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Compass Box at the Quaich Society

Compass Box at the Quaich Society

The whisky-drinking fraternity of the University of St Andrews had not taken well December’s showing of Snow Blight and the Seven Sacrificed Drams. Last-minute cancellations due to the ice rink that was the runway at Edinburgh Airport had kept Compass Box grounded in London and that, we feared, was that for 2010/11.

Not so: Domino, Society President, had reviewed, reshuffled and doubtless deployed many other arcane strategies known only to members of student committees to secure a slot for the boutique blender in the Quaich Society schedule. The date was set, posters and Facebook groups went live, all sixty places in the Garden Suite of the Scores Hotel were taken. John Glaser was here.

It would be sorely tempting simply to reproduce the snippets of quotes I managed to scribble down during a superlative tasting. Erudite, eloquent and passionate, John guided us through the Compass Box range in a manner only the man who made them can. There could have been no better candidate to advocate the potential of Scotch blends to a hoard of single malt swilling students, and so prolific were his mantras from the ‘margins’ that a dedicated platoon of us tramped off at high speed after the tasting to purchase some bottles before Luvians, the local wine and spirits store, closed. However, as enthralling as, if not even better than, John’s presentation were his whiskies, seven of the most distinctive and thought-provoking I have had in quite a long while.

Respectfully borrowing some of John’s idiosyncratic inclination, I shall end at the beginning. Unusually, our first pour of the evening was perhaps my very favourite, and this is in part thanks to the extent to which it exemplifies John’s philosophy for his company.

John holding court.

John holding court.

Leaving Whisky #1 aside for the moment, then, let us contemplate the evolving, absorbing nature of Whisky #2. My initial snufflings of Oak Cross were uncertain: I thought it a little musty with lots of earthy cereals verging on a drying peatiness, hard sticky toffee and banana bread. A tad muscle-bound, perhaps. On the palate, however, enlightenment – just what John had been so particular about stressing up to this point and for the remainder of his time with us. After his various malts have spent around 10 years (he looks for ‘roughly’ a certain age profile for the business of constructing his whiskies) in quality American oak casks (first- and re-fill casks only), they are allowed six months in casks with new French oak heads. ‘Why French oak?’ was one of the first of many questions John fielded from a lively audience. ‘Richness, complexity, and spice’ was the reply, John’s background in the wine industry furnishing him with privileged insights into oak-and-alcohol interaction in a wide variety of contexts. The vatting of Clynelish, Teaninich and Dailuaine created a deep, soft fruitiness at first with blackberry and sweet oat biscuits. The finish was outstandingly long with chewy, stewed fruits and heavy, sticky sulphuriness – in a good way. A little water (John had supplied pipettes for the ultimate in geeky levels of spirit-cutting exactitude) pulled out maritime flavours with more vanilla. A stonking dram.

Compass Box rangeThe next whisky exemplified John’s passion for the ‘craft approach’, something he described as ‘trying to do something for the sake of it’ quality-wise, and not to consolidate a brand identity. Spice Tree made the Scotch Whisky Association very nervous when it was first released and was indeed effectively banned. John had to re-engineer his approach to introducing French oak from the Vosges forest to his whiskies. The result is now legal as far as the SWA is concerned, married in 80% new French oak casks rather than hogsheads with staves of French oak secured to the interior.

In a very measured and reasonable rant, John bemoaned the legislation which abides doggedly by ‘traditional’ at the expense of innovation for quality’s sake. Any time spent with Compass Box whiskies reveals what a ludicrous position this is to take for any body ostensibly in existence to champion and thereby preserve the status of Scotch whisky. While the SWA, commendably, protects against fraudulent manipulations of every aspect of Scotch - and maintaining sanctity of origin together with assurances that the process is as natural as possible are immensely important - one cannot help but experience something of Glaser’s mystification at the extent to which whisky’s deliciousness is factored out of the rule book. Together with his cooper, John estimates that the typical cask is used by the Scotch whisky industry a frankly unbelievable six times. There is a quantity of extremely tired wood out there which some companies yammer are still fit to mature whisky. His little ‘magic trick’ involving spirit caramel reversed the natural v. traditional debate. With a wry smile, John described how artificial colouring of whisky was ‘traditional’, but could hardly claim to be natural.

'And for my next trick...' John is dead against 'Farbstoff'.

