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April 25, 2012

Delicious Luck with Compass Box

Never have I wanted to win the Quaich Society Raffle more.

As I confessed in my previous post, against all probability (and decency in the eyes of some), my ticket was drawn first in our post Compass Box tasting Raffle. When John Glaser had discussed his contributions to the Raffle with us, words such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ had leapt out at me. ‘When will I next have the opportunity to taste a Compass Box expression in its rawest incarnation?’ I asked myself, and plumped for the ‘Oak Cross ’08 HM – Single Heavy Toasted French Oak’ sample bottle. ‘How will I smuggle me and it out of here tonight without getting lynched?’ was another, more private speculation.

I succeeded, however, and when I escaped from a lecture theatre on this wet and windy Wednesday in St Andrews out came the ruby-tinted rarity by way of consolation.

Compass Box Oak Cross ’08 HM 56.7% abv.

Nose – With a measure poured and the glass far from my nostrils, scents of creamy milk chocolate, vanilla and winey fruits fill the room. Getting started, there is a mass of stewed red fruits, some tannic oak and then fresh, spicy and vibrant American oak casks: a hogshead-packed filling store. Later, snuffed-out birthday cake candles emerge and papaya provides a gentle tropical texture. Fat, oily honey is tucked away, too. I suspect that there is a fair proportion of Clynelish in here with that wonderfully hard to put one’s finger on note of lemon/apple which is at once jellied and crystallised. More time reveals marmalade and gingerbread, in addition to cinnamon and clove.

Adding water evokes glazed biscuits: gingerbread men and custard. Gorgeous spice-accented creamy oak. In the centre is an almost bourbon-like dense core of malty sugars, orange rind and caramel. The orange softens and lightens and separates from the rich malt. With extra breathing time, airy but rich and rounded walnut notes emerge as well as not quite ripe plum. White chocolate, rich, frothy wash, jasmine and bran flake Frosties burst out all at once. It is sublime in its weight and delicacy of aroma. It reminded me of some of the later drams on the Auchentoshan VIP Tour, or the stillroom and warehouse on the Aberlour tour. There is even some gentle fragrant smoke underneath it all, like a cask freshly charred and quietly smoking in a cooperage.

Palate – Full, spicy and fruity with plenty of oak. Lovely, tongue-coating tannins and wood sugars. Adelphi Breath of Speyside-esque. Then toffee and malt surface before releasing, fresh and firm seashore citrus.

Water makes for a ceaseless, joyous barrage of flavour. Nutty and densely fruity initially, I quickly gained the impression of Speyside in summer: slight charred oak, rich barley and strawberry jam. Fronds of crystal malt tickle the palate too. It is a bold spirit, speaking of dark, green leaves and malt husks.

Finish – Chewy/creamy oak: lots of power but there is agility, too. Vanilla and butterscotch ice cream. Final notes of rich and juicy fruitcake with marzipan.

With water the spirit retains the density from the reduced palate, offering toffee and some high-grade dark chocolate. The oak is really stupendous. Heathery honey meets sticky wine cask. Sweetly earthy at the end.

So…?

If Mr Glaser was prepared to bottle this, price would have to be no object. With the addition of water, this is one of the most complex but satisfying whiskies I have had the pleasure of encountering in many months; you are persistently aware that there is more to find, but far too relaxed by the langourous sequence of mighty oak flavours and the magnificence of well-made, well-matured Speysiders that sing of summer to worry about looking too hard. The alcohol simply does not exist on the nose, and only a little water removes any brashness from the palate. In terms of poise and power, this Oak Cross/ Spice Tree sample cannot be surpassed. It confirms the genius of Glaser, and hints at the supreme quality of whiskies coming from lesser-known distilleries throughout Scotland. A triumph.

Exciting news for those of you who cannot wait to run out and buy a bottle of fine Compass Box whisky. Master of Malt are running a competition at the moment in which the first 250 people to purchase one of Mr Glaser’s creations will be entered into a draw to win the eceedingly rare Canto Cask 48, the now Illegal Spice Tree and Canto Cask 20. Also, in addition to your purchased bottle, Master of Malt will throw in a 3cl Drinks by the Dram sample of another Compass Box whisky! Follow the links, and get buying.

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April 23, 2012

Compass Box at the Quaich Society II

The superb range for the 2012 Compass Box extravaganza.

Lyrical poets of yesteryear contended that Spring was the season for new loves. We at the Quaich Society feel it is a great excuse to rendezvous with old ones, too.

