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February 25, 2014

Glenmorangie Companta – Why I’m Wine Finished

I was panicking, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what the master distiller wanted from me, why couldn’t he just stop?

‘You will see,’ he said, stalking between the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. ‘It’s the future; you must accept it.’

I fought against the tannins still coating my tongue from the Saint-Emilion-boarding I had received earlier that morning. ’But it’s perfectly good as it is! You don’t have to do this!’

The master distiller stepped up to the cask which lay, defenceless, between us. ‘You will see,’ he repeated and signalled to his henchmen. Heavy boots scuffled over the cement floor as the goons wrestled another cask into view. They placed this newer-looking cask beside the first, then gripped the mottled grey hogshead.

‘Please don’t do this!’ I cried as they began to lift and tip the contents of the first cask into the second.

‘No! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!’

Okay, so it isn’t a scene that’s going to make it into the next Matt Damon espionage thriller. The anxieties of the wider world are still titillated by government surveillance and nuclear war - the whims of the whisky industry are very far down the list of Hollywood’s screenwriters. But that leads me on rather neatly to the whisky anorak’s premonition of the apocalypse: wine finishing.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores; how the practice started is of less importance than where it is leading. There were conspiracies in the darker pockets of the internet that wine casks and indeed any oak vessel which had once held something else were drafted in to the Scotch whisky industry to lift sunken stocks. ‘Is your 13-year-old whisky a bit lifeless and bland? Stick it in a tokaji cask and you’ll be laughing.’ I should stress that I am not tarring all finishes with the same brush, nor am I suggesting that this was the policy for the entire industry. I am a big fan of Sherry and Port finishes, and some fortified wine finishes have been stellar: Ardbeg Galileo from Marsala casks, Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or from Sauternes. I reserve my reservations, in fact it is tantamount to a fully-formed aversion, for red wine-finished whiskies.

Over the years I have tried, in no particular order: Auchentoshan 17yo Bordeaux Finish, Bruichladdich Rocks, Bowmore Dusk, Bruichladdich Black Arts, Glenmorangie Artein, Edradour Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Dunedin 10yo Doublewood. All boasted redeeming features (excepting the Black Arts, of course) but the initial taste and recurring faults in the finish – like a repressed memory that keeps fighting back – always upset me.

On taking a first sip, it is as if Tarzan has swung in from nowhere with an offering of semi-decomposed berries and his own leaf mulch mattress. There’s a gruesomely bold ‘ta da! It’s me!’ from the wine, like encountering with a hangover a mostly empty bottle of merlot someone else was drinking the night before sat on a hot windowsill and exhaling exuberantly, which ruins everything else. Fair enough (almost) if your original casks have been stingier than an insurance company in Somerset but what if the liquid was quite charming to start with? This brings me on to Glenmorangie’s latest expression in the Private Edition series, Companta.

Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie, is a big fan of wine. He introduced Super Tuscan wine casks for the Artein release a couple of years ago and has settled in France this time for Companta. Two separate parcels of Glenmorangie were brought together, one lot maturing in Grand Cru casks from Clos de Tart and the other in fortified wine casks from the Cotes du Rhone. The idea was to offer something ‘neither too bold nor too tame’. My problem here is that the wine influence is fairly bold, and I suspect they thought the original whisky was on the more mellow side. Rather lovely in its own way, but in need of pep. I fear that, in pursuit of something a little more earnest, they have dressed Cerys Matthews up as Lady Gaga.

Glenmorangie Companta 46% £69.99

Colour – full dark honey with prune tints.

Nose – complex tannic knots of cask, barley sweetness beneath and dark cherry with a dark chocolate shell. Soft, full and inviting. Big note of Port-poached pear, the wine thickening and puckering at the edges. Lashings of blackberry vinegar. A shaving of lightly creamy and spicy ex-Bourbon cask. Earthiness returns and a loss of focus in the mid-range.

Palate – winey fruits and jelly beans collide into each other then firm, sweet baking spice oak arrives. Smooth malt behind. A touch aggressive but pleasant.

Finish – quite light in the finish: apricot flesh surrounds a fading fudgey malt. Budding vanilla fragrance and buttercream thickness.

