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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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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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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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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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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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Nose on the Line – Beginning Blending

Is blended Scotch muscling in on single malt’s limelight? When Whisky Magazine publishes two supplements devoted to the aggregated Scotch whisky product in fairly close order, the Caskstrength.net boys choose to release a blend on the route of their A-Z bottling marathon, and Johnnie Walker creates such a song and dance about their swanky yacht experience through big whisky retailers, maybe the huge bias in single malt’s favour amongst professional and amateur commentators is beginning to dissolve. For so long, blends have been explained in terms of economics with single malts scooping all of the column inches for provenance and craftsmanship. Perhaps the tide is turning…

Of course, I am only being flippant. The blogosphere’s infatuation with the singularity of malt whisky is going nowhere fast: let blends make all the money and we shall maintain our vigil around our beloved copper pot stills. Aberfeldy, Strathisla, Cardhu – these are the distilleries we wish to venerate, rejecting their statuses of blend brand homes as so much peripheral marketing.

Paraphernalia...

However, I for one have changed my mind. Maybe it is the proselytising of Compass Box’s John Glaser, perhaps it is the duo of Meet the Blender evenings I have attended, the ardent penmanship of Dave Broom, or perhaps it is the smattering of articles detailing blended Scotch to be found on other blog platforms (such as this excellent Ballantine’s expose courtesy of Miss Whisky) which have piqued my interest, but I am no longer prepared to ignore blended whisky. It is instrumental in allowing for the diversity of the single malt category which we presently romanticise; it has a history and cast of iconic characters, and it can taste breathtakingly fabulous. I want to write a lot more about it here on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

...vs. provenance.

I’ll start today with a few tales from my encounters with Master of Malt’s Home Blending Kit (£49.95), the mother of all procrastination tools for the whisky-loving student with exams to prepare for. Upon receipt of my sturdy package, I did indeed turn my ‘once tidy home into the chaotic, bottle-filled, peat-rich laboratory that is a blender’s workshop’, as the introductory letter put it. I could not wait to commence with the combinations, and appreciate just how dramatic the effect of adding tiny portions of this to that could be. MoM’s advice: begin with the grain whisky base and mild malt whisky, build complexity with a marriage of ‘mid-range malts’ and then season with the older samples they had supplied. Only so much blending could be done in theory: I needed to dirty some glasses and measuring cylinders.

Initially, I wanted to make a Dewar’s 12yo-style blend. I love the bold fruit, abundant vanilla and rich yet clean barley flavours of this whisky, but found that I couldn’t replicate it with the profiles of the Speyside and Lowland malts provided in the Kit. I was, however, hearted by the quality of the grain base. My tactic had been to create a ‘mid-range’ malt sample and a top dresser sample, then combine proportions of both until the flavour was right. This is Mr Glaser’s approach, as explained in this videofor the 2012 edition of Flaming Heart. Nosing constantly, I began to suspect that my palette of liquids ought to be confined. I was using my packer malt, the Lowland, Speyside and Highland for the mid-range, while the top dressings attempted to coalesce the better qualities of the Old Highland, Old Speyside Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay. Just because leading blends use 30+ malts did not mean – I gradually conceded – that I should, too.

The building blocks of my blend.

Using the three tier approach of grain, mid-range, and top dressers, I struck on a system of using no more than two malts for the mid-range and a maximum of three whiskies for the blend’s ’seasoning’. I also changed tack, preferring an earthier, richer blend which might make greater use of the Islay offerings.

My specification read: ‘A smoky, rich blend. Money no object!’ With one fifth of the recipe grain, 50% became a Highland and Islay combination, with Old Speyside, Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay creating genuine intrigue on the richer spectrum. Computing my blueprint for future blended whisky world domination onto MoM’s calculator, I was rather crestfallen to discover that my highly drinkable blend which boasted light and smoky peat, allied with fresh and vinous fruit and a building creaminess would cost somewhere in the region of £60. Master of Malt launched the Home Blending Kit in tandem with a blogger’s blending competition and the eventual winner – dubbed St Isidore – had been priced at closer to £45. Even if my blend carried the infinitely superior title of the Elisha Cuthbert Select Reserve, would customers tolerate the premium cost?