When it comes to Compass Box, however, where a passionate need to innovate is the only thing that remains constant, ‘old’ cannot really apply. John Glaser swept into the Scores Hotel for a second time during my tenure at the Society with four of the same whiskies as last year. Except they are not, of course, the same whiskies. Glaser has dedicated himself to quality, a pursuit that has won him many devoted fans, although few of those are in the Scotch Whisky Association. Rather than replicate previous batches, he prefers to work with samples of whiskies which excite him and which nudge his creativity into uncharted, if related, territories. Therefore, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism were warmly welcomed like old friends, though their genetic make ups would be significantly altered.

The Great King Street Highball.

Courtesy of government legislation which passed into law on the 22 November, 2011, they also had new faces. ‘Vatted’ has been ostracised into the whisky archives, although it shall live on in the memories of a lucky few who could enjoy the highly limited Last Vatted Malt and Last Vatted Grain whiskies Glaser released in tandem with the law change. Many expressions such as Peat Monster then needed new labelling. This was Compass Box, but not as we had known it.

First to wet the lips of the patrons in the sold out Scores Hotel was Glaser’s latest fascination, unearthed from drinking history: the Scotch highball. On the Monday I had received an email with a very specific list of requirements and it looked for all the world like the Quaich Society was about to take its first tentative steps into mixology. We were entertained with an anecdote from Scotch and the highball’s introduction to American, and an insight into a completely different drinking culture to that which we would be practising that night. Equal parts Great King Street (with the addition of a little independently produced Cognac) and soda water, with a splash of orange bitters, lemon peel and ice completed a delicious confection. The whisky was – as Glaser had intended – the star of the show, but the textures of the soda and the fixing quality supplied by the bitters has persuaded me that a few additions to the drinks cabinet may be in order.

Refreshed, we stripped the ancillary ingredients away and investigated Great King Street. Matt and Karen at Whisky4Everyone rather liked this blend last year and I adored its immediate ancestor, Asyla, so hoped for good things. John told us that Great King Street was going to become a dedicated brand, or sub-genre, within Compass Box. It will form the engine room of his quest to bring great quality blended Scotch to people who are interested, while Compass Box will continue to lead the field in the blended malts and blended grains market. Asyla, he promised, would witness a return and how delighted I was to hear that.

On the nose, Great King Street boasted vanilla and caramel, while bursting with gentle, textured citrus. Lime and coconut were in there. The palate was sharp but with a growing richness and spice: I got cumin and coriander. Some bursting berries appeared. Going back to the nose, kiwi oozed out. 50% Girvan grain whisky, with the remainder taken up with Clynelish (John’s favourite malt to work with), Teaninich and Dailuaine, it boasted the most innovative wood management of any blend I have come across. In addition to ex-Bourbon casks, new French Oak and first-fill Sherry have been used.

John Glaser: it's all about the oak.

While introducing Oak Cross, John divulged an interesting snippet. For the first time, Compass Box have bought spirit straight off the still and put it into their own oak. In fifteen years’ time, there shall be home-grown whiskies emerging from Compass Box and I cannot wait to see what those expressions will taste like having had Glaser’s keen and caring eye watching over them for all their days.

Spice Tree leapt out at me more than it had done last time around, with thick creaminess and wonderful oak notes. 80% of the whiskies used have been maturing in toasted French oak for a minimum of 3 years which on the palate made for a rich and fruity whisky, with cardamom and fudge. Peach was a sublime scent on the reduced nose.

When arranging the whiskies for the evening, I was surprised to see Hedonism placed after the Peat Monster, which certainly devoured the palate with attacking smoky dryness. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but that simply meant there was more for me.

On to Hedonism, then, a dram which a year ago had provoked my neighbour to profanity: ‘F****** hell – coconut!’ He had approved then, and I became intoxicated once again on Thursday night. Hedonism boasts some seriously old, serious sensuous grain whiskies which, as Glaser assured us, could astonish with flavour if given the right wood. The nose was simply stunning: full, rich with gorse bush and vanilla. The warmth of those grains was heavenly. There was also a green fruit quality, like gooseberries. The palate was of a similarly unctuous, gorgeous mode: so full with sweetened bread and orange rind. The creaminess unfolded in fat rolls. The dictionary definition ought to forget about the word’s Ancient Greek etymology: this is truly hedonism.

New Society Vice-President, Xander, with the two cask samples.

