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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Blending In, Standing Out

I always endeavour to hang around with creative people (if for whatever reason I’m a little short on creativity myself) because you know that something unexpected is never too far away. You have more fun at the time, and you come away with plenty to think over.

If there is one word to sum up the chaps at Master of Malt, the online drinks retailer, creative would be it. These guys have more ideas for new products while hunting for a pair of vaguely matching socks in the morning than most major distillers do in a month of meetings. In recent weeks they have announced a range of single malts finished in Sherry casks, dubbed Darkness!, revealed a new collection of cocktail bitters created by G-force (Bitter Bastards – you read that right), made available Bramble Bar’s modern classic Affinity cocktail to all and sundry and launched the world’s first super-premium spiced rum. If anything, releasing your own premium Scotch whisky blend smacks of convention.

Master of Malt have form in the blended category, conceiving the Home Blending Kit a few years ago (lots of fun) and getting a whole load of bloggers and journos to combine spirits in a good-natured – but I’m sure, fiercely competitive – blending challenge. Then, earlier this year, their Lost Distilleries Blend walked away with the gong for World’s Best Blended Whisky, beating the illustrious likes of Suntory and Irish Distillers. If it had been me, I’d have organised an open-top bus carnival in my own honour.

To follow up, they have concocted a 10yo blend, Batch 1 at 47.5%, unchill-filtered and natural colour. They were going for ‘rich and complex’. Let’s see if they succeeded.

Master of Malt 10yo Batch 1 47.5% £39.95

Colour – rich full gold.

Nose – yep, rich and full with a hefty truncheon of grain whisky before soft, fudgey peat and rich oak emerge. Quite clean, for all the weight and richness, with sweet walnut and a slug of Sherry. A hint of saltiness, golden syrup and carrot cake.

Palate – cake-rich with carrot cake again, rum fudge and thick oak. Out steps a sweet grassy quality before gooey grains spread over the tongue. A touch of marine-like smoke at the very end.

Finish – spice and richness dry the mouth although muscovado sugar softens things a little. Good weight and structure.

Not to be confused with the Reference Series of bottlings, or the Blended Whisky #1 Batch 1 from That Boutiquey Whisky Co., this is a straight-ahead expression of how Master of Malt envisages blended whisky. I have to say I was impressive, with the dram nosing like something a good few years above its age statement. Grain was old-school fat and juicy, with maybe just a hint of oils and spices, and the malts played a satisfying rich theme.

However, there is stiff competition at the moment, especially when you consider price. I had the Tweeddale 12yo Batch 2 before Christmas and that was suppler, as well as sweeter than the MoM offering. It was also, at the time, cheaper. Even I, blend evangelist that I am, have my reservations about paying £40 for a 10yo blend.

Tweeddale is an obvious comparison, small-scale and ’boutique’, but in terms of flavour, the big problem for Master of Malt comes in the shape of the not-inconsiderable Johnnie Walker Black Label. This, too, does fat oak, smoke and rich malt – and for £26. Tweeddale and JW have the edge, too, when you consider that you have the option to buy in-store, foregoing delivery charges. That £39.95 turns into about £45 for the MoM 10yo with no other option but to buy it through their site.

A little footnote: as engrossing a whisky as this 10yo is, I’m not sure I want to sip a blend that sits at nearly 48% ABV. For me, blends act as drinkable comfort blankets with the textures of the grain-malt interface finding best expression at 40-43%. The argument will be made (and has been on MoM’s uproarious, informative blog) that below 46% lipids and other congeners in the whisky are likely to come out of suspension if water or ice is added but this doesn’t bother Compass Box who bottle their gorgeous Asyla at 40%, despite it being unchill-filtered.

All in all, an interesting experiment and a tasty drop. I’m just not sure what – even if I were prepared to pay for one – I would do with a whole bottle.

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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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Compass Box The General

We are, there can be no denying it, squarely inside 2014 by now but I hope the genial fog of the festive season has not entirely lifted for you all just yet. When another sample of interesting Scotch whisky arrived courtesy of Compass Box Whisky Co. this week, I certainly experienced something of a Christmas relapse.

