July 15, 2014

Review: Smooth Ambler 8-Year Rye - Private Barrel Program of the Year

The hottest private barrel program this year is Smooth Ambler's Old Scout Rye.  John Little and company have been dipping into their stash of LDI (Lawrenceburg Distillers, Indiana) rye and bottling eight year cask strength goodness for liquor outfits around the country.  These brilliant picks have been bottled for spots around the country like Astor Wines in New York, Kenwood Liquors in Chicago, and Red Dog Wine & Spirits in Nashville.  Basically anyone who's anyone has their own barrel of Smooth Ambler by now.

8-Year Single Barrel Cask Strength Smooth Ambler Old Scout Rye, 63.4% ABV

What Are Private Barrels?

We've been getting this question a lot lately, so here's a quick summary about private barrels.  Whiskey brands like Smooth Ambler, Four Roses, Willett, High West, Buffalo Trace, and Jefferson's distribute to retailers in a few different ways.  They sell cases of their standard bottles, for example Four Roses Small Batch or Buffalo Trace Bourbon.  They also sell limited release bottles which are allocated, like Four Roses 125th Anniversary and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection - of which stores would be lucky to get five or six bottles.

Another option for retail stores is to buy a whole barrel of whiskey.  Typically when a store buys a barrel, they're not literally purchasing a barrel full of whiskey.  In other words there's no man with a donkey cart rolling up and dropping a full barrel on their stoop.  The seller still takes care of the bottling, delivering cases of bottles to the store.  They will often use a custom label denoting who's chosen the barrel.  A barrel is anywhere from 100-250 bottles, so the store gets a big shipment of custom bottles from their private barrel.  Here are various private barrel labels of Smooth Ambler:

Kenwood Liquors and other private barrel picks (photo: Josh Nibert Photography)

In addition to liquor stores, various whiskey clubs, restaurants, and bars can also participate in the private barrel program. SmokyBeast hasn't (yet!) gotten to choose our own barrel, but it sounds like a fun task.  You either visit the producer or receive barrel pick samples in the mail.  Then you taste your way through all the available barrels until you find your ideal choice.  There are sometimes options of different proofs (cask strength vs standard proof), ages, recipes, and different finishes (whiskey that completed its aging in a port or sherry cask).  Liquor stores will sometimes request to keep the empty barrel for display purposes.

Private Barrel Display at Healthy Spirits 

Much like a great butcher will become famous for selecting the best cuts of meat, barrel selection is also an art form.  There are huge differences in barrels from the same distillery.  Some would say that the warehouse and barrel of a particular whiskey you're drinking is even more important than the age or the recipe.  You may also notice that very premium whiskies like Van Winkle, BTAC, or Willett can be the same age and from the same distillery as much cheaper bottles.  What is the difference?  Most likely proof and barrel selection...  We've done extensive "research" into drinking different Willett private barrels, and we can verify that there are gems of barrels that have been chosen by the wise zen master barrel pickers.  For this reason, private barrel programs become very hot, and when one shop's barrel is deemed to be very good, everyone wants to choose a barrel from that brand.

Astor Wines Smooth Ambler Private Barrel
One final note, we've been using words like "brand" and "producer" instead of "distillery" because many of these companies are NDPs (non-distiller producers).  In other words the barrels being selected were not distilled by Smooth Ambler or High West, they were sourced by them from one of the big distilleries.  In Smooth Ambler's case this is Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana.  So in effect, they've been selected from a small subset of barrels that were already chosen via a similar process on a much larger scale.

Appalachian Whiskey Society Private Barrel (photo: Josh Nibert Photography)

This year's private Smooth Ambler barrel from Kenwood Liquors seems to have set the trend, and now stores are hot on Smooth Ambler picks.  While these private barrels won't reach the lunatic collectibility of the uber-aged Willett and Van Winkle private barrels, they are some of the best ryes to come out this year.  With a very reasonable price point ($45-$65 or so) there are a lot of people stocking up on these at the moment.

Tasting Notes - Smooth Ambler 8 Year Rye Single Barrel 63.4%

Nose:  Sweet buttered popcorn, mint, pops of vanilla, bbq sauce, oak, and a tiny hint of pickle brine. 

Palate:  Very drinkable, staying in the sweet category with mocha/cocoa, a little citrus, some hot chiles, oak & char.   

Finish:  Solid spirit warmth, a little more char/smoke, sweets and wood.  

Line of Smooth Ambler Whiskies (photo: Josh Nibert Photography)


Just about everything Smooth Ambler has put out is pretty good.  The 7-year Old Scout Rye, and the 10-year Old Scout Bourbon are both worth picking up.  Their former releases of 11, 14, and 19-year Very Old Scout bottles were awesome.  But if you can get your hands on any of these cask strength private barrels, pull the trigger without hesitation.  Hopefully the success of the first run of this program will mean more honey barrel of SAOS coming soon!

It looks like San Francisco Wine Trading Company has a private Smooth Ambler barrel in stock now.  If you're interested, don't wait!



  1. Nice write-up, Beast(s).

    I'm more partial to SA bourbon then their rye so K&L's Faultline for $40 is better than trying to chase the privates. You know when they start selling for 3x retail on the secondary it may be time to move on.

    1. Gettin' Funky,

      Definitely agree that this is not something to go paying after-market prices on. But these have been pretty accessible either through local shops or online. The cask strength abv REALLY amps it up in our opinion, though, so for that alone they're worth picking up if you see them. Haven't tried Faultline yet, we'll have to pick some up. Thanks for the rec!

    2. Thank you for the review and the note regarding SF Wine Trading having their own barrel pick. I picked up two today, they're at 59.7 abv. My notes are similar to yours. The nose is actually very similar to Angels Envy Rye except not as sweet. The taste is hot, but not uncomfortable. However I was hoping it would be a bit more smoother. Definitely agree with Mr Funky that the K&L Faultline is a nice buy at $40. So when are you going to do the Michter's 10 year rye vertical?

    3. Hi-Def,

      Interesting take on the SFWTC. Have you tried any of the other private barrels for reference? They're not perfect, but very tasty. We've tasted five or six private barrels but not the SFWTC one. The M10 Rye tasting is this week, should have the write up not this coming week but the week after!

    4. This is my very first SAOS private barrel, and at cask strength. I'm still getting that typical LDI rye nose, but with the 8 years of aging, it's not as "grassy" and the pickle brine you mentioned is more subtle some of the younger LDI ryes out there. Interestingly, adding water brings out the pickle brine more and cuts back the heat a little.

  2. Definitely enjoy your posts every week. Thank you for the info. I now have a couple bottles waiting for me and my wife to try out when we are reunited next year in the states.

    1. Thanks Bryan. Sounds like a great reunion, enjoy!!