Adding water improved everything by a fraction. The nose was reminiscent of Jammy Dodgers, sweet hazelnut and stewed apple. There is a lovely malt at its peak texture and sweetness but the wine, I felt, inhibited any attempt to realise the whisky’s depths. With time, strawberry bonbon, acacia honey and peppermint appear. The palate takes the dark cherry note from the neat nose and spins it on a bed of fromage frais. A bit of pear and more winey warmth. Creamy coconut and soft fruit stick to the tongue before earthy cask notes return. All led into a creamy and elusive finish.

So…?      As I said above, there are strong hints of a very lovely whisky here. The high quality Glenmorangie spirit has an exceptional ability to fill the nose and conjure up sweets you had long forgotten about. There are suggestions of the 10yo’s pear and creamy Bourbon character and it’s all rather nice until you have to factor in the wine. In this whisky the dangers of mixing grape and grain came in the form of a warm mulchy earthiness, like making jam in a potting shed. It didn’t dominate, but it was just enough to mar the effect at every stage. The Companta, therefore, is a bright blue sky, with a cloud or two sidling into shot.

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February 13, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Compass Box Intern

6am      My second alarm erupts beside me (I’m one of those people who likes to give myself a 30-minute warning) and I collapse upright. In term time I can usually greet the new day on my own terms - anywhere between 8.30 and 10 I would deem acceptable. 6am in Enfield had, for the first couple of weekday mornings, felt like an incursion into my human rights. Now I seem to have adjusted and I’ve even stopped swearing under my breath.

6.30am      Cereal in the process of being munched, toast to follow. Heart FM witters away by my right ear. I now know what has become of Jamie Theakston.

7.30am      I manage to pick my way through the slush of yesterday’s Metros and board the Greater Anglia service from Southbury.

7.42am      Disembark at Seven Sisters. After a few days I start to get the hang of platform positioning: in seconds I scythe between commuters still half-asleep and then, for the next eternity, shuffle down the stairs to the Victoria Line escalators.

7.48am      Duck into the Tube train and grab on to a pole. Slowly adjust facial features to apathetic hostility. Summarily fail to find a position that will not leave me vulnerable to the next influx of passengers to left and right.

8.06am      Disembark at Victoria, misread platform notices and head on to the Piccadilly Line. About turn and find the District Line platform. Feel like a mouse in a lab experiment.

8.16am      Ears ringing to ‘MindtheclosingdoorsMindtheclosingdoors’, I take my position on – but not beyond – the Yellow Line for the next train bound for Richmond. During the journey, daylight appears.

8.35am      Disembark at Gunnersbury. Wander through the cigarette smoke of other commuters trying to squeeze a final one in before the office. Check Twitter. Arrive at 9, Power Road, Compass Box HQ.

8.45am      Enter the office and nod to Chris, signalling both: ‘Good morning’ and ‘Extraordinary outfit’. Spectate on the Coffee-Making Ritual. Coffee is very important to office morale, as fastidious and passionate in its preparation as the whisky arm of the business. Hot, rich percolation aromas rise over the glass partition of the kitchen/blending lab area to where I sit at Brian’s Desk. I don’t partake of coffee since it makes me paranoid. I check my emails instead, which makes me paranoid.

Coffee. The Compass Box office boasts somewhat better beans.

9am      Start as I mean to go on with the Great PR Filing Project. Beside Brian’s Desk is a plastic trough full of binders containing press cuttings of Compass Box praise. Not all of this is in English, neither is it all from publications I recognise. However, the editorial staff of The Sex Herald really liked Oak Cross back in 2004. Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. Celine pretends the scanner beeping isn’t driving her insane.

10am      An email has come through from The General (John Glaser) re. The General. I have to get in touch with some Missouri-based distributors ahead of the whisky’s launch in America in March. I print off the letters, address and seal the envelopes, return to the Chiswick high street Post Office, exchange cheery waves of recognition with the staff.

11.15am      I return to the office. Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass has a query about samples (I have also been consulted on snooker and haggis). I rummage in the Room of Doom for bottles before filling them with the Signature Range: Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster, Hedonism, Great King Street, Orangerie (Orangerie always spills). Label, bubblewrap, pack. Coordinate delivery with a well-known courier service. Check Twitter.

12noon      Eat lunch. Elif, Celine, Chris and Inga take turns to microwave something wholesome and tasty. To my recollection, not once did I see John or Gregg eat anything for lunch (lovely olives, dates and pistachios aside).