As with all Quaich Society meetings, the event concluded with a hugely charitable Raffle. John had excelled himself, even from last year when a Compass Box t-shirt was more sought-after than a Louis Vuitton handbag. A tasting set of Compass Box whiskies was up for grabs, in addition to two one-of-a-kind bottles. Glowing goldenly from one was a single cask Laphroaig which John was especially taken with, and in the other a sample drawn straight from a French oak cask containing the next Spice Tree. Raffle tickets were purchased with single-minded ferocity with such extraordinarily special and generous prizes on offer and, having missed out on Highland Park Thor earlier in the semester and the 20cl Port Ellen we had secured for our Committee Tasting, one of my 26 tickets was the first to be drawn. It didn’t help that a few minutes before I had been announced as the Society’s new President. Or that I had drawn the Raffle myself. I promise there was no chicanery involved and I can also confirm that the Spice Tree sample is deliriously extraordinary. But I shall bring you full tasting notes soon. I expect that will be the limit of my luck in the Raffle for the next two years…

Until I can think of a more sincerely grandiose manner of showing my appreciation (like buying him a Caribbean island, perhaps), for now we must simply express our thanks to John Glaser for making the trip up from London to see us again. Since encountering him last year, and discovering that there was a new choir I really needed to join in the Church of Whisky Evangelism, I have recommended his creations and the man himself as a talisman for how Scotch ought to be made, discussed and marketed. As ambassadors go, he is peerless not simply for his own brand, but for whisky as it ought to be. To that end, he told the Committee of his ongoing assault with the SWA. Pointing to the proliferation of craft distillers in the US, Glaser wants to know why Scotch cannot do something similar to promote flavour creation and innovation in the Auld Whisky Kingdom. With a calculated grin, he confirmed that a meeting had been set up. Maybe the powers that be are starting to listen to the visionary and the truth he espouses.

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April 13, 2012

Peat: the Smell of Fear

While still in my whisky nappies, as it were, I made the adventurous but ill-informed progression from The Glenlivet 18yo I had relocated from the distillery on Speyside to a nascent dramming cupboard, to another single malt we happened to have in the house. My Mother had confessed to a certain bias with regards to a distillery I could not pronounce and was grateful for her instruction: Laff-Roy-G. ‘How different could it be?’ I wondered.

To this day I remember the savage abuse that dram of the 10yo wrought upon me. As far as a flavour is concerned, it was not etched upon my memory so much as gouged into my tongue. Rather than The Glenlivet’s rounded, floral and honeyed gentility, this potion reeked of Chemistry cupboards and my next door neighbour’s chimney when he is burning something suspect. It was not whisky as I had only recently come to know it, but an encounter with something primeval, dangerous and dirty. When the idea to tour Scotland’s distilleries came about, I labelled Islay on the map with a big red cross and a ‘here be dragons’ note. I did not want any more of this whisky region’s fire and brimstone.

Of course, today I would happily sprinkle peat on my breakfast cereal, or substitute it for black pepper. Caol Ila is (probably) my favourite distillery - Kilchoman is fast catching up – and sometimes, only a Laphroaig will do. Increasingly there are more folk like me, who relish the taste of earth and burning in their spirits and more companies eager to supply them with cutting, ashy loveliness. Douglas Laing released Big Peat a few years ago, and now Fox Fitzgerald Ltd. have shown up for the party with Peat’s Beast. I would say that they are a bit late, but the next Ardbeg Committee bottling and Feis Ile will demonstrate just what popular punch peat still boasts.

Dubbed ‘a sublime single malt scotch that’s packed with a big bite of untamed peatiness’, it also ticks the Whisky Geek boxes by being bottled at 46% abv. and without chill-filtration: ‘as it should be’ it bellows on the label. Dare I approach the Beast again? Have my Laphroaig Quarter Casks from earlier in the week been adequate acclimatisation?

Peat’s Beast 46% £34.99 available here.

The singeing effect of Peat's Beast.

Colour – Very pale (suggesting natural colouring, too) with wet straw and lemon pith shades.

Nose – With the glass a little way below the nose, homebaked bread appears first: yeasty, sweet and savoury. Beneath this is a grimey, industrial earthy smoke. Close to I find Italian salami, green fruits and certainly a full-bodied character. Whether it is necessarily ‘fierce’ I am not yet certain. With time, crackly bonfire appears, and this will change from its original moorland setting to the beach. Vanilla pod and ‘green’ peat. Later still grapefruit jelly appears with the impression of barley on the malting floors.

With the addition of water, the nose becomes slightly smoother and slippery. Burning straw and spicy malt. Develops into a smouldering charcoal barbecue. Orange peel comes with an emerging sweetness. Gentle earthy, crumbly smoke wafts around. Time reveals stables, a slight sweatiness and baked bread again.

Palate – That sure is a ‘bite’, but I don’t want to recoil in pain. Sweet malt sugars appear at the front of the tongue before a cayenne and chilli heat take over. This falls back onto smoky/sweet charred oak and eventually a deep softness.

