While I currently work in tech, all of my best friends still work in booze. Thus, when I grab lunch with these friends or meet up for coffee, they usually like to pick my brain about new spirits they’re either selling or preparing for market. The same goes for my old customers and K&L blog readers, who continue to keep in touch via email. In both cases, it goes something like: I know you don’t work in the business anymore, David, but what are your thoughts on….?
No idea! What’s that? A new limited edition release?
Unfortunately, I don’t taste dozens of new single malts and Bourbons on a regular basis these days, so I’m completely out of the loop. I see news releases online every now and again about upcoming expressions, but after a decade of taste bud abuse I’ve been quite happy to zone out over the last seven months and let my mouth recover (I recently failed not one, but two 23 & Me tests after my saliva DNA was inconclusive—in all seriousness).
Recently, however, when I posted a few booze-related articles on Linkedin, offering some opinions about what I’ve seen in the market as of late just for fun, I received an overwhelming amount of outreach and encouragement from my former booze colleagues to continue. Since then, I’ve been on the phone with folks from Diageo, Beam-Suntory, and the other great drinks corporations, talking about how I might cover some of their current releases in my free time here on this blog.
I mean….I guess I could. Do you want to send me some bottles to taste? How would I do that?
Within two hours of agreeing to write about booze again, I had boxes of samples sitting on my doorstep from a number of companies, and it was scary just how easily I was able to get back in the swing of things. Let’s talk about a few of the interesting things I tasted today from Pernod-Ricard, starting with the new Aberlour Casg Annamh, the latest small batch edition from the Speyside stalwart, that offers a Gaelic name in lieu of an age statement. Casg Annamh means “rare cask” and is slated to become a regular entry in the Aberlour lineup, alongside the über-popular A’Bunadh, the other batch-labeled expression from the distillery.
I thought the aromas from Batch 1 were heavenly. The whisky is aged in a combination of first and second-fill Bourbon barrels, then finished in sherry casks, and that sherry really comes across on the nose: lots of toffee, candied orange peel, and a touch of Oloroso rancio. The orange comes through again on the palate, but here it’s more like bitter orange, almost like an amaro. It’s coupled with a surprisingly dry finish that packs a bit of punch at 48%. I couldn’t help thinking this would make an amazing Old Fashioned with a bit of flamed citrus. I enjoyed this, but I usually enjoy everything from Aberlour. I drank the 12 year and eventually the 12 year non chill-filtered religiously for some time. This is a nice addition to the bunch that should clock in around sixty bucks.
Let’s talk about the new Big Level Bourbon now. I think Smooth Ambler’s John Little is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with and I’ve been rooting for him since we first met early on in my career. For those of you who remember the original Faultline Bourbon at K&L, that was a collaboration between John and me that lasted years and was one of the most successful products we ever offered. When I saw that SA had finally released a whiskey distilled entirely in-house, with a wheated recipe no less, I was over-the-moon excited and did a bit of searching online to see what people were saying. The feedback was surprisingly all over the map.
Some people thought it was good. Some people not so much. Some were comparing and contrasting it with Weller (always a terrible idea, in my opinion), and others were trying to break it down by price. I think the Big Level needs context, which is always a nightmare for marketing endeavors because 99% of the population doesn’t want an explanation; people want to simply pop, pour, and enjoy. To give you a comparison, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve helped over the years who purchased $100+ bottles of wine at K&L and opened them well before they were ready to drink. “I wasn’t all that impressed with the 2014 Lynch-Bages,” someone would say to me, to which I would respond: “You opened it? That wine needs 20 years in the cellar.” But how can everyone know that beforehand? It’s impossible to preface every single customer purchase with a clear outline of what their expectations should be.
Consumers will always look at price tags and make their own assumptions about quality based on cost. In the case of the Big Level, I agree with some of the feedback I’ve read. When sipped neat, it doesn’t have the rich, classically creamy wheated profile I’m sure many were hoping for. It’s a powerful whiskey, and like a number of bold spirits I’ve tasted in my career, that intensity acts as a buffer between my palate and the inner core of goodness lying just behind it. But like tannins in red wine, that power can be neutralized with the proper pairing, allowing the more intricate flavors to come forth. What the Big Level needs is a single ice cube—a bit of water to tame the heat, unlocking the sweet spices that put the “smooth” into Smooth Ambler.
As John Little is an old friend of mine, I called him a few hours after tinkering with his whiskey to get more context. Here’s a fact that should interest you: the Big Level is 100% pot distilled and was made when Smooth Ambler was still just getting started, before they switched to a combination of pot and column. “It’s a fundamentally different whiskey than what we are making now,” John told me over the phone, “but I’m still proud of it.”
In March of 2015, Smooth Ambler installed a column still and changed up the recipe a bit, so while the Big Level is indeed one of the first in-house releases from the distillery, it’s not necessarily indicative of what you can expect moving forward. On top of that, to compare the Big Level to other wheated Bourbons simply because it’s wheated is going to immediately throw you off. Pure pot still whiskey doesn’t taste like column still Bourbon even when it’s aged in new charred oak. They’re different animals, and that’s more context I think consumers should know going in.
As for how to enjoy it, John says he sips it neat. John Foster, the director of sales and marketing for Smooth Ambler, likes it with ice. I thought it was delicious with ice as well, but I understand those Bourbon fans out there who don’t want to spend $50+ on a rocks whiskey. That being said, if you’re spending more than $40 on Bourbon in any instance, it’s because you’re curious and you want to see what’s out there, not because you’re looking to maximize value. Once I learned the Big Level was pure pot still, I completely changed my expectations. I’ve never tasted a pure pot wheater that I can remember, and with that context my enjoyment of the whiskey increased immensely.