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.