July 27, 2015

The Angel Barrel, Part 6 - Interview with John Little of Smooth Ambler

We're really having fun this week. The whole process of buying a barrel of whiskey was amazing and having our friends and fellow whiskey enthusiasts writing guest reviews was awesome. What better way to cap the whole thing off than by interviewing the man himself, John Little - Co-Founder and Head Distiller at Smooth Ambler?  John was generous enough to chat with us for quite a while and share some amazing details about sourcing whiskey, the history of our Old Scout Rye barrel, and some of the new tricks he has up his sleeve at SA.

Theory on SmokyBeast Rye 

John Little
SmokyBeast: Ok first question: What did you do with the other 100 bottles of our rye?

John Little: (laughing) So here's a funny story, people always ask "How much Very Old Scout are you holding back?" We're a growing business and putting away a lot of our own whiskey, so every time I've had the opportunity to sell whiskey, I've sold it. If there was another hundred bottles in your barrel, I sure would have sold it to you! If I had a hundred bottles of Very Old Scout, I'd be selling those too. Anything I've got to sell, I sell it man.

SB: No but seriously, best guess, why did the SmokyBeast SA Rye come out so low?

JL: You know, I don't know. That is the lowest rye barrel that we have dumped. Period. To date. And we've dumped several hundred of them. And that was the smallest return we've ever had on a rye barrel ever. I can't tell you why that is, because it's such an anomaly.

I bought that rye from a distillery in Kentucky. So that rye was made at MGPI, and then shipped to someone in Kentucky, and it lived there for a couple of years, and then it came back to Indiana. Then I bought it and shipped it here to West Virginia. So that barrel was made in Indiana, shipped to Kentucky, shipped back to Indiana, and then shipped to West Virginia. That barrel traveled well!

The barrel was in good shape, it was stored alongside all these other barrels, The only thing I could think of is that one out of about every four or five hundred barrels we buy, the head sometimes will leak. When we put a barrel together here, if there's a little leak, we'll spend some time coopering it up. But if you're MGPI and you're running through 400 barrels a day or whatever, you're not taking that same amount of time to cooper a barrel up. The only thing I could think would be that the head was slightly off or it had a small leak and it leaked a lot and then eventually closed itself up over the years. Now of course if it did that, it would have spend a significant amount more time with excess head space which would lead to more fruity aromas in a spirit than you'd see in something without that much head space.

And man the people who I bought that stuff from have tons of other whiskey that they won't release and I've tasted it and I would love to buy some of it. I tried it and was like here's this great whiskey "Ok I'll take it" and talk about a tease!

The History of Old Scout and Very Old Scout

SB: Tell us more about sourcing barrels from MGP. Are you going in and hand selecting each one or how does that process work?

JL: Originally it came from brokers, these guys in the industry who sell excess whiskey. If somebody has too much for a project or, well this doesn't happen so much now, but when times weren't so good for bourbon somebody would have excess supply the brokers would sell that stuff from distillery to distillery. I found a guy through Vendome, which makes all our distillation equipment. So I called him up and had him send me some samples. I had samples from all sorts of large distilleries. The moment I smelled the high-rye from LDI, I knew that was the bourbon we wanted to start off with.

SB: How much did you buy the first time?

JL: He had pulled a sample from a lot, which is a day's worth of production, about 200 barrels. So I bought 40 barrels. Then as the business grew we bought 80 barrels and then 80 more, and then we bought all that we could get our hands on. So we tasted samples of stuff we wanted and bought those lots. Some of the sampling we did was just pure luck, because they may have different samples for sale and they might be from 20-30 different lots. So we'll taste 5-10 different lots and then pull the barrels in if we like them. So that's really how simple it was, we don't hand pick the barrels.

SB: So that first batch that you mentioned, was that the super aged bourbon that was in Very Old Scout?

JL: No I bought the Very Old Scout about nine months after I bought the original Old Scout lot. We bought the first 40 barrels, then 80, then the rye, and then we bought the Very Old Scout. VOS was kind of a crazy thing. They were doing a sell-off on a bunch of inventory when MGPI took over from LDI. And the guy sent me a sheet and said would you like any barrels? If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have taken every one sight unseen. I'd have cleared him out, and I had the option to do that! I got this list really early on and I should have just said yes I'll take every one of them. But I didn't know and so we tasted a bunch of different lots, and I ended up owning 21 barrels. But man oh man, if I'd known I would have just yanked it all.

What Makes One LDI Rye Different From Another?

SB: So with LDI making so many different ryes that you can buy off the shelf, what makes Old Scout different?

JL: Right well like you said there's a whole shelf full of ryes out there all made from LDI and they taste different. Even something simple can change the taste, like our blend water is really different. But the biggest thing we do is we work really hard not to mess with the product out of the barrel. Our filtration is just enough to remove bits of the barrel, the char from the barrel, and hopefully nothing else.

SB: We love seeing some char in the bottom of a bottle.

JL: Here's a story about that. One of MGPIs biggest guys before Greg Metze was Larry Ebersold. Larry is a consultant for us and has been for a couple of years. Larry came in and got a bottle of rye, took it back to his house, and then about three weeks later he called me up and he said "you know your rye has floc in it don't you?" And I said "yes sir, I do." He paused and said, "Ok good job."

SB: He just wanted to make sure it was there on purpose?

JL: Yeah, he was completely fine with it as long as I knew it and I wanted it in there. And that's what we've tried to do, we don't chill-filter, we really don't do anything to ruin what's there. So I think between the big oily mouthfeel and the creaminess that's left from the non chill-filtration, and the fact that we put it at 99 proof has a lot to do with it. A lot of people bottle around 80 proof and for people like you who drink a lot of whiskey, you're like "Where did all the fun go?"

A Rye Wheater!!  (and other news)

SB: So tell us about some of the new products coming out of SA?

JL: So we're working really hard. We moved to a column still and away from pot distillation about three months ago. We're producing four recipes: a wheated bourbon, a high rye bourbon, we're doing a wheat whiskey, and a rye whiskey. We expect to release our own house bourbon in the fall if it's ready. And then we'll probably release our wheat whiskey. On Tuesday I pulled the samples of our wheat whiskey that are four and half years old and they are absolutely delicious, so I'm really really excited about where it is.

SB: Anything else up your sleeve?

JL: Actually we're working on a really cool rye whiskey which is a blend of rye and wheat. It was originally called "50/50" because it was going to be 50% rye and 50% wheat. But now we've changed it up and it's a straight rye with a wheated mashbill: 55% rye and 32% wheat and the remainder malted barley.

SB: A rye wheater?? Has anybody done that before?

JL: I've never seen it done before.  The next year is going to be exciting for us.

Thanks John for a great interview & an amazing barrel!  Cheers/SB


  1. Can't wait for the SA Bourbon to come out!!! Also, for a wheated rye, Journeyman Distilling's Rye is a mashbill of rye, wheat, and barley.

    1. Agreed, bet that heated bourbon is off the hook. Thanks for the tip on Journeyman. Never tried it. Have you had it? Is it any good? I doesn't seem to be labelled "straight rye", wonder why not...