Compass Box don’t really do viral marketing, but if you follow their Facebook page things become mightily tantalising. Towards the end of last year the steady trickle of small batch Scotch whiskies issuing from John Glaser’s blending lab became a torrent with three limited edition blends and a blended malt. One that they kept under wraps longer than most was The General. They promised it would be old. They promised it would be unusual. They promised it would be stonking.

So here we have it: a steam locomotive-inspired, gold wax-dipped beauty. I’ve raved about Compass Box labels before but just look at this one: classic bold graphics and a killer colour scheme. With the rich rosewood tones of the whisky within, this is one of the most handsome bottles I have laid eyes on for a while.

The concept behind this whisky is complex, if not convoluted. Two separate companies had both blended grain and malt whiskies in cask some time ago and then laid them aside. We must infer that neither could find a use for their super-mature blends upon their rediscovery, hence Compass Box’s acquisition of them. John worked for two months with these stunning, unique packages of stock – some from ex-Bourbon barrels, some from ex-Sherry butts; some 33 years old, some more senior still – to find the right combination. The result is a blended Scotch like no other. I’ve said before that older isn’t always better, just different. However, in this case, older is better than just about anything I’ve ever encountered.

Compass Box The General 53.4% (1,698 bottles) £180-199

Colour – very deep: leather-tinged amber.

Nose – compact, rich and exquisite texture. Leather boot polish, cinnamon and cherry liqueur. Damp hogsheads – this is very old indeed. Roasted sweet peppers and habanero heat. Scented soap and heavy floral notes give a surprisingly feminine lift. With time there are fine, ethereal tropical fruits, egg custard, sandalwood, blackberry and more oak.

Palate – big dark oak flavours, especially vanilla, creamy coffee and orange-accented dark chocolate.

Finish – bourbon oakiness with cereals crisping up rapidly. Very brulee’d crème brulee. Drying.

I’ll be honest, I was disappointed on first examination. The oak was stifling rather than enhancing the whisky and I had no option but to contemplate water. With whiskies of this age, such a strategy carries risk since many are liable to disintegrate. However, the following are my notes after just a touch of water had been added.

Nose – quite savoury at first with a nut and pretzel mix. Then a brittle, valedictory toffee apple rises from the oak, surrounded by a Bourbon-like matrix of wood, spice and aromatics. Masses of peaches in syrup. Now I get soft, kiln-ready green malt and – more amazingly – fresh pink grapefruit for life. Still, though, the earthy oak takes my senses to new realms of maturity. Time reveals a moth’s cough of smoke and grapefruit again. Liquorice root, black cherry and a textured grassiness I can neither believe nor resist arrive.

Palate – old, fruity, shifting into spicy with garam masala. Amazing development to maple syrup and honeycomb. So rich with a bit of charcoal smoke and again tropical fruits (dried mango, fresh pineapple). It waits for you to swallow before building up tiers upon tiers of flavour.

Finish – still weighty but the oak doesn’t drag. Buttery and soothing. Sweetly spicy like fresh cardamom. Sweetly earthy, too. Waxier weight and incredible length.

So…?      I’m not sure I’d have had the balls to blend these blends together. I imagine that, faced with the samples for the first time, the safe option would be to go: ‘they’re both fantastic, we’ll bottle them separately’. However, John has pulled together some excellent extra dimensions which I had no idea whisky could accommodate or sustain. Older is not always better, but in this instance the concentration and exotic combination of aromas and flavours is an absolute treat. This is a very very good whisky which some may find reminiscent of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in its rich, heavy oak intensity. However, this stops short of being fungal and shows a dapper, genteel maturity.

