Everyone thinks their grandma makes the best chicken and dumplings. But they’re wrong. I know this, because my grandma made the best chicken and dumplings. Mine are a poor imitation, but they do alright as a compliment to a decent bourbon, which tonight was going to be the Big Level from Smooth Ambler.
For tonight’s dram I wanted something a little bit sweeter. Chicken and dumplings are comfort food, and that means they’re easy going. Anything with a lot of spice, or a lot of heat, or a lot of complex delicate notes would just be outside of the wheel house for what we’re going for here. To hit these spots I decided a wheater was a safe choice.
As I was perusing the bunker for the dram of the evening, I came across the Big Level. This is a new offering from Smooth Ambler and their second mash bill with a large wheat content, after the wheated release they put out last year. Their Contradiction has wheat in the bourbon component of the blend. I’m typically a Smooth Ambler fan so this seemed like a nice, safe choice.
This was my third sit down with the Big Level. My first was when I bought it on a distillery visit in June, shortly after it’s launch. I remembered enjoying it there and I was certainly intrigued by the novelty. The second is when I sat down with Phil to review it next to a distillery only 107 proof version of the Old Scout. At the time it was hard to find much to say about it. It seemed particularly delicate at the time. The result was a thin review. We may get around to posting it, we may revisit it before we do. In any case, it seemed that a third visit with a comparison to some imitation comfort food was in order.
I’ve got a theory about everyone’s grandma’s chicken and dumplings, and if you bear with me I think it might apply to bourbon as well. The secret to why their dumplings, and especially their bread, are always so much better than yours is yeast. Not the “make your bread rise” stuff you buy in the store and dump in, but wild, living, evolving yeast that lives right there in the air in their kitchen.
Over time, if someone who knows what their doing bakes enough in the same place, the air becomes saturated with these wild yeast colonies. Typically, these are the people that can bake, or in this case make dumplings, way better than you ever could. The reason is this yeast. It gets in everything, seasons it, smooths out the edges, fluffs up the flat parts, and just generally makes everything better. There’s more room for error because there’s this great ambient base built up that will saturate just about everything that comes out of the kitchen. You’ll never be able to describe exactly what it is, but it’s going to be real damn hard for you to ever make anything as good.
Smooth Ambler does a lot of things the right way, and there are things to like with this whiskey, but I feel like it suffers from a lack of Grandma’s Kitchen. The nose is sweet, and smells like some of grandma’s cakes, but there’s a hint of raw alcohol that just won’t go away. The taste doesn’t lean heavy into the wheat mashbill, but it hits the standard bourbon notes with oak, vanilla and spice. However, it’s a little bit hot, and a little bit thin. There’s just a few sharp edges and a few flat spots that need to be evened out to take this drink to the next level.
That being said, it’s sure as shit better than my chicken and dumplings. Give it a try if you see it, tell me what you think.
Distiller: Smooth Ambler
Bourbon: Big Level
Age: 5+ Years
Mashbill: 71% Corn, 21% Wheat, 8% Malted Barley
Nose: Cake, Honey, Ethanol
Taste: Thin, Spice, Oak, Vanilla,
Our ratings are value driven. Doesn’t matter how good something is if you can’t get your hands on it.
A: An Excellent Bourbon - If you see this, grab a bottle, even if you weren’t looking for bourbon.
Examples: Blantons, E.H. Taylor, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
B: An Above Average Bourbon - This is a good bourbon and you’ll probably enjoy it. You don’t need to go out of your way to keep it in stock, but it’s a solid choice for a daily drinker, or a regular cocktail ingredient.
Examples: Makers Mark, Wild Turkey 101, Four Roses Small Batch
C: An Average Bourbon: This is an ok bourbon that you probably wouldn’t mind. Often, these will be better as a cocktail ingredient or on the rocks, but a few of them might make ok sippers.
Examples: Jim Beam, Widow Jane, Evan Williams Black
D: A Below Average Bourbon - These bourbons are just unappealing. If this is your choice, find something else to drink. A lot of your rail bourbons will live here. You might be able to mask it behind strong cocktail ingredients, but steer clear.
Examples: Old Crow, Early Times, Virginia Gentleman
F: Run Away. This isn't drinkable -What the hell is this? Shame on you.
Examples: Clyde May’s Alabama Style Special Reserve, Yukon Jack
Now before anyone gets too upset, we understand that distilleries need to make money. And in order to make money they have to actually sell products, as most places can't afford to let barrels age for 4-8 years before selling anything. That being said, all too often new distilleries are releasing substandard bourbon, and charging ultra premium prices for that bourbon ($100 and over a bottle). If I purchase a bottle of bourbon for $80 or $100, I expect it to be an outstanding bourbon and something I would gladly share with my friends. If instead it's something that has barely seen the inside of a barrel, and the taste reflects that it's raw and unfinished, don't expect me to be a repeat customer of your distillery. It's my opinion that a distillery like that is simply trying to cash in on the bourbon boom, and doesn't care about it's product. A simple solution would be to taste it before selling, and if it's not up to the quality for the price you want, then the price needs to be reduced or the quality needs to get better. Customers won't continue paying for bad bourbon.
Another option that many reputable distilleries use to survive, and I would say thrive, is to produce other spirits (vodka, gin, etc) that can be sold much faster, while their bourbon ages. Other distilleries have decided to purchase older bourbon and mix it in their distillery and label it as their own, in order to produce something of a higher quality while waiting for their bourbon to age. This gives them time to refine what they want their bourbon to taste like, and gives them experience developing skills in mixing bourbons. All of these are good examples of how distilleries can make money and build a customer base, while having the time to develop quality bourbon.
We all want to see the bourbon industry thrive, but trying to shortchange your customer base is not a viable long term strategy.
Welcome to Bourbon Famous, and thanks for reading a little bit more about where we're coming from in our written and video reviews
Philosophy- First, we need to establish that both Jarrod and Philip believe that bourbon (and whiskey) should be approachable to everyone, and the taste, price, and abundance of choices, shouldn't be a detracting factor. In this vein we try to present all of our reviews in a very understandable manner, to hopefully let everyone know what the drink tastes like, and what to spend money on. We don't believe that it's necessary to be condescending or make more out of it then there is, I mean we're tasting bourbon here, not building a hyperloop.
Price/Value - Price will depend on where you purchase your liquor, however when we talk about price we are referring to MSRP (unless specifically saying secondary prices). Value is a different factor which will vary between every person, as it will depend on what you are comfortable spending on bourbon. That being said, we try to be clear and upfront about what is actually worth spending your money on, versus what is priced too high due to marketing. Ideally this site and our reviews besides being entertaining, will help you make decisions on what is worth the price and/or a good value. We'll be the guinea pigs for you.
Grading - In all of our reviews we give each drink a letter grade from A-F, with A being a fantastic bourbon for the price, and F being undrinkable/avoid at all costs. Our grading takes into consideration taste, availability, and value. Therefore in order for a bourbon to be rated a B in the $80 range, it must be significantly better than a B bourbon in the $40 range. This should make sense as you would expect to be getting some increased value out of paying more, but unfortunately that's not always the case (another reason we're here).