I’m not saying a lively, pretty blend cannot be put together from the core ingredients on a lower budget – I just haven’t been able to find the killer marriage yet. John Glaser, Colin Scott, Richard Paterson, Joel and Neil… You’re safe for now.

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The Compass Box Confirmation

Disillusioned and jaded, James felt that there was nothing else to be done; five years had passed agreeably enough, but could he sustain himself with only the polite and the pleasant for company? Had he not better, James asked himself, seek his fortunes further afield? Perhaps there was merit in this rum business that everyone was talking so animatedly about…

If I come across as a character the misanthropic like of which Dickens or Beckett drew, I’m not being entirely serious. My whisky life isn’t all that bad; with regular tastings at the Quaich Society, Scotch Malt Whisky Society visits and the odd Edinburgh-based whisky event now and again, I come across genuinely interesting and tasty drams. But the problem worsens: the more whiskies you taste, the rarer those whiskies of exceptional character and quality become. You become inured to the sensation of pleasure and wonder over time, the bar is raised to heights tantamount to masochistic denial. If only the VVVVVIPs can make it into the club, it starts to look pretty empty.

Little or nothing can pin you back in your seat with exhilaration, or catapault you into the air with excitement, or turn you to a beaming, self-satisfied jelly. ‘This is good,’ you acknowledge, ‘but does it better Dram X of three months ago? It certainly can’t hold a torch to Dram Y.’ It is time and romance, of course, that have transformed Dram Y into that picture of transient ambrosia. With more experience, the impressions past whiskies have made in the mind remain, while I can only dimly recollect the actual cohesion of flavour and aroma particular to them.

Compass Box The Entertainer.

Thank goodness, therefore, that Compass Box exist to reaffirm my faith in whisky. In January, two samples arrived which represented the shafts of radiant sunlight on an otherwise overcast day.

Compass Box The Entertainer 46% £85 available exclusively at Selfridges’ UK stores, and online (1,000 bottles)

Colour – rich lemon curd yellow/gold.

Nose – vanilla unfurls, bringing with it barley with a bristly texture. Strawberry patch: straw, crushed berries and earth. It opens up onto creaminess, with a hard layer of peat. Demerara sugar and sea spray. Growing citrussy warmth: orange zest. Lemon butter icing, gingerbread-accented malt and honey.

Palate – very sweet, with dancing peat: dry, fragrant, with a suggestion of smouldering pine furniture. Dries leisurely with some vanilla spongecake, oak, and gently honeyed malt.

Finish – quite rich, with the peat evident, but towards the back of ‘the mix’. Icing sugar and marzipan. Lemony and creamy.

With water, the nose became more biscuity and the smoke reduced to only a texture: like the last embers of a log fire, so soft and ashy. Creamy again with the finest Scottish tablet. Pastry cases, almonds and boiling damsen jam. On the palate the creaminess continued. All was super-soft at first with banana, vanilla and ripe pineapple, before the oak dug in a little. Ginger, clove and pear then appeared. Cereal sweetness dominated in the finish with muscovado sugar, marshmallow, and beach bonfire.

I tasted this for the second time in conjunction with the latest Flaming Heart, when its sweetness came back into line and the peat was not so pronounced. It lost, too, a slight ‘sweaty sock’ aroma which hadn’t been terribly welcome the first time through. This is another strong runner from the House of Compass Box and assuredly worth finding in the four Selfridges of England. However, it was the second sample that rocked my world.

Compass Box Hedonism 10th Anniversary 46% DISCONTINUED (120 bottles, single cask)

Colour – syrupy dark honey/gold.

Nose – incredibly delicate cereals at the top, with dryness and a rum-like sugariness. Thick golden creme patissiere and heady toasted coconut. With my nose in the glass now, I get acrylic paint and impressions of dusty age at first, but then baked red apples slide into view on a bed of caramel and marginally mentholated oak. The cask is rigid, but sublime: it allows vanilla, oiliness and tropical fruit to emerge (especially passion fruit) while keeping everything structurally sound. So much runny honey and icing sugar. Grape, lemon curd and marzipan sweets. Christmas spices with time.