Given the praise I have lavished upon The General, it seems extraordinary to admit that he has a rival in the super-old blend stakes. Before Christmas I tried Batch 4 of Duncan Taylor’s Black Bull 40yo and this is another example of dazzling whiskymaking. To my tastes, it just has the edge. Duncan Taylor boasts one of the largest inventories of mature Scotch whisky of any independent bottler. When putting together a blend of such phenomenal age, they are at liberty to select whiskies with marginally more favourable oak/spirit balance than I believe John had at his disposal. Especially neat, The General’s whiskies are back-of-house pulling the strings – what we primarily see are the oak-derived characteristics which have absorbed the majority of the once vibrant spirits into themselves. The Black Bull 40yo puts its whiskies centre stage with fabulously dense oak forming the backdrop. The General’s ‘antique’ oak notes are unlike anything I’ve had before, and are of the very highest standard, but perhaps – for my tastes – the Black Bull has a fraction more to offer.

Very many thanks indeed to Chris Maybin for the sample.

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Compass Box Delilah’s and Peat Monster 10th Anniversary

The Compass Box motto is and always has been, Above all, share and enjoy. For any Douglas Adams fans, this is also uncannily similar to the anthem of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Fortunately, whisky creator John Glaser’s products are on another planet compared with the shoddy robots you find in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In 2013, John’s output has underlined the company’s commitment to great whisky, great packaging and a pervasive philosophy of appreciation without taking yourself too seriously. Enter Delilah’s, a blended Scotch whisky constructed in partnership with the Chicago punk whisky bar of the same name. The iconic venue celebrated its 20th anniversary this autumn and owner Mike Miller wanted something special to mark the occasion. However, having fun remained the principal goal. Compass Box released just over 6,000 bottles of their new blend, created with roughly 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky and 50% malt (Longmorn* and Teaninich) matured in new and rejuvenated American oak casks. The serve? A shot to enjoy alongside a beer. Uncomplicated. Off-beat. But if speed is not of the essence, what does this whisky taste like?

Compass Box Delilah’s 40% (natural colour, unchillfiltered) 6,324 bottles £47.50

Colour – rich orangey gold.

Nose – soft, sweet and creamy at first, like white chocolate mice. The grains have an oily, golden syrup presence. Vanilla and peeled tangerine, peach and mango verging on to lush florals. Getting stuck in, it is so soft; light but purposeful. Silky almond milk-like grains introduce spun sugar malts with orange peel and sultana. Honeydew melon and banana. Has the rounded oaky spice of a younger Bourbon – almost wheated. Lovely.

Palate – creamy sweetness + spice. Rounded vanilla with cinnamon and chilli, then orange zest fuses the two. Lingering.

Finish – something like heather and runny honey (but not heather honey). Still creamy but the oak develops a nipping core at the end.

Adding water dimmed the nose by quite a bit – those exuberant oak notes just overplayed their hand a touch, becoming tired and inhibiting. A little dried mango and banana, as well as coconut and apricot emerge but the oak/spirit balance has been lost. The palate, on the other hand, is extraordinary: pearlescent green fruits (my favourite Longmorn fingerprint*) with melon balls, grape and pear with honeycomb. So wonderful. The oakiness stays away and the pear builds before a tickle of spice rounds things off with echoes of very mature grains.

As well as marking the anniversaries of others, Compass Box has a milestone of its own to celebrate. It has been ten years since the first Peat Monster was concocted and released. Back then, it was for an American customer and called only The Monster. As the years have gone by the smoky style of Scotch whisky has gained a rabid following and John has sought to up the peaty ante. It is now the best-seller in the Compass box range and loved by many for its pristine oak sugars and thick though never terrifying smoke profile. In celebration of the Monster reaching a decade on the shelves, John has recalibrated the recipe slightly, going odder and older with what I am assuming is Ardmore. Richness, boldness and smoke are the watchwords here, with Caol Ila and Laphroaig puffing away. Clynelish is the instrumental play-maker.

Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary 48.9% 5,700 bottles £75.85

Colour – pale straw.

Nose – robust, round but deep and dark peat at first. Behind is serious oaky weight, ash, sandiness and barbecued green apple. Approaching the glass and it is phenolic and earthy. Tremendously oily but sweet, reminding me of Kilchoman with the engine oil and vanilla ice cream effect. Glints of barley malt and a strain of acidic fruits emerge with the impression of hot copper stills. An engagingly different smoky experience.

Palate – awesome. dry, kiln-clinging smoke with smoked oysters and caramelised malt husks. An explosion of peat on swallowing then saliva-inducing chilli. Did I say awesome?