After some water the palate grows sootier with charcoal. Another sip reveals turmeric and smoky toffee. Medium-dry, it boasts residual chilli-like heat but loses some of the nuances of the straight sample.

Finish – Some oak sugars survive, but mostly the impression is of grains of peated malt. Apple cores and smoke. Peat bog is a growing impression, but in a naturalistic, not kilned character. Vanilla returns with paprika at the end.

Water lengthens and deepens the experience. Texturally, the whisky is of real interest blending creaminess and a rough firmness. Honeyed at first, with a bit of lemon, before becoming – there’s no other word for it – medicinal. Strong vanilla and caramel from the oak and a little of the Islay iodine character. Cured meats are the final act.

So…?

Let’s be clear on this one point: this is a very capable and charming single malt. It blends youthful vibrancy with richness and sophistication and I think it is very good value indeed. However, I tried it with a couple of friends of mine and we were all in agreement: it doesn’t blow your mind with peatiness. Ordinarily that would not be a compliant. Octomore and Supernova are all very well, but would you turn to them on a daily basis? However, neither of these two expressions claim the title of Peat’s Beast and it is in the spectrum of peat that we must judge this whisky. This is not widely available, those who choose to buy it will most likely do so with a few tours of duty already completed in Islay’s smokiest expressions and they are likely to come to the same conclusion: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Kilchoman all go peatier. 35 ppm is not a beastly phenol content; in fact, I would rename this whisky Peat’s Boisterous Labrador.

I am fairly certain this is not an Islay whisky, however, and hails instead from the mainland’s consistently peaty distillery: Ardmore. My evidence is the industrial grime I noted on the nose, in addition to the cured meats and orange, and the strong, fresh barley impression it retains through the palate and finish. Provenance is not vital, though, because this is a superb whisky. Peat – by its own mission statement, however – is, and it falls some way short of sticking your head inside the Laphroaig kiln. Therefore, buy it for the skilful manipulation of richness, spirit integrity and attractive earthiness, but bear in mind that there are bigger peaty beasts out there.

Many thanks to Pauline Graham for the sample.

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April 3, 2012

Neither Here Nor There: Does Where You Mature a Whisky Matter?

We have lurched into April now, and the weather does not seem to realise that April 1st has passed us by. Still it jokes at my expense: I sit in my St Andrews flat shivering so much it is having a detrimental impact on my typing while snow and hail screech past the not-double-glazed window.

Just as well, therefore, that Gal Granov over in Isreal is hosting this month’s Whisky Round Table, and can confer a degree of warmth to the discussion. This month, Gal wanted to know whether the recent trend for multiple maturation sites – as has happened with some Amrut expressions – has a beneficial impact on the final whisky, or simply titillated the PR guys responsible for writing press releases. I have never tasted a whisky that has explicitly told me that it was matured in a variety of locations, but I have some pretty strong views on the matter, nevertheless.

Suntory are experimenting with casks of Yamazaki, maturing five at each of their Scottish distilleries. These are at Glen Garioch. How will they turn out?

Please check out the thread over at Whisky Isreal, where many more worthy whisky bloggers air their views.

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April 2, 2012

Le Malt 24 Hours – part 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, for our 24 Whiskies in 24 Hours Challenge Mark and I understood that company would be an important factor in the undertaking. Good morale would ensure positive malt moments. With this in mind, for our eighth whisky Xander, Quaich Society Secretary, joined us in Mission Control.

Out came Peat’s Beast, an independent bottling of a peaty whisky recently released and for which I had a 70cl sample. I hope to bring you more detailed information on this dram soon, but for now suffice it to say that it galvanised our spirits for the night ahead. ‘Just remember,’ Xander replied, ‘alcohol is a depressant’. And then he bounced out the door.

01.30: Four Roses Small Batch and Dervish pizzas.

Little did Mark and I realise that, ordering pizzas aside, we would enjoy no other outside human interaction for the next 17 hours. We decamped to his flat where a Speyside period developed: two malt whiskies with bipolar developments in both Sherry and ex-Bourbon oak. The Macallan Fine Oak 10yo and The Balvenie Doublewood proved delicious, despite the incoming seismic waves of another sinus headache for me. From there, arrangements became somewhat comical as we tramped to and fro, grabbing whiskies (Balblair 1992, Four Roses Small Batch) and a DVD (Rat Race) so that whisky and adequate distraction should be in the one place.

