When Smooth Ambler was founded almost a decade ago in the sleepy town of Maxwelton, West Virginia, the small-batch distillery produced gin, vodka, and a wheated bourbon that was bottled young and that served as a precursor to the company’s current Big Level expression.
About 18 months later, the distillery further diversified its portfolio with the release of Old Scout, a 5-year-old bourbon that boasted a high-rye mash bill. To anyone paying attention, that chronology made it clear that Smooth Ambler was relying on sourced whiskeys to create its latest bourbon, but the distillery’s operational and marketing executives took no chances with that clarification, brandishing Old Scout bottles with a label that declares the liquid was “scouted during our efforts to find an exceptional American Whiskey with smoothness and flavor we admire.”
“We saw the chance to source whiskey and do it openly and honestly and to celebrate it,” says John Foster, the distillery’s co-founder and national director of sales and marketing.
Thanks to its comprehensive facility, which includes a staging and bottling area, Smooth Ambler could take control of the final stage of Old Scout’s creation. The distillery’s team received all barrels of its sourced bourbon and, after tasting the examples, cherry-picked the best to be expertly blended and subsequently bottled on site. “Imagine a chef that goes to the farmers’ market every morning,” Foster says. “He’s picking the best ingredients that are available that day. That’s what we do with Old Scout.”
Less than two years later, as many craft bourbon brands were rightfully being chastised for crafting romantic yarns about the origins of their whiskeys—when, in reality, that liquid was sourced from industry-leading producers like MGP of Indiana (the same source as Smooth Ambler’s high-rye bourbon)—Old Scout retained its cult following, perhaps in part due to its early commitment to transparency. In fact, demand for Old Scout increased to where, three years ago, Smooth Ambler’s team realized its reserves were running low.
Rather than blend and bottle younger whiskeys to maintain Old Scout’s availability, Smooth Ambler decided to temporarily suspend Old Scout bottling. “We’re not afraid of money,” Foster says, “but we don’t want to hustle anybody. It didn’t seem right to sell a whiskey much younger than what we had established it as.”
Now, after a multiyear hiatus, Old Scout is back. “We got barrels transferred here recently, and when I first smelled their contents, I thought, ‘This is why I fell in love with this whiskey,’” Foster reveals. Of that first tasting that he conducted with Smooth Ambler’s CEO and master distiller, John Little, he says, “We got really nostalgic because I remembered smelling this whiskey for the first time in 2011 and being blown away by it.”
The whiskey pours a medium amber, which suggests some richness, and it delivers expected toffee, caramel, and vanilla notes, with additional hints of leather and tobacco. The whiskey’s long finish is accented with a touch of spice from the rye, but not so much as to impact the bourbon’s easy-drinking nature.
Best of all, Old Scout is produced at a retail price of $45. Before you let that modest price tag influence your opinion of the whiskey, keep in mind that Henry McKenna Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon was named Best Bourbon of 2018 following a blind taste test at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and that 10-year-old bourbon carries a price of just $35. Hefty prices don’t always equal high-quality liquid.
“It is priced well for whiskey lists and cocktails,” Foster says of Old Scout. “That high-rye recipe is fantastic for some classic cocktails.”
Of course, Old Scout is equally enjoyable poured neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of water. Its versatility is something to cherish.
“We’re serious about the whiskey,” Foster says, “but unpretentious about the way that somebody would choose to enjoy it.”