Finish – hard to know when it begins to fade. This is powerful stuff: rich, dry, thick, lovely. Peat and turf roots with a slice of oak. Dulse and barnacles. Sweet grist has the final say.

As with the Delilah’s, I wasn’t sure that water helped. The nose kept its density and complexity with the fruits coming out a touch more. Sweeter notes from the casks now (there’s a percentage of French oak in the marriage). Laphroaig Cask Strength-esque fudgey smoke. Cardamom. Rock pools on a scorching day. Grows a tad too perfumed for my liking. The palate was lighter at first, the smoke billowing before condensing. So bold and powerful – an outdoor whisky for sure. Doesn’t hit the heights of the straight sample. The finish is almost winey with puckering fruits. Like the peaty Great King Street it has a mineral character.

So…?      I was bowled over by the variety on display in these whiskies and both received very high scores in my personal ratings system. I had thought Delilah’s might just be a reformulation of Asyla (they share many core ingredients) but this is certainly its own whisky. Keep the water away, however, to retain the gorgeous airiness but subtle impact of the nose. The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary, though, is the powerhouse whisky and one I would need to return to a number of times to fully understand. There is so much going on in there and its sense of purpose is so convincing. It is a whisky to surrender to. And what a label! They should really do posters, as well…

* Chris Maybin of Compass Box who kindly furnished me with the samples has been in touch with a correction for me. It transpires that the ‘Elgin’ malt used in Delilah’s is in fact Glen Elgin – not Longmorn - and I was attributing that mesmeric fruitiness on the palate to the wrong distillery! Embarrassing, but it does not mar my admiration for the blend or indeed my devoted attitude towards Longmorn. My thanks to Chris for pointing this out, and credit where it is due to Diageo.

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Compass Box Experimental Great King Streets

The two new Great King Streets.

Blending whiskies together is an art, a challenge and also a lot of fun. I mentioned recently that I would be hosting a blending workshop in St Andrews for the Quaich Society’s keen beans, those who obsess over single malt but for whom blends are foreign – possibly benign - territories at best. Over a couple of hours of pipetting and measuring, nosing and adjusting, I think my ten candidates for Master Blender began to appreciate the finer details involved. At any rate, they gave it their all to win the first prize: another craft blend with startling depths in the shape of the Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Sherry.

Great King Street is both an address and a mission. When John Glaser released the first Great King Street (named after Compass Box’s Edinburgh HQ) in 2011 its gorgeous packaging and even more gorgeous contents won plenty of praise and proved that an inexpensive blended Scotch could compete with older, more widely-available single malts on texture, flavour and story. Dubbed ‘the Artist’s blend’, John pitched it as the ultimate mixer, forming the core of his hiball renaissance; it could also act as an aperitif with ice or some cold water. Frankly, I drank it any which way I could. I found it unbeatable as the Scotch component for any number of classic whisky cocktails.

The Great King Street monicker had always been intended to adorn a range of whiskies, not just one, however, and in September this year two contenders for the next instalment arrived. One took the unctuous, fruity and bold style of blended Scotch in a more sherried direction – a rare move for Compass Box who favour their first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels and new toasted French oak, while the other laid on the peat. Great King Street focuses on art, inspiration and craft: awesome whiskies take care of the art, inspiration comes from the 19th century heyday of Scotch blends with a modern twist and craft is all about balance. All Great King Streets are natural colour, without chill-filtration.

What of the whiskies, then? As Scotland shuttles into winter, both the rich fruit of a sherried whisky and the belligerent thrust of peat become welcome flavours to drive out the cold.

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #00-V4 43% (3,439 bottles)

Colour – nutty amber with light malt tones.

Nose – a stirring of malt followed by sweet fruitiness and candied peels. Plenty of rich dark honey and green fruits. There then builds a rich veneer of dryish Oloroso: mostly fruity but grows maltier with a touch of lively cereal citrus. Sugar-coated almond and dried apricot. Pink marshmallow. Energy and richness beautifully combined. Mascarpone and dark chocolate lead into bitter orange and nuts.

