scotchodysseyblog.com

scotchodysseyblog

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.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delicious Luck with Compass Box

Never have I wanted to win the Quaich Society Raffle more.

As I confessed in my previous post, against all probability (and decency in the eyes of some), my ticket was drawn first in our post Compass Box tasting Raffle. When John Glaser had discussed his contributions to the Raffle with us, words such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘one-of-a-kind’ had leapt out at me. ‘When will I next have the opportunity to taste a Compass Box expression in its rawest incarnation?’ I asked myself, and plumped for the ‘Oak Cross ’08 HM – Single Heavy Toasted French Oak’ sample bottle. ‘How will I smuggle me and it out of here tonight without getting lynched?’ was another, more private speculation.

I succeeded, however, and when I escaped from a lecture theatre on this wet and windy Wednesday in St Andrews out came the ruby-tinted rarity by way of consolation.

Compass Box Oak Cross ’08 HM 56.7% abv.

Nose – With a measure poured and the glass far from my nostrils, scents of creamy milk chocolate, vanilla and winey fruits fill the room. Getting started, there is a mass of stewed red fruits, some tannic oak and then fresh, spicy and vibrant American oak casks: a hogshead-packed filling store. Later, snuffed-out birthday cake candles emerge and papaya provides a gentle tropical texture. Fat, oily honey is tucked away, too. I suspect that there is a fair proportion of Clynelish in here with that wonderfully hard to put one’s finger on note of lemon/apple which is at once jellied and crystallised. More time reveals marmalade and gingerbread, in addition to cinnamon and clove.

Adding water evokes glazed biscuits: gingerbread men and custard. Gorgeous spice-accented creamy oak. In the centre is an almost bourbon-like dense core of malty sugars, orange rind and caramel. The orange softens and lightens and separates from the rich malt. With extra breathing time, airy but rich and rounded walnut notes emerge as well as not quite ripe plum. White chocolate, rich, frothy wash, jasmine and bran flake Frosties burst out all at once. It is sublime in its weight and delicacy of aroma. It reminded me of some of the later drams on the Auchentoshan VIP Tour, or the stillroom and warehouse on the Aberlour tour. There is even some gentle fragrant smoke underneath it all, like a cask freshly charred and quietly smoking in a cooperage.

Palate – Full, spicy and fruity with plenty of oak. Lovely, tongue-coating tannins and wood sugars. Adelphi Breath of Speyside-esque. Then toffee and malt surface before releasing, fresh and firm seashore citrus.

Water makes for a ceaseless, joyous barrage of flavour. Nutty and densely fruity initially, I quickly gained the impression of Speyside in summer: slight charred oak, rich barley and strawberry jam. Fronds of crystal malt tickle the palate too. It is a bold spirit, speaking of dark, green leaves and malt husks.

Finish – Chewy/creamy oak: lots of power but there is agility, too. Vanilla and butterscotch ice cream. Final notes of rich and juicy fruitcake with marzipan.

With water the spirit retains the density from the reduced palate, offering toffee and some high-grade dark chocolate. The oak is really stupendous. Heathery honey meets sticky wine cask. Sweetly earthy at the end.

So…?

If Mr Glaser was prepared to bottle this, price would have to be no object. With the addition of water, this is one of the most complex but satisfying whiskies I have had the pleasure of encountering in many months; you are persistently aware that there is more to find, but far too relaxed by the langourous sequence of mighty oak flavours and the magnificence of well-made, well-matured Speysiders that sing of summer to worry about looking too hard. The alcohol simply does not exist on the nose, and only a little water removes any brashness from the palate. In terms of poise and power, this Oak Cross/ Spice Tree sample cannot be surpassed. It confirms the genius of Glaser, and hints at the supreme quality of whiskies coming from lesser-known distilleries throughout Scotland. A triumph.

Exciting news for those of you who cannot wait to run out and buy a bottle of fine Compass Box whisky. Master of Malt are running a competition at the moment in which the first 250 people to purchase one of Mr Glaser’s creations will be entered into a draw to win the eceedingly rare Canto Cask 48, the now Illegal Spice Tree and Canto Cask 20. Also, in addition to your purchased bottle, Master of Malt will throw in a 3cl Drinks by the Dram sample of another Compass Box whisky! Follow the links, and get buying.

Posted in Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Compass Box at the Quaich Society II

The superb range for the 2012 Compass Box extravaganza.

Lyrical poets of yesteryear contended that Spring was the season for new loves. We at the Quaich Society feel it is a great excuse to rendezvous with old ones, too.

When it comes to Compass Box, however, where a passionate need to innovate is the only thing that remains constant, ‘old’ cannot really apply. John Glaser swept into the Scores Hotel for a second time during my tenure at the Society with four of the same whiskies as last year. Except they are not, of course, the same whiskies. Glaser has dedicated himself to quality, a pursuit that has won him many devoted fans, although few of those are in the Scotch Whisky Association. Rather than replicate previous batches, he prefers to work with samples of whiskies which excite him and which nudge his creativity into uncharted, if related, territories. Therefore, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism were warmly welcomed like old friends, though their genetic make ups would be significantly altered.

The Great King Street Highball.

Courtesy of government legislation which passed into law on the 22 November, 2011, they also had new faces. ‘Vatted’ has been ostracised into the whisky archives, although it shall live on in the memories of a lucky few who could enjoy the highly limited Last Vatted Malt and Last Vatted Grain whiskies Glaser released in tandem with the law change. Many expressions such as Peat Monster then needed new labelling. This was Compass Box, but not as we had known it.

