July 20, 2015

The Angel Barrel

Buying Weed in High School

Buying a barrel of whiskey is like trying to buy weed in high school. You have to know a guy who knows a guy. You tell all your friends you're going to get some. They all claim a share. Parties are planned, snacks are purchased, and the waiting begins. All of a sudden your friends are calling you, trying to sound casual, trying to find out if you've got the shit. All of a sudden you're calling your guy, trying to sound casual, trying to find out when you'll get the shit. This shit goes on for a long time. Then you get the shit, and you're really popular, for like two days...

"Wait, a BARREL?"

Explaining it is the best part.

"Yeah mom, I bought a barrel of whiskey."

"Well you're not putting it in my basement." As if I could even fit anything else in mom's basement, where I've already stashed the Hammond organ from my college funk band, my ninja weapon collection, a bunch of BetaMax porno, and that tattered Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt that will fit again one day.  (Note to self: throw out ninja weapons and BetaMax porn before daughter can open door to mom's basement.)

The most common misconception is that when you buy a barrel of whiskey, you receive a barrel full of whiskey. As awesome as that would be, it doesn't work that way. In the United States, alcohol is only allowed to be sold by the milliliter. Since it's not possible to know the volume of whiskey in a barrel, it can't be sold that way. So when you buy a barrel, it gets "dumped" and bottled and you receive cases of your whiskey along with an empty barrel (which is still pretty awesome). I really wanted to drive up to mom's place with the empty barrel and ask if she could help me carry it down to the basement.

Not Just Any Barrel

Needless to say, if we're going to get a whole barrel, it better be good. Or else we're going to end up drinking a whole bunch of crappy whiskey by ourselves. Several different private barrels are available: Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Eagle Rare... We're pretty choosy about our whiskey, so we wanted something unfiltered and cask strength. That narrowed it down to Four Roses, Willett, and Smooth Ambler.  Now, if you've been following SmokyBeast, you know that this decision was already made a long time ago. Smooth Ambler's private barrels have been absolutely knocking our socks off. On top of that, they offered private barrels of rye. Enough said.  (Don't get too excited, they've since discontinued the private barrel ryes...). John Little, the proprietor of Smooth Ambler, is a great guy and made the whole process excellent. Stay tuned for an interview with John coming up at the end of this series.

Smooth Ambler gets its rye stock from Midwest Grain Products (Lawrenceburg Distillery, Indiana) which is the big factory distiller that produces almost every rye & many of the bourbon brands on the market: Bulleit, Templeton, Filibuster, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption, Old Bardstown, Johnny Drum, Old Pogue, Kentucky Pride, Rowan's Creek, Noah's Mill, Taos Lightning, and just about any bourbon or rye that has "Indiana" anywhere on the label (and probably many that don't).  Why are Smooth Ambler private barrels so much better than any of these brands?  Two reasons. #1: they're aged appropriately and bottled straight from the barrel with no blending, filtering, dilution, or flavoring. But most importantly, #2: Barrel selection. John Little just picks amazing barrels. And with an operation the size of MGP, you can bet there is a huge variation from barrel to barrel.


Finally the day of the tasting came around. We were very excited. Pretty certain we were going to get a rye, we tasted three bourbons just for a point of reference. They were good. They all had a nice smooth and mellow quality to them. Any would have been a fine choice. Then we cracked into three ryes. The first was good. Nice and spicy, warm, smooth, an all-around good drinker. Then we picked up number 2. Just from the nose, without even tasting it, we both said simultaneously "This one!!!" It was uncanny, the nose was just incredible. Full frontal mint and vanilla, bbq smoke, char, honey, and so unbelievably rich and mellow. We were almost afraid to taste it, since an incredible nose can often lead to a disappointing palate. We each took a small sip. Holy shit. This was our baby. The third rye was like an afterthought. Totally respectable choice, but we'd found our match made in heaven. We put in the order. We waited.  We waited a really long time.


A whiskey barrel is 53 gallons. That's 200 liters or 200,000 milliliters. A standard bottle of whiskey in a liquor store (not the handle, not the pint) is 750ml. So a completely full barrel would produce 266.7 bottles. That's only theoretical of course. Barrels are handmade so they hold slightly different amounts. And it wouldn't be possible to fill it 100%, you have to leave some room at the top to attach the bung. (Yes, the top piece of a barrel is called the bung, in case you ever wondered where the term "bunghole" came from). So the most you could get out of a full, or refilled, barrel is around 240 bottles. Then there's the "angel's share".

The Angel's Share

Wood barrels are not air tight, so the whiskey gradually evaporates through the wood. This is one of the key parts of aging. The liquor soaks up into that beautiful charred caramelized wood and absorbs its flavor. And while that's happening the heat and evaporation "cook down" the juice, similar to reducing a wine sauce on the oven. The result is a more full-flavored, mellow, and delicious whiskey. "The fire is gone but the warmth remains," is one way to describe it. Older whiskey can be very high proof, but with none of the throat burn you get from young stock.