Palate – chocolate-y sherry oak… oh, and the rich, lazy, muscular malt. So rich, smooth and delicious with the grain supplying adundant creaminess at the end. Outstanding.

Finish – dries a touch with persistent creamy grain and dark cocoa powder. Banana fritter. Verges on possibly being overly sweet. The standard GKS re-introduces more oaky spicy for balance at this point.

 

Compass Box Great King Street Experimental Batch #TR-06 43% (3,805 bottles)

Colour – clean full gold.

Nose – phenolic and rich at first with seashore peat and razorclam shells. Buttery vanilla behind. In the glass it is all dry smoke at first: big but without threatening. Glossy tropical fruits with melon and especially passion fruit. Vanilla ice cream with a ripple of caramel. The smoke comes in drifts revealing firm, chewy cereals, turmeric and cloves. Maltier with time.

Palate – big turmeric at first with some lemon peel. Peat starts as a wisp of smoke but dries and enlarges to become turf-like and dense.

Finish – remarkably dry and ashy but there is incense in there as well as vanilla. Spent fireworks. Still weighty and sweet.

The Sherry had the edge over the Peat on the nose and palate but the finish of the Peat was a delight.

Adding water harmed the Peat a touch. It became more marine-like on the nose with beach pebbles. Then custard tart aromas developed from the American oak: nutmeg and vanilla. The palate was almost unaffected, still big on the soft peats and soft creamy grain. The Sherry, on the other hand, upped the ante on the chocolate with vanilla biscuit in there, too. Overt patisserie indulgence! Even some smoke appeared. The vision I received was of an exquisite gingery Sherry butt beneath which the malt thundered away on a honeyed theme like a Balvenie might. The palate became more honey-driven with some floral tones and plenty of malt. Liqueur chocolates and European oak added further weight. Again, the thick, sweet grains are wonderfully alert and busy amidst the dark oaky tannins.

So…?      I had thought that these might be a revolution in blended Scotch. However, while they don’t reinvent the wheel they are strikingly brilliant and outscored every blended Scotch I have tasted bar the Chivas Regal 25yo. In both cases the intensity of the malt compenents (67% of the total blend for the TR-06 and 72% for the 00-V4) was beautifully harnessed by the silky beauty of the grains. If you concentrate, the mechanics of on-the-money blended Scotch are there to see, but if you just want to relax and treat yourself to something a little more gutsy but which still boasts shades of subtlety these can soothe all manner of cares.

This year sees a raft of new releases from Compass Box: these in the Great King Street stable, the Delilah’s blend constructed in partnership with a Chicago institution, the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary and something called The General. Watch this space.

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The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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Chivas Regal 25yo

If I were to draw a distinction between how the two chief categories of Scotch whisky communicate, I would say that single malts prattle on about place, while blends portray themselves in terms of personality and occasion. For the latter, what matters is not where you come from but where you want to end up: character and creativity beat credentials every time. A prime example would be the Chivas Regal 25yo.

In 1909, Charles Howard and Alexander Smith envisaged a new clientele for their blend and to secure it they engineered a whole new whisky. What had started life in a little grocer’s shop in Aberdeen suddenly had aspirations on the other side of the Atlantic: on top of skyscrapers or beside the Hudson, they believed that Chivas 25yo could accompany a new wave of American ambition and glamour.

The glitterati guzzled Howard and Alexander’s creation, right up until Prohibition pulled the rug out from under them and countless other entrepreneurial blenders. Chivas 25yo ceased to be, a relic of the Roaring Twenties.

Fast forward nearly a century, and introduce a new person behind the blended story. Colin Scott resurrects the Chivas Regal 25yo as an attempt to replicate ‘the delicate intensities and subtle textures’ of the 1909 original while creating a new super-premium figurehead for one of the most popular blended Scotch brands in the world. I purchased myself a sample and set about investigating.

Chivas Regal 25yo 40% vol. £177 from here.

Colour – deep amber.