12.30pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise. These binders won’t get the better of me. Succomb, mentally, to the arcane rhythms of Radio Paradise, commercial-free, listener-supported radio.

2.30pm      It’s about time I was providing some vital feedback for Gregg ‘Hurricane’ Glass on one of the new whiskies he’s concocting. One of these is the result of their Experimental Great King Street Batches. Will it be smoky? Will it be sherried? Will it have passion fruit in it? Dear SWA, It will NOT have passion fruit in it. Feel like Dave Broom for a bit, all cool, insightful and influential. I’ve neglected my scanning.

3pm      Scan and digitise, scan and digitise.

4pm      Take bottles out of cardboard boxes and put them in the Liquid Library cabinet or vice versa. As you enter Compass Box HQ there is a giant cabinet on the right filled with bottling run samples of all the core range and the Limited Releases. I have to unearth the duplicates and lay them aside for office Neknomination videos (I don’t). I’ve never handled so many Oak Crosses in my life. Speculate on the wonders of Eleuthera and Last Vatted Grain. Contemplate having a bath in Hedonism.

5pm      Depart from Chiswick bound for either Alexandra Palace for Masters Snooker, Soho to meet up with friends, Shoreditch for a cocktail and beard watching, or Enfield to sleep.

That was a representative snapshot of a working day during my two weeks with the Compass Box crew. I loved my time there nearly as much as Celine loves Mezcal – no, in truth I had a brilliant fortnight and I’m grateful for every act of kindness, be it a headtorch for the Room of Doom, a How Not to Get Lost on Chiswick High Street lecture, permission to roam through Borough Market, a frame of snooker, a pep talk from Jonathan Driver, some cured meat, and a cocktail or seventeen. Thanks for putting up with me, guys, and I hope the cake went some way to derailing your January diets.

White chocolate sponge with orange and passion fruit curd. Delicious cake for a delicious whisky company.

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February 10, 2014

London Bar Trawl – Pt. I

If you have been offended by the chasm of silence which has gripped the Scotch Odyssey Blog since the beginning of the year, I do apologise. However, in order to write interesting posts about whisky you have to get out there and do interesting whisky-related things. If reportage was somewhat thin on the ground, therefore, I assure you my fieldwork was pretty intense.

Part way through January I had an internship lined up with those lovely people at Compass Box Whisky Co. Regular readers cannot have failed to pick up on my fanatical thirst and approval for Compass Box creations. For more than a decade John and his growing team have crafted and marketed whiskies that appeal to my geeky side as well as being frankly delicious. When I approached founder John Glaser about the possibility of becoming the glorified office bitch for a couple of weeks, therefore, my love and respect for their products overwhelmed any negative considerations about where they operate from: London.

England’s capital city is, to one who grew up on the back-of-beyond Northumbrian coast and attends a university on the back-of-beyond Scottish coast, an alien province equally glitzy and frightening. The size, the over-crowding, the aggressive furthering of one’s own interests – it was a scary place in my mind. Then you read about the cool whisky launches and events, and most especially the bars of London, and it starts to pulse in your imagination as the intersection of creativity, choice and quality.

In my second week at Compass Box, I made the decision to delay – or at any rate elongate – my 1 hour 20 minute commute back to Enfield where I was staying and check out a few bars whose reputations preceded them. This meant going to Shoreditch. Buoyed by good module results, I had three bars in mind which I hoped would show me a good time and serve me a stupendous drink.

Hawksmoor (Spitalfields), 157A Commercial Street, E1 6BJ

Word in the office was that Hawksmoor was the place to go if I wanted an excellent cocktail and a bite of something tasty to eat. The inclusion of the basement bar on my itinerary was rendered absolutely necessary by the cocktail menu and one ‘Stolen Heart’; none other than Compass Box’s iconic Spice Tree combined with Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit and apricot brandy.

The fare at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields.

Ducking off the high street and into the narrow stairway, I found a thick wooden door at the bottom behind which was part Turkish baths ante-room, part Art Deco diner. Lots of richly-coloured ceramic tiles prevented this space from being too dark. A very friendly (bearded, of course) man took my order. I went for the roast ox cheek sandwich and one Stolen Heart. I would have sat at the bar but every stool was taken with Young Professionals enjoying the craic with the bartenders. From what I overheard, they were in the drinks industry, also, so this is where those who work with beverages come to consume beverages. The clientele was otherwise a mish-mash: couples out for a quick snack before the pub, single businessmen not quite ready to face the commute back home.