First to wet the lips of the patrons in the sold out Scores Hotel was Glaser’s latest fascination, unearthed from drinking history: the Scotch highball. On the Monday I had received an email with a very specific list of requirements and it looked for all the world like the Quaich Society was about to take its first tentative steps into mixology. We were entertained with an anecdote from Scotch and the highball’s introduction to American, and an insight into a completely different drinking culture to that which we would be practising that night. Equal parts Great King Street (with the addition of a little independently produced Cognac) and soda water, with a splash of orange bitters, lemon peel and ice completed a delicious confection. The whisky was – as Glaser had intended – the star of the show, but the textures of the soda and the fixing quality supplied by the bitters has persuaded me that a few additions to the drinks cabinet may be in order.

Refreshed, we stripped the ancillary ingredients away and investigated Great King Street. Matt and Karen at Whisky4Everyone rather liked this blend last year and I adored its immediate ancestor, Asyla, so hoped for good things. John told us that Great King Street was going to become a dedicated brand, or sub-genre, within Compass Box. It will form the engine room of his quest to bring great quality blended Scotch to people who are interested, while Compass Box will continue to lead the field in the blended malts and blended grains market. Asyla, he promised, would witness a return and how delighted I was to hear that.

On the nose, Great King Street boasted vanilla and caramel, while bursting with gentle, textured citrus. Lime and coconut were in there. The palate was sharp but with a growing richness and spice: I got cumin and coriander. Some bursting berries appeared. Going back to the nose, kiwi oozed out. 50% Girvan grain whisky, with the remainder taken up with Clynelish (John’s favourite malt to work with), Teaninich and Dailuaine, it boasted the most innovative wood management of any blend I have come across. In addition to ex-Bourbon casks, new French Oak and first-fill Sherry have been used.

John Glaser: it's all about the oak.

While introducing Oak Cross, John divulged an interesting snippet. For the first time, Compass Box have bought spirit straight off the still and put it into their own oak. In fifteen years’ time, there shall be home-grown whiskies emerging from Compass Box and I cannot wait to see what those expressions will taste like having had Glaser’s keen and caring eye watching over them for all their days.

Spice Tree leapt out at me more than it had done last time around, with thick creaminess and wonderful oak notes. 80% of the whiskies used have been maturing in toasted French oak for a minimum of 3 years which on the palate made for a rich and fruity whisky, with cardamom and fudge. Peach was a sublime scent on the reduced nose.

When arranging the whiskies for the evening, I was surprised to see Hedonism placed after the Peat Monster, which certainly devoured the palate with attacking smoky dryness. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but that simply meant there was more for me.

On to Hedonism, then, a dram which a year ago had provoked my neighbour to profanity: ‘F****** hell – coconut!’ He had approved then, and I became intoxicated once again on Thursday night. Hedonism boasts some seriously old, serious sensuous grain whiskies which, as Glaser assured us, could astonish with flavour if given the right wood. The nose was simply stunning: full, rich with gorse bush and vanilla. The warmth of those grains was heavenly. There was also a green fruit quality, like gooseberries. The palate was of a similarly unctuous, gorgeous mode: so full with sweetened bread and orange rind. The creaminess unfolded in fat rolls. The dictionary definition ought to forget about the word’s Ancient Greek etymology: this is truly hedonism.

New Society Vice-President, Xander, with the two cask samples.

As with all Quaich Society meetings, the event concluded with a hugely charitable Raffle. John had excelled himself, even from last year when a Compass Box t-shirt was more sought-after than a Louis Vuitton handbag. A tasting set of Compass Box whiskies was up for grabs, in addition to two one-of-a-kind bottles. Glowing goldenly from one was a single cask Laphroaig which John was especially taken with, and in the other a sample drawn straight from a French oak cask containing the next Spice Tree. Raffle tickets were purchased with single-minded ferocity with such extraordinarily special and generous prizes on offer and, having missed out on Highland Park Thor earlier in the semester and the 20cl Port Ellen we had secured for our Committee Tasting, one of my 26 tickets was the first to be drawn. It didn’t help that a few minutes before I had been announced as the Society’s new President. Or that I had drawn the Raffle myself. I promise there was no chicanery involved and I can also confirm that the Spice Tree sample is deliriously extraordinary. But I shall bring you full tasting notes soon. I expect that will be the limit of my luck in the Raffle for the next two years…

Until I can think of a more sincerely grandiose manner of showing my appreciation (like buying him a Caribbean island, perhaps), for now we must simply express our thanks to John Glaser for making the trip up from London to see us again. Since encountering him last year, and discovering that there was a new choir I really needed to join in the Church of Whisky Evangelism, I have recommended his creations and the man himself as a talisman for how Scotch ought to be made, discussed and marketed. As ambassadors go, he is peerless not simply for his own brand, but for whisky as it ought to be. To that end, he told the Committee of his ongoing assault with the SWA. Pointing to the proliferation of craft distillers in the US, Glaser wants to know why Scotch cannot do something similar to promote flavour creation and innovation in the Auld Whisky Kingdom. With a calculated grin, he confirmed that a meeting had been set up. Maybe the powers that be are starting to listen to the visionary and the truth he espouses.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Tastings | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment