Review: Smooth Ambler Big Level Wheated Bourbon
It’s been a few years since we last checked in with West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler, one of the best-known and longest-lived craft whiskey producers in the U.S. (And now owned by Pernod Ricard.)
Smooth Ambler’s latest is a wholly new product called Big Level, a wheated bourbon made entirely on site (with no sourced whiskey included in the mix). Though there’s no age statement on the bottle, we do have some details:
Bottled at 100 proof and made from a mash of corn, wheat, and malted barley, Big Level Bourbon has been painstakingly made by Smooth Ambler and patiently aged in 53 gallon barrels, resting in and benefitting from the West Virginia mountains and their perfect cadence of seasons.
“Much of what we’ve done at Smooth Ambler has been leading up to this moment,” says Head Distiller and CEO John Little. “The release of Big Level signifies the beginning of our long-term ability to offer a third, important category of whiskeys to us: those which are 100% made here in West Virginia. We’re excited for this whiskey to complement the merchant bottled and “married” (merchant and homemade blended together) families already embraced by our business.”
After completing its distillery expansion this winter, Smooth Ambler spirits is poised to produce 3,000 barrels of whiskey in 2018, and plans to constantly source quality whiskey as it becomes available.
Let’s give Big Level (a name drawn from a nickname for the surrounding mountains in WV) a taste:
The emphasis on Big Level is clearly on “big.” Heavy wood notes dominate the nose, an intense barrel char that sears the nostrils with notes of cayenne, licorice, and burnt sugar, almost molasses-like. The palate offers few surprises given this lead-up: Powerful notes of charred wood, cloves, more licorice, and notes of burnt toast. While this whiskey is nutty at times, there’s little sense of place here — it’s hard to pick out any notes that are particularly bourbon-like, much less anything that would indicate it is a wheated bourbon, which is typically gentler and sweeter. Big Level, on the other hand, is big and domineering, a monstrous whiskey that is happy to punch you in your face and wait interminably for you to ask for another.