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Follow the Compass!

If John Glaser were a festive foodstuff he would be Heston’s Waitrose Christmas Pudding: sold out in minutes with everyone wanting a piece. His presence is requested at international whisky functions; his views are cited in seemingly any article discussing innovation, independence, blended whisky, or indeed whisky; his energy drives record-breaking tastings like this summer’s undertaking with Dominic Roskrow across the Whisky Shops of the United Kingdom. And in his spare moments he still manages to craft whiskies of stunning integrity and intrigue under the Compass Box standard, while journeying to the Fife coast annually to deliver the most engrossing and enlightening tastings the Quaich Society has seen.

In all facets and at every juncture, the message – and the passion with which it is communicated – remain identical. Quality oak produces quality whiskies which can be married together to create a spirit which is more than the sum of its parts. Never compromise on quality. For more than 12 years Glaser has been as good as his word – perhaps even better if you have been fortunate enough to encounter the irrepressible zeal with which he articulates his mission. Indeed, John can at times overshadow his products.

A long-awaited re-evaluation, and a new acquaintance.

If there is one Compass Box expression that enjoys cult status on a par with its creator, however, it is the Flaming Heart limited release. Now onto its fourth outing, Flaming Heart’s flavour profile demands a highly particular assortment of whiskies, not to mention one of the most striking label designs anywhere in whisky. Glaser states on the Compass Box website that ‘It is unlike any other whisky, owing to the combination of distillery whiskies we use and the variety and quality of the casks.’ This is the first Flaming Heart vatting to contain Sherry-matured whiskies, too.

I first sipped this behemoth of a dram at the Quaich Society in 2011, although by the time we reached the Flaming Heart my palate was listing with exhaustion due to the platoon of fine whiskies Glaser had brought with him. Tragically, the other 10th Anniversary release, and penultimate pour, of Double Single also suffered as a result of my fatigue. Courtesy of those wonderful gentlemen at Master of Malt, however, I was able to track down a Drinks By The Dram sample of both the latest Flaming Heart, and that elusive Double Single.

Compass Box Double Single 53.3% £92.02 here

Colour – straw gold.

Nose – prickly and pickled at first: lush green fruits with a wine-y acidic edge. Abundant softness from the grain with some chewy caramel and fresh spiritiness at the margins. Apple and mango juice drink. Very clean, with the grain component now suggesting pineapple syrup. Some golden rum sugariness and a touch of mint from the cask.

Water – sweeter: vanilla, a sugary texture with freshly sawn oak. Gin-like citrus peels. More mango than apple now, although a touch of pear creeps in. Lovely texture. Final hint of honeydew melon. The malt spirit has wonderful poise and purity, and controls the flavour spectrum embellished by the grain.

Palate – grain and malt in complete harmony: caramel and green apple. Some hefty cask presence. Gristy sugars on the lips before a gentle earthy dryness appears.

Water – lime and apple peel, sweet cereal and gingery oak. Supremely balanced. Lots of apple juice (Innocent apple juice, if you have tried it). Hay and brown sugar. Very clean.

Finish – soft with again a stand-out texture in the shape of lush green fruit. Vanilla biscuit and grassiness. A touch of pineapple on the end.

Water – brought out a spicy character: mustard powder and coriander. Short crust pastry with almond and apple. The flavour development is quite short but the lovely texture endures.

Compass Box Flaming Heart.

Compass Box Flaming Heart Fourth Release 48.9% £69.12 here

Colour – full, burnished gold.

Nose – peat leads the charge: viscous, huge, with rich smokiness and baked wholemeal bread. The singed quality creates a bridge to a waxiness which picks out delicate pear and apple. Crisp, with log fire impressions. Richness and delicacy. Thyme and oregano thrown on a barbecue. Then a massive grist/vanilla sweetness appears underpinning everything.

Water – still peat-driven with a gently singed smokiness. Northern Highland textured lush fruitness. Like smoky rock candy. Greener, with a coniferous needle and sap character. Sweet grist and tablet. Lime and cola. With more time, honey and toffee emerge from the oak with more coastal aromas of turf, rocks and seaweed. Sheer weight of maltiness underneath. Fabulous.

Palate – dry, lightly-peated malt at first, although the peat increases in weight, descending with an oregano hint and a pine tree character. Very full-bodied and fascinating.

Water – mouthcoating peatiness, with pear, cinnamon and lovely rich and smooth malt appearing. Sweetness is the key here, together with chunky peat and a cedar lift.

Finish – the peat and the malt continue to hold court. Some old wood flavours. A spruce Christmas garland.

Water – lush grass and earth, green fruit lends a delicate fleshiness. The smoke is so well-controlled and supplies a thick fragrance in the upper reaches. So much appley and gristy sweetness.

So…? The Double Single comprises three quarters 18yo Glen Elgin and one quarter 21yo Port Dundas. Glaser’s intention was to demonstrate the true elegance one can achieve from a sympathetic blending of malt and grain spirit. With this testament to fruit and syrupy sweetness, he has succeeded. Not only did the best of the grain whisky flavour spectrum step forward to be counted, the lush fruity Glen Elgin make pulled the strings so wonderfully and subtly. The real highlight for me, however, was the silken texture achieved from just two different spirits.

John’s own description of Flaming Heart cannot – I feel – be improved upon: ‘a whisky born of fire, yet one with a big heart’. The longer one spent with it, the more this fabulous dualism began to make complete sense. His Northern Highland spirit (Clynelish) melded seemlessly with the bruising Islay South-Coast malt (most likely Laphroaig) to envelope the senses in a flavoursome and textural perfect storm.

Both blends benefited from a little extra time to stretch their legs, and what was abundantly clear about Glaser’s spirits was that strength of personality became more self-evident. Much like the man himself. As we approach January 1st, I can think of no better whisky resolution than to discover Compass Box.

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