In cold climates like Scotland, the angel's share is typically 2% per year. Compound that percentage over a number of years and you see that the angels claim about twenty percent after ten years, thirty percent after twenty years, forty-five percent after thirty years, and fifty-five percent after forty years. That's why it's possible to have 40 year old single malt barrels out there that still yield a hundred bottles. With America's hot summers, the angel's share is much higher. Sometimes evaporation rates can reach over 4% a year. That's why you'll never see a 40 year old bourbon or rye, you'd lose 80% of the barrel. Also if the barrel is less than 50% full, the ratio of wood to whiskey is too high and the end product can get over-oaked, bitter, and in some cases undrinkable. We were looking at 8 year old ryes, so we expected about 25% loss and a yield of anywhere from 120-180 bottles.

"Bad News"

"Hey guys, sorry we have some bad news." It was John Little. This was about eight months later. We were sure at this point that it wasn't going to happen. It had all been a dream, a booze-soaked fantasy that was never destined to come true.

"What's up?"

"We dumped the SmokyBeast rye barrel today. It only produced 56 bottles."


"Yup, never seen one that low before."

"Do we still get it?"

"Of course! It's 128.2 proof."


The Angel Barrel

Fifty-six bottles. A hundred broken hearts. Based on our angel's share math, that would be an evaporation of over 75%. This would be the equivalent of a thirty-five year old whiskey. Could that be why it tasted so amazing? How did this happen? Was it sitting on the top rack of the rickhouse directly in the sun? Was there a crack in the wood? Did the gents in the warehouse sip on it for eight years? Did they give us a really old barrel by mistake? We'll undoubtedly go the rest of our lives wondering about this mystery, but it will almost certainly go unanswered. When the angel's share is this high, they call these "angel barrels". If the hooch is still drinkable it's almost always incredible stuff.

We waited anxiously for the bottles to be ready. Then the magical day arrived. We put that huge heavy barrel (they weigh 150 pounds empty) in the back of our rental SUV, filled the back seat with cases, and drove straight to our favorite bar, Pour Mt Kisco to sample it. (The empty barrel remains as a permanent fixture at Pour). Getting nervous again we cracked the first bottle and poured...


We don't feel right critiquing our own bottle of whiskey, so we packed up some samples and asked some of our best boozy buddies to write reviews for us. Every day this week we'll be featuring guest writers and their tasting notes on SmokyBeast SAOS Rye.

Read our first guest review!

Cheers / The happy owners of our very own barrel of rye - Mr & Mrs Smoky Beast.


  1. I'll post a review shortly. The brief skinny though - tasted blind it bested my favorite rye. I thought I was tasting something twice as old and ten times as expensive.

  2. Freaking awesome story! The "missing" bottles sounds like the beginning of a short mystery story. Cheers!

    1. Haha that would be awesome. They're obviously hiding somewhere in a dark alley on a misty moonlit night!!

  3. Great perspective on the barrel buying process. Getting a single cask from Scotland and elsewhere is a wee bit more complex, but still worth the effort. Now to find out which watering hole those angels are hanging out at:

    1. Thanks Raj. Would love to hear more about buying / importing barrels of single malt. The ultimate dream would be to have a SmokyBeast Lagavulin or other Islay bottling!!! We know absolutely nothing about that side of the industry though and have heard it's much more complex.

  4. Great perspective on the barrel buying process. Getting a single cask from Scotland and elsewhere is a wee bit more complex, but still worth the effort. Now to find out which watering hole those angels are hanging out at:

  5. A wonderful story as always...cannot wait to get the reviews in...know the rye left was just awesome

    1. Thanks AlPop! Looking forward to your review...

  6. That may be the least he got from a rye barrel, but The Party Source sold a Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon back in 2013 that had less than five gallons left in the barrel. Here's the blurb from the TPS e-mail:

    Our pals at Smooth Ambler have blessed us with one of their older barrels, this delectable 11-year-old, distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana from a 21% rye mashbill, at the huge—and hugely excellent—MGP distillery (better known as LDI, its former name). Unfortunately, this barrel did what old barrels sometimes do: it gave whiskey up to the angel’s with little hesitation. Yep, when they dumped the barrel, it yielded less than five gallons of whiskey due to an excess of evaporation. This is sometimes known as a “light” barrel, and I’ve run across a number of them over the years; yet they are anything but “light”, as the small volume of whiskey has concentrated the flavor into a powerful Bourbon potion. The few available bottles are at full barrel proof (a mere 101.1) and without chill filtration. The resultant whiskey shows a wonderful rancio-style (reminding of Armagnac, without the fruit) note of butter, confection, and old oak, with rye spice coming quite late in the flavor.

    I have a bottle but can't read the damn barrel number on it. It's three digits and starts with "6", but the rest is too hard for me to make out.

    1. Wow that's really interesting. Would love to try this one!!