Palate – Bourbon-like at first with rich, spicy oak. But then… Oh goodness me… pooling yellow fruit, such sweet warm lemon, marzipan again and book glue. The body so thick and creamy with just enough balancing dryness. Damn near flawless. In fact, the best whisky I have sipped ever.

Finish – white chocolate profiteroles, gorse blossom. Cannot quite sustain perfection as a tad too much cinnamon-driven dryness comes in. Nutmeg, sweet cereals and buttery toffee.

After adding water, coconut became more pronounced on the nose with stunning vanilla shortbread and sandalwood handsoap sumptuousness. Candied orange. Then pralines, rich and sugary. Soft leather. With more time an amazing freshness emerges: Soy-covered Japanese vegetables, satin-like golden syrup. The palate wasn’t quite the wonder it had been. Still Bourbon-y at first, the lemon and sugar were there, too, but not quite in such terrific collaboration. Blackberries and strawberries baked in sugar. The richness is impeccably balanced. Going into the finish, I found caramel wafer bars, buttercream icing, and that leatheriness returned to support the coconut oils.

So…?

Released in 2010 to coincide with the company’s 10th anniversary, John Glaser had scoured the land for grain whiskies which could pay tribute to the expression that started it all: the blended grain seductress, Hedonism. He found it when scrutinising samples from Invergordon, and one from 1971 could not be passed up. I adore grain whiskies that have been left in prime ex-Bourbon casks to do their thing, and this fits the bill absolutely. Master of Malt still have it listed on their website - though out of stock - at £197.01. Multiply that figure by ten, and I would scrimp, save and sue to purchase a bottle of this. It is utterly extraordinary. And ‘the bar’ is now somewhere near the jetstreams.

My profound thanks to Chris Maybin for the samples.

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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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Cups o’ Kindness: Celebrating with Whisky

Whisky conquers all.

University Year 2 of 4 has come to a conclusion! [Whoops and shrieks and similar noises conveying relief and joy.] But once the giddiness, writers’ cramp and the last haunting echoes of Samuel Beckett have left my person, what do I use to fill the academic void? What whisky does my newly-liberated self demand?

As it happens, the decision is not in any way straightforward. My choice following the final exam of Semester One reflected my needs at the time: a comfort dram was the order of the day, as it would be on any other occasion in which I am expected to write about Marxism for forty minutes. A double Caol Ila 12yo embraced my palate and soothed my mind, and went some way towards pacifying me having been asked by the bar staff for ID. Obviously St Andrews is riddled with deep-voiced, 6’3” bearded 17-year-olds requesting marginally lesser-known Islay single malts. Anyway, the familiar dry barley sweetness and delicate crumbly peat served to put the horrors of the exam period behind me.

I escaped from my last exam this time around on Thursday at 11.30, however, and have still yet to savour a distilled spirit. This has created a concern, because the dram in question has to be rather superb now. Delayed gratification, and whatnot. More than enough lager has been consumed to wash away – Lethe-like - the memories of English and Classics assessment, and I feel like something which can coax me into anticipating the summer of freedom with some crisp, buxom flavours. My Aberlour single cask? Definitely unctuous, creamy and apricot-y, but far too heavy on the oak, I’ve decided. My Glenlivet 21yo? Apt, but more of a soothing fireside whisky. My Balblair single cask? Jolly excellent, but a little over-familiarised in these last months.

The answer, I feel, has to be the remnants of my Compass Box cask sample. This decidedly different time in my life (last year’s post-exams high was a tad more stressful than it ought to have been, hurtling down to Newcastle for a Rush concert while quaffing some Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve) calls for a seriously singular spirit. Failing that, I can get a measure of Laphroaig Quarter Cask at my local for £2.40 so I have options.

It is a nice problem to have, of course, selecting which of your favourite whiskies you ought to pour. But can we sometimes become too caught up in having the right drink at the right time, for the right reasons? Do we intimidate ourselves with respect to our own drinks cabinets? Shouldn’t any whisky well-earned taste sweetest? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether or not we create impossible pedestals for our drams and impose too many restrictions and caveats about which pleasures we ought to find in what whiskies at which times?

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