now that I have one, it’s time to see what the future of Smooth Ambler tastes like.
As a fan of wheated bourbons, I tasted this alongside the Weller 12 (90 proof) and the Rebel Yell 10 (100 proof) for comparison.