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’…
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.