100 years ago today the Voldstead Act came into effect commencing a period of 13 years where the manufacture, sale, importation and even transportation of alcohol was prohibited. Historically, Prohibition is viewed as a failure – the closure of breweries, distilleries and bars resulting in thousands of lost jobs – and the knock on effect on barrel making, haulage and hospitality eliminating thousands more. However, despite the period now being famed for the rise of moonshining and bootlegging, alcohol consumption was (perhaps unsurprisingly) lowered, and political support for temperance was retained until the Great Depression influenced voters priorities. Nevertheless, the effects of America’s dry spell can still be felt a Century later.
The period of Prohibition left an indelible mark on the national identity of the United States . During its 13 years it affected politics, industry, immigration and perhaps most notably women’s rights to vote. Out of the Temperance movement – sufferance was given more legitimacy and potency – with the banning of the production, distribution and sale of alcohol being seen as less radical then allowing women to vote.
With a drinking age of 21 (in most states), alcohol is still viewed contentiously in the US. Despite Prohibition ending in 1933, dry counties and towns still exist to this day – with states permitting locals to decide for themselves – wet or dry. Even in Kentucky – the spiritual home of bourbon, 31 of 120 counties are dry, with the act of possessing or selling alcohol classified as a ‘class B misdemeanour’.
Alcohol has become one of the highest taxes industries in the US (though it’s worth noting this is also the case elsewhere) – sometimes termed as a ‘sin tax’, along with tobacco – again, a holdover of the temperance movement of the previous century in terms of alcohol being moral ‘wrong’. Despite the rise of craft distilling and brewing across many states and a concerted (though not always combined) effort to lobby the government to cut federal alcohol taxes, the national government still ‘profits’ from the sale of alcohol to the tune of over $10bn a year. A fine balancing act between maintaining the perception of the sin, and ensuring a healthy tax take.
Culturally and alongside the boom in cocktail culture, there has been a modern revival of speakeasy styled bars and watering holes that call back to the ‘Roaring Twenties’. But despite most Prohibition drinking dens being ramshackle seedy affairs, the neo-speakeasy has been reinvented with an air of glitz and glamour. No real surprise – sitting in a darkened and hushed back room drinking spirit which was lovingly crafted in a bathtub is likely to have a very niche appeal. But, the real edge of taboo is no longer there – there are no risks of the Feds turning up unannounced and busting some heads.
As such, many speakeasy styled bars have simply become venues which thrive on their modern exclusivity – vintage décor, hidden locations – but now completely legal and oft-times with near ridiculous methods of entry (last year I entered a bar sat next to a revolving fireplace ala Indiana Jones) and in some cases baffling entry policies. And yet the popularity of these venues continues to grow – in part fuelled by the rise of mixology and changes in drinking culture away from pubs and more traditionally-theme locales – but also due to rose-tinted view of the realities of 13 years of national Prohibition across the US.
Today, Americans drink on average 2.8 gallons of pure alcohol each year – pretty much exactly the same amount that they drank before Prohibition. And the Temperance movement is still not quite dead yet – with small pockets of Americans standing by the ideals of the ‘noble experiment’ under the banner of the Prohibition Party. However their numbers and political influence are currently negligible so the rather rag-tag grouping is seem more from a standpoint of keeping the ideals and history of the movement alive, as opposed to exerting any real influence on the Government for a return to the old ways. Their 2016 Presidential candidate (and current Treasurer) Jim Hedges polled just 5,600 votes nationally – some 5,000 more votes than in 2012, but laughable far from achieving anything other than a minor footnote in modern history. That was then, this is now.
So in no surprise, today’s review sees us travel State-side for a look at Smooth Ambler’s Big Level. The 2018 release was the first to be produced at the company’s distillery in West Virginia (previous products were sourced from MGP) and as came with some eagerness and expectations from the bourbon community.
The bottling is a wheated bourbon made from a mash of 71% corn, 21% wheat and 8% malted barley. It was distilled in a combination of pot and column stills and aged for at least 5 years in 3,000 53 gallon charred (level 4 in case you’re wondering) barrels. It is released unfiltered at 100 proof (50% ABV). Prices for this bottling vary greatly – and here in the UK you’re not going to get it cheaply - £79.95 from Master of Malt. A substantial mark-up (blame taxes, imports and the rising trendiness of bourbon) to the $55 I paid when I purchased this in Washington DC last year.
Nose: Sweet corns, carmelised green apples and a fairly potent aroma of raw alcohol. Vanilla cream sits with orange bitters, whilst burnt toffee is are joined by brown sugars and cinnamon spicing. The oak is heavy throughout – part caramelised sugars, part sawn 2x4. It’s aromatic and charred, but at the same time heavy handed and fairly planky. Reduction introduces cloves, citrus and hints of cough medicine – but it also removes some of the overall expressiveness.
Taste: Oak is in the hot seat from the get-go – cedar, balsawood, pancake batter, toasted bread and planed wood. Immediately soft and somewhat pillowy, but giving way very quickly to something altogether more astringent, dry and punchy. The development reveals more charred notes – scorched crème brulee and burnt cashew nuts – alongside pepperiness, cloves and liquorice. Water takes the oak, reduces the prominence of its individual flavours and ups the level of dryness substantially – again, as with the nose there’s less discernible definition.
Finish: Quite long with lingering clove and pepperiness alongside charred oak and hints of mintiness.
Despite the pre-release hype, I find myself somewhat disappointed with Smooth Ambler’s first in-house product. Whilst it's arguably bold and characterful, at the same time it’s extremely cask-driven and doesn’t deliver the softness and flavour profile I’d associate with a wheated bourbon. The profile is simply lost in the oak. It drinks well at 50% - which is a good thing as it’s quite hydrophobic, quickly losing definition across the board. By no means a bad release, but quite expensive for what it is. And buying it outside of the US for £80 – just forget it.