Nose – first nosing reveals immediate ermine-coated grains which lend a ‘squidgy’ cereal sweetness. Some high-toned peat and baked apple. Deeper inspection reveals stunning age: full-bodied, rounded and sweetly rich. Coconut and corn oils balance the American oak banana cream pie effect. Beeswax, soft fruits: a little mango and caramelised pineapple. Spices emerge with time: cinnamon stick and nutmeg. Creamier depths with tangerine sharpness and sweetness. A magical Sherry note: apricot, golden raisin and cherry. Stunning.

Palate – weighty oak informs the delivery but doesn’t menace the tongue. The malts build a dark, oily texture with the grains contributing firm sweetness. Flashes of almond and dried fruit.

Finish – more about poise than all-out flavour. Tablet, creamy rich vanilla. Touches of flowers (rose, violet) before plump echoing malt makes the final flourish.

Adding water increased the impression of seniority on the nose still further with leather, coconut panacotta and egg custard tarts with plenty of nutmeg. A multifaceted honey character embraces floral tones one minute and light caramels the next. Figs unfurl before your eyes. With time a deep dunnage panorama surfaces. Great seams of maturity anchor the aroma: raisins, cooperages and vanilla pods. The palate is still more impressive: fruit skins, leathery malt with glorious sherried back notes. Waxy, demerara sugar, polished oak. Garden apples and turned earth. The finish presented honey on buttered toast, and unctuous sweet vanilla. One mentholated wheeze of oak reconfirmed that there are some seriously old whiskies in here.

So…?      It’s pretty clear I enjoyed this one, I’d say. ‘Enjoy’ is putting it mildly, in fact: I was in raptures. I am awe of those who have the ability to combine whiskies such that every moment spent with the finished product reveals new evolving complexities and the most satisfying, choreographed delivery. I would happily pay the asking price for a whisky this skilfully realised, and which embodies some of the highest quality raw ingredients you will find anywhere. Some stupendous Strathislas, Benriachs and Longmorns have contributed to a liquid of singular beauty and richness. Blends testify to skill, vision and sensitivity: Colin Scott, you are my new whisky hero.

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Compass Box at the Quaich Society (Again)

For a brand swooping ever onwards and upwards, founder John Glaser is quite prepared to repeat himself now and again. ‘Who here has been to a Compass Box tasting before?’ he asked our assembly of Quaichers. The majority of hands went up. ‘You know what’s coming, then’.

Familiarity breeds anything but contempt when Glaser’s mission is so straightforward in its tenets and so extraordinary in its execution. That most of us had experienced the Compass Box effect previously only made attending this event all the more imperative. I think it’s what John describes as that something which ‘calls you back to the glass’…

The array of melodious glasses at the final Quaich tasting of the year.

There were no less than eight Glencairns to be called back to for every attendee, not all of which contained Compass creations. John’s intention was to move away from brands and to focus on flavour in order to demonstrate the logic of his whisky-making ethos. It was not an auspicious start. ‘Blend X’ boasted a couple of attractive fresh fruit notes on the nose, but the palate had no sooner whispered ‘caramel’ than it had vanished again into a black hole of indifference.

The contrast between it and the plump, fresh and intense Great King Street could not have been starker. Despite the numerous first-fill ex-Bourbon casks, this remained quite a pale whisky in terms of colour; the same cannot be said of the flavour. Great King Street remains one of my all-time favourite whiskies, blend or single malt. We were advised to look out for ‘sweetness, richness and bigness’ and the abundant vanilla character occupied all three camps. To balance I find the juiciest grassy barley, which can only be Longmorn.

Whiskies three and four keep John awake at night. In the case of three, especially, it epitomises the class of spirit he yearns to assemble at Compass Box. He may have to move to Japan. Upon receiving a measure of Hibiki 12yo from the man who made it, the Suntory master blender Seiichi Koshimizu, last summer, I was in the presence of greatness on two counts. The man deserves every accolade for elevating Japanese whisky of all descriptions, while the whisky astonished me with its clarity and richness for such a comparatively young blended whisky.

Although he admired the next dram, John also took it to task when the dragon of artificial colour raised its ugly nut brown head. ‘Forget the colour,’ he implored us, ‘it’s fake.’ For my first – blind – encounter with Ballantine’s 17yo I was fairly underwhelmed, especially when Great King Street continued to sing so beautifully a couple of glasses further back.

