Navigating the whisky world one blended batch at a time.
As part of the Whisky Week festivities in San Francisco, a friend and I were fortunate enough to sample several expressions made by Compass Box Whisky. Founded in 2000, Compass Box whisky makers blend whisky from distilleries such as Ardmore, Clynelish, Dailuaine, Glen Elgin and Laphroaig. The blends are matured further in various types of barrels which, according to brand ambassador Robin Robinson, contribute significantly to the whisky's coloring and flavor. (This further confirms UC Davis research mentioned in my Whiskey Fingerprint column.)
The tasting began with a cocktail, a Rob Roy with Compass Box Great King Street Whisky and a burnt orange peel, aptly called a "King Roy." I generally prefer my whisky neat, but my friend and I both could have drank King Roys all night. After the finishing our King Roys, we got down to tasting five whiskies.
While I thoroughly enjoyed each whisky, the Peat Monster
, one of the company's signature blends, truly surprised me. The very name, coupled with it being a blend of Laphroaig, Ardmore and Ledaig, led to some trepidation, as I initially sniffed and drank it, especially because the brand ambassador told me Laphroaig was the base of the blend. I'm not a fan of Laphroaig's strong peaty and medicinal flavors. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. Compass Box master blenders tamed Laphroaig! Peat Monster is far from monstrous.
On the nose one will clearly smell the peat aromas, along with brine and some sweet fruit. On the palate, one will taste a complex combination of strong, smoky peat with brine, plus the oak from the barrels, coupled with sweet and spicy botanicals, as well as a long, lingering finish ' I still tasted it the next morning.
I took a particular shine to Hedonism
, and not just because of the name. Hedonism is unusual in the Scotch whisky world in that it is a blended grain whisky, not a blended malt whisky. High quality Scotch single grain whiskies are rare. Top-notch blended grains in the U.S. generally are expensive. Hedonism also must battle the perception that grain whisky is poor quality.
Hedonism's blend of grain whiskies, each over 20 years in age, from distilleries including Cambus, Caledonian and Cameron Bridge, is aged further in American oak casks, resulting in an elegant but luscious silky whisky with vanilla and toffee flavors. On the nose one will smell the oak vanilla and possibly white chocolate, cream and faint citrus aromas. Adding a couple of drops of water releases the spirit's heat in the nose and increases the intensity of the floral and herbal flavors.
is a limited release created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Deliah's, Mike Miller's Chicago punk rock whisky bar. It's a combination of single malt and single grain whiskies aged in a mix of experimental new American oak barrels and rejuvenated American oak hogsheads. Miller's stated desire was a scotch that thinks it's a bourbon. The whisky isn't