'And for my next trick...' John is dead against 'Farbstoff'.

Anyway, Spice Tree offered sweet woodsmoke, cayenne pepper and citrus on the nose, with a palate remarkable initially on account of its mouthfeel. Firm, oaky, fruity and spicy, it exploded on the tongue. Vanilla, orange and creamy dark chocolate came along soon afterwards to soothe again.

I shall briefly mention Peat Monster and Double Single – not because I didn’t enjoy them, but because there were more drams than can be conveniently accommodated in one blog post. Suffice it to say that the former was bathed in fragrant and complex smoke with a delicious balancing sweetness and the latter all strawberry sauce for ice cream and summer pine forests. It was at this juncture that John revealed that the recipe for Peat Monster was set to change: Ledaig in for Caol Ila and more Laphroaig in the mix with batch code numbers soon to appear on all Compass Box whiskies – ‘for all you geeks’. ‘Amen!’ piped up my neighbour.

Forgive me for glossing over Flaming Heart, too. By this point my olfactory senses were drowning in lactic acid and the fog of 46% abv drams had claimed the brain. However, it reminded me of a big and dark yet clean Bowmore: all smoke and balancing fruity sweetness. It was a mightily impressive whisky, and its label – very soon to be if not already an icon of whisky packaging – adorned the t-shirts and posters John dispersed to raffle winners and correct responses to his rhetorical questions.

Another cause of my sensory fatigue was that I could not leave alone whiskies #1 and #5. Rounding out the core range was the whisky that launched Compass Box ten years ago: controversial, daring, but utterly brilliant, it has been through several renditions since then and goes by the name of Hedonism. A vatting of grain whiskies of an average of 20 years old, this bottling demonstrates just how awesome that ‘blend filler stuff’ is when treated sympathetically in, as John reinforced, great casks. Light, floral, woody and sappy, the cereal formed the shapely body on top of the oak chasis – like an Aston Martin DB9. Coconut and creaminess came next, with a snapshot of pine forests in spring: all mist and blueberry bushes. Caramel popcorn rounded out a truly glorious nose which water did not harm one bit. Leafiness jumped out as did more coconut once a few drops of water had been added. On the palate there was plenty of oak and butterscotch, spice and dryness. A heart-stopping whisky.

My favourite, however, was the opening dram. Though the lightest, Asyla had such grace, depth and distinctiveness that I drained the glass last of all. A blended whisky for – as I discovered following the race to Luvians – under £30, this was simply astounding. Confessing that it was the dram he drank at home, John’s genius is present to the same degree in this as in the likes of Spice Tree and Oak Cross. Described on our cards as ‘Sweet, delicate, fruity and smooth’, I added to this butteriness, rounded sweetness with soft fruits (melon) and citrus (lemon). Charred oak and earthy peat showed themselves in addition to raw barley and apple. Water lightened the experience still further with spice and barley sugar and in addition to sponge cake qualities, I detected that magical signature of first-fill Bourbon: soft white pine syrup sweetness. The fresh green oaky scents flicked a switch in my brain and for a moment I was nosing my exalted malt: that Aberlour single cask. The palate was equally beautiful: light and sweet, it exhibited spice, jellied fruits with plenty of vanilla. After dilution it became peppery with toffee, black cherry, dark chocolate, more of that vanilla and a grassiness. Goooood wood.

Even 1500 words cannot communicate the brilliance, assurance and knowledge of Mr Glaser. Questions came from all around the room, and each answer revealed some obscure fact of the whisky-making and marketing process which John has discovered, explored and adapted. His mission statement is to create whiskies that are exceptional and balanced, that exhibit the best of the raw materials that comprise the spirit and encourage the drinker to return again and again to the glass. ‘Few other drinks are as compelling as whisky,’ he says. ‘It is something you will never tire of.’ With this uncommon insight into a whisky company headed in unpredictable but undoubtedly exciting directions, I’m sure that this will prove true. The fantastic materials John has at his disposal, the sympathetic imaginings which he indulges concerning them and the passion he has to take them around the world for discussion ensure that Compass Box shall henceforth be at the forefront of my mind. Not only that, but in such a capacity John performs a tremendous service to the multi-billion pound blending industry as a whole, too.

Sincerest thanks go to John for coming along to talk to us and all credit to the Quaich Society committee for securing this incredibly busy man.

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March 28, 2011 um 10:14 pm
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