The core Compass Box range filled the final four berths of this epic tasting, and all excelled themselves. At my third tasting with the company, I could appreciate how my tastes evolve from one year to the next: in 2011 the Asyla had bowled me over, last year I had fallen for the Hedonism but on this occasion my socks were well and truly blown off by the Peat Monster.

John confessed that the virtue of leading your own bespoke blending operation is that you are free to make the odd tweak here and there, which the men and women charged with preserving the legacy of the biggest names in whisky cannot get away with. The constituent parts have changed significantly in the ten years of the Peat Monster’s life with Caol Ila replaced by Ledaig, and Laphroaig brought in to add even more phenolic devilry. However, John also experimented recently at the bottling hall through the addition of 1% Spice Tree liquid to the latest batches. A tiny amount, but I sensed an added sensuous sweetness to an already extraordinary mouthfeel. It was my pick of the evening.

In a promising aside, John also revealed that they were experimenting with their supply chain. Rather than buy mature casks from distillers when they want to bottle something, Compass Box have instead invested in a more changeable future through the purchase of new make from five sites around Scotland, filling them into their own casks. Spirit from Caol Ila, Blair Athol, Linkwood and John’s favourite malt to manipulate, Clynelish, as well as grain from Cameronbridge, are presently maturing at an undisclosed location. That’s quite an ingredients cupboard.

Relaxed, informative and zealously passionate all at the same time, John put on another astonishing evening of whisky the way it ought to be. Twitter hints suggest Compass Box will be showing the whisky world beyond St Andrews a thing or two next month when a couple of experimental (but how could they be otherwise?) releases hit the shelves, and I for one will be camping outside the off licence.

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Cutty Sark Storm

A Storm of flavour.

After detailing my first baby steps into whisky blending, I thought I had better review a new release from the professionals. The modern master blender is not content – as I was – with 11ml of whisky boasting a bit of life and character to it; instead, he or she has their mind trained on cases and cases of consistent, distinctive and tasty liquid.

At the turn of the year, adventurous blenders Cutty Sark wanted something with a little more presence and power. They named the result Storm, a delectable maelstrom of older single malts allied to fresh, clean grain spirit.

Cutty Sark Storm 40% vol. £19

Colour – light honey gold.

Nose – clean, medium-bodied and bright with immediate bold cereal sweetness, scented buttery oak, nuts and pineapple. Comice pear and caramel are followed by honey and fruity, fat malt. Browning butter and nutmeg.

Palate – fresh with plenty of pineapple before the rich biscuity oak takes the palate in a drier direction. Flashes of dessicated coconut and dark sugars.

Finish – peaches in syrup – even a hint of treacle at the back. Fruit salad. Slowly drying.

Adding water adversely affected the exuberance of the blend, offering extra honey, leather and spice on the nose with added emphasis on the clean, firm grain whisky. The grain again held sway on the palate with a chunky, sweet cereal body and dryness. A touch of green tobacco smoke fills the nostrils immediately after swallowing. Whereas – undiluted – fruit had led the way into the finish, now there were only notes of Werther’s originals, honey and a dab of lemon pith.

So…?      As with the standard Cutty, the neat nose is a joyful mixture of the fresh and the lively. The Storm adds a few percentage points of richness and more impressive malty boldness, however. Whether it would work with Appletiser, the recommended summer serve according to Jason Craig at Cutty Sark, I have yet to see so intrigued was I to try the blend without any sparkling apple flavour.

When my highball glass and carbonated can of fizzy apple juice arrived in the post, it rather stole the thunder (Storm, thunder – geddit?) of my own Cutty cocktail idea. Why not try this next time you are basking in the summer sunshine: 40ml Cutty Sark, 40ml apple juice, 25ml apricot brandy, 10ml grenadine and 10ml of lemon juice. Shake all ingredients and strain into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. A lot more work than the official proposition, but I believe it remains true to the creative ethos pushed by the brand just now. Not to mention, it tastes jolly nice!

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