A very truncated verticle tasting of Aberlour followed as Mark’s 10yo introduced my 16yo single cask. It was at this point, dear readers, that despite the fortifying ham pizza, I confess I hit the wall. 03.30 had arrived entirely unexpectedly and found me pschologically unprepared. We had, when discussing the endeavour, always admitted that fatigue and not inebriation would be the greatest threat to completing the Le Malt 24 hours but I had not expected the agonising, bleary-eyed and ponderously-stomached horror of it all. I sat, slumped, on my sofa and could not revive myself with a pragmatic appraisal of the situation: we were two whiskies beyond halfway, if I could only endure until 5am or thereabouts, I could conquer the challenge.

Mercifully, our itinerary came to the rescue. Mark’s coastal collection of Jura Superstition and Clynelish 14yo would see us through until dawn, and we had agreed that we would take the Challenge to the beach. SAS-style, I grabbed everything warm I possessed, in addition to an Easter Egg. The trek that followed I remember neither as brief nor straightforward but we belatedly arrived at the Old Course. En route, we had exchanged greetings with a hedgehog which Mark entirely failed to photograph. I think this multi-species interaction gave me new heart, however, for I navigated my way between the 17th and 18th, then the 2nd and 1st – avoiding the Swilken Burn by some miracle – and placed boot on sand with firmer resolution.

We pitched ourselves on a bit of dune, poured the Jura, and became entranced by the wonders of the universe above our heads. I sipped the whisky which, at pre-dawn temperatures, reminded me of the Jura and ice cream experiment we had indulged in at 16.30: a smoky, butterscotch frozen treat. As I lay on the dune, I noticed a satellite sliding over the sky, and traced its progress with slack-jawed wonder. The Milky Way could be seen, too.

Astoundingly beautiful on both counts: the 15yo Caol Ila and sunrise on St Andrews' pier.

Because it was cold, and unbeknownst to ourselves we now sported a significant layer of light sand courtesy of the seaside breeze, we moved on to East Sands. By this point, light had begun to build in the lower reaches of the sky and hope renewed. Mark and I slouched to the end of the pier which was no less chilly or exposed than West Sands had been, but the insistent swells coming from the horizon broke against it in the half-light with a mesmeric beauty. Black and blue, the waves kept on melting against the structure on which we stood, with textures I well knew my camera could not capture.

Clynelish and that Easter Egg ushered in the dawn, and we poured the Caol Ila single cask in time to encourage the burning slit of red that announced the return of the sun. Despite this being the 17th dram of the day, that Caol Ila in that moment will always remain a particular privilege to have savoured.

The terrors of the night vanquished, we returned to my flat where an unusual breakfast awaited us. The Glenlivet 21yo at 07.30 in the morning beat a bowl of Crunchy Nut cornflakes any day, and when I opened the Redbreast 12yo an hour later, it was infinitely preferrable to fruit muesli and yoghurt.

 

Into the finishing straight: Mark pours the Glenmorangie Original.

Breaking the 20 whiskies barrier would require another stagger back to Mark’s. There, Glenmorangie Original witnessed a fit of laughter on my part as I speculated on what members of the public passing Mark’s sitting room window should think were they to look in at us. The laughing quickly stopped, however. At 10.25, our finishing line seemed further away than it had at 06.45. We put The Departed on the DVD player and poured, drank, washed glasses, poured and drank again. Mark professed to be struggling by this stage, and I had started to worry about what that gentle tug in my lower abdomen might indicate as to the status of my liver. Damon, Di Caprio and co. shooting each other passed some critical time and eventually, with wry smiles and rasped ‘slainte‘s, the penultimate whisky entered the glasses. Incredibly, and Mark agreed, I could still find the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban enjoyable. I could still stand whisky.

Walking back into the Whey Pat, I fixed my gaze upon their wall of whiskies in a manner that the barmaid would have been forgiven for judging as ‘unnecessarily aggressive’ or ‘mad’.

‘What do you fancy?’ asked Mark. I slumped against the bar.

‘Old Pulteney 12yo, please.’

And so Lavinia, our companion from the Bruichladdich tasting but 21 hours previously, discovered us half an hour later a pitiful, morose pair. There was a plate of nachos I could not finish, despite having drawn upon them as my motivational energy in the small hours. There were blood-shot eyes. There was a notable failure of communication as I could think of nothing besides my bed. However, there was real cameraderie between myself and my fellow expeditionist. We had done what had at certain points seemed impossible and we could still look at a bottle of whisky without yelping in fright. 24 whiskies, 24 hours – a vast number of singular memories, and the written promise that we will never do anything like it again. At least, my signature is on there; Mark is thinking he might give it a shot with ale.

The completion photograph. I should have done - but could not do - more damage to those nachos...

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