A new wheated bourbon just elbowed its way to the top of our whiskey shopping list. Smooth Ambler, the West Virginia whiskey producer famous for its Old Scout line, is releasing its first whiskey made and matured entirely at its own facilities: Big Level Wheated Bourbon.
And we can say from among the first to taste it that it is really, really good.
There’s a lot going on with this new bourbon, so let’s start with the biggest part: the wheat.
Wheat bourbons are big news, and new ones are exciting for two reasons. First, the Van Winkle family of bourbons is made with a wheat recipe, so a large segment of the biggest whiskey nerds is convinced it’s a superior recipe. Second, and perhaps more importantly, almost all of the big names in wheated bourbon are made in Kentucky by longtime producers: Larceny, Maker’s Mark, Van Winkle, and Fitzgerald are all heritage brands from heritage distilleries.
A new one produced at scale (Big Level will be available in about a dozen markets this year) is rare, and so even just to see what another climate or distiller can do with wheat is exciting.
Big Level lives up to the excitement.
At just over 5 years old and 100 proof, this is a carefully designed, mid-age bourbon. Between the fiery, out-of-sync, too-young bourbons (recently as young as two years, but usually under four years), and the heady, multivalent extra-aged ones (let’s say 6 and up, but generally 10 and up), there’s a small target that, if you hit it, will make a really great bourbon. That bourbon will still show the flavor of its grain well, while exhibiting some of the best characteristics of the barrel it has rested in. But it won’t show you those sharp, grainy edges and sawdusty barrel notes that it might have exhibited a year before.
Big Level is this kind of bourbon. You can taste the rich sweetness of the corn, and feel the mouth-coating softness of the wheat. There’s a refined, country-style dessert soul to this whiskey, as if someone’s tried to fuse crème brûlée and corn pudding and hit it with a sprinkling of nutmeg.
This bourbon is still bright and lively enough to remind you that, yes, it was once white lightning (unaged whiskey) but Big Level’s resume of barrel experience fills the page now—just the right balance of burnt sugar for depth, and caramel for roundness, with room to expand. It’s crisp, but rich at just the right times.
This is going to be an incredible bourbon in another five years or so. It’s already a great one.
We tasted an early sample (Batch 6, bottled by Ashton, according to the label), but the product will be on the market June 1 in most states. We suggest you get your hands on some when it does—even at $55, this is a steal.
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