The last couple of months, and even more so recently, I’ve had a growing fascination with all things having to do with the period from the mid-1930’s, up through the mid-1950’s. This is true for things of culture, family and music. That period of Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. The early post-depression era through the post-war years. Hard times abounded, but as my grandfather always said, those were some of the best times of his life.
I like to think about families in farm houses flung all over the country, finishing their supper, something that grandma had cooked in a big cast iron kettle. Afterwards they would gather together in the parlor. Close your eyes and picture a cold Saturday night in February, flurries outside dusting the porch and pecking the windows, a fire crackling in the hearth behind them. The room is awash in a golden glow emanating from the 40W birdcage style lamp bulbs. The family sits in a circle around a big polished oak Zenith floor standing radio that’s buzzing and popping with life; Father is hunched on the floor, one knee on the pine, fine tuning the dial to find the clearest signal possible. Mother is on the couch knitting on a quilt, softly humming a song of salvation. The kids shoot marbles and tell windy stories and play games of imagination. Maybe if there weren’t too many clouds over the tall ridge they will get the Grand Ole Opry broadcast out of Nashville, or on an especially clear night the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport. The broadcast signal wattage is so powerful it was possible to find the Opry or the Hayride many hundreds of miles away, as long as conditions allowed, and your tuning skills are great. Father continues to fiddle with the dial, with incremental precision akin to a safe cracker using a stethoscope. Wheezing, squelching noises vary in intensity as voices come in and out of clarity. Twanging notes of guitar can be heard, then more static, now female singing, more squelch, then static, then perfection. The broadcast is clear.
Tonight, I’m living the modern version of that scene. I’m listening to Hank Williams. Though the high powered broadcast signal is long gone and the songs are being played from Itunes, I still pump them through real speakers, and the family is gathered around, spending time together. Lovesick Blues is on right now. My wife is sitting nearby reading. The kids are teasing each other and playing games of imagination. And I’m sipping some bourbon from Smooth Ambler, a bottle from a private barrel aptly named “Short and Heavy”.
This particular barrel comes to us directly from the rick house at Smooth Ambler in West Virginia (the same state where Hank Williams hard-living life flamed out in 1953 at the young age of 29.) I consider myself lucky to have gotten a bottle. As the story goes, during a pick at Smooth Ambler, a couple of guys were tasting all sorts of barrels (SA turns you loose in the rick house to taste whatever you want) and they came across this one. It was obvious that the barrel was virtually empty and they had to drill all the way at the bottom to find the juice. They loved it immediately, and even though there wasn’t much liquid rocking around inside the staves, it was determined that the contents had to be bottled, at barrel proof, regardless of the quantity. They named it Short and Heavy, and it ended up yielding only 56 bottles. 56 bottles, in the whole barrel. Just think about that. Not to mention, it was bottled at 117 proof, which is pretty high for Smooth Ambler, whose releases tend to hover in the sub-100 proof region.
Like all of the Old Scout releases, this one was distilled in Indiana at LDI, or MGP, whatever you want to call it. The mash bill is right out of their standard playbook, the high rye variety.
Out of the bottle, Short and Heavy kick starts with an immediate sugary punch, accented by notes of polished oak, and a handful of sweet dried dark fruits. There is a swirling element of caramel that I detected. I also found an awesome component of George T Stagg-esque tobacco. That sweet Virginia burley, so pungent that you can almost imagine it hanging long, row and row in barns all across the mid-Atlantic. Lord, I’m such a sucker for tobacco essence in bourbon.
The flavor of Short and Heavy is so damn easy to enjoy. I find that wholly pleasant, and relaxing. Sometimes I revel in sipping bourbon that’s awash in complexity, with components that compound on each other, like chapters in a book. But Short and Heavy is much more straight forward, and that’s nice. It’s a bourbon for those times when life has kicked your ass for hours or days, and you just want to come home and have a sip, without all the intoxicating cerebrum. Something easy. Short and Heavy is that bourbon. It’s subtle, with a sweet character; comparable to a tea blend, and a lot of juiciness. Plenty of sugar in the palate to match the sugary nose. On the back end there is a sprinkling of cinnamon and oak spice. Really, this is one sweet pour. There’s something else though, and I tried to impress this on a few of my friends. I know it’s only 10 years old, but it’s got a classic feel, where one dimension of the flavor really stands up and sings, in this case the sweetness. There is also a fine sizzle that hits with the flavor immediately, segueing right into the finish.
The finish is subtle as well, again more of a classic personality, which makes this one an easy drinker. I trails off with more of the cinnamon and oak spice. Not a complex finish at all, but one that I enjoyed. I had my buddy Brian over for a Thursday night pour. I consider him somewhat of a bourbon sounding board. He cuts right to the core of it with his tasting commentary, and it’s usually spot on. He raved on Short and Heavy. In fact, when he sipped it, he looked up with wide eyes and said, “Oh wow, that is good.”
I’ve had this bottle less than a week, and it’s more than half gone. I typically spread my pours out over a number of bottles just to keep my palate fresh. But I can’t seem to give this one up. That’s a high mark from me. I won’t tell you this is the greatest bourbon of all time. But man, it sure as hell has been the right bourbon, every time I’ve had it.