I enjoyed my sandwich immensely although at £12 I would have wanted more sandwich. Maybe a second one, perhaps. The Stolen Heart was silky yet palate-gripping at the same time, the Compass Box supplying a buzzing energy at the base. It was probably the weakest of the cocktails I had on the night, however. Having paid the bill (I’d discover 12.5% service charges are standard practice in such places) it was on to the next bar.

The Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, EC2A 2DU

Shoreditch is apparently so restlessly trendy it is in the process of being knocked down and remodelled. Inspecting Google Maps, none of the building sites I had to navigate were shown which made finding Worship Street more difficult than it really needed to be. When I saw another basement entrance, however, I knew I’d arrived.

The Whistling Shop was recognisable for two reasons: I’ve read a lot about it, bar consultant Ryan Chetiyawardana being something of a UK bartending Buddha. Ryan has also worked on Bramble in Edinburgh, which is my ‘local’ and possibly favourite bar. The low lighting and tucked-away bar space was very similar. Also, it managed to feel like the St Mary’s Library here in St Andrews: two sides of the seating area are walled with books. The idea is to meld ‘the charm of Victorian squalor with the elegance of grand gin palaces’. Quite.

The menu fits on one side of A4, which is a good thing, in my opinion. There are only  so many mini oak casks and weird tinctures you can store on the bar at any one time, and it lends a feel of specialism to the operation. Not exactly seasonality, but what the bartenders are excited about at that moment. I went for the Pikesville Rye Whiskey, which is not telling the whole story. The guys have ‘finished’ rye whiskey with port and left it in a mini cask to fuse in flavour. This is decanted into a little thimble glass and served alongside ginger ale with an enormous slice of lemon peel. You drink one, then the other, or pour one into the other – it really depends. The first sip of the spirit/port combo with the ginger ale next was delicious. It carried on being delicious, in fact.

So inspired was I by the liquids on display – the Peat & Umami tincture which went in to the Late Pickings cocktail was extraordinary – I had another, the Onesie. For this they take Four Roses and combine it with a hop distillate and pale ale syrup. Fascinating concept, but it came across as a touch too soft and grassy for my tastes.

NOLA, 66-68 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY

NOLA's Hurricane Sandy.

I decided that one more bar was essential, and NOLA had been recommended by a St Andrews partner in crime. This is a Creole/Cajun/Deep South/Big Easy bar concept co-founded by Dan Priseman, Four Roses ambassador and writer of the excellent Bitters & Twisted blog. When I came to a red brick underpass with a giant mural on it I thought I’d gone too far. NOLA is another bar that you have to squeeze into, as though through a cocktail cat flap. This time, I was heading upstairs rather than down.

The bar was quieter than Hawksmoor and Worship Street had been, but that allowed bartender Ian to be still more friendly. It is a real pleasure being able to chat to London bartenders and easily the best way to discover where else is doing exciting things and who you need to check out. For example, we had an in-depth discussion about where the best banana daiquiris were to be had in East London. The décor of NOLA is relaxed, fun and with great attention to detail. The bar itself is beautiful: carved wooden cabinets showcasing the wealth of spirits (with a strong Four Roses line-up, as you would expect) on offer.

I liked the look of the Hurricane Sandy, a twist on the classic Blood and Sand. Rather than the sweet vermouth, Monkey Shoulder was combined with orange and lime juice as well as cherry brandy. Masses of crushed ice made for an amazingly refreshing drink.

Every bar I went into offered a distinct atmosphere, interpersonal protocol and drinks selection. Every bar was professional but homely, too. It was leaving NOLA that I thought: ‘I want to live somewhere I can find such hospitality and creativity on my doorstep. London rules’. I still favour Bramble in Edinburgh, though, for reasons of economy (cocktails are usually £2-£3 cheaper) but also intimacy. It is a London approach to mixing great drinks with a more particular feel.

If pressed, I would go back to NOLA of the three. I feel that, later on in the evening, this would really be a place to let your hair down while enjoying excellent drinks. Next time I’ll talk about three more bars I visited – only this time, I had the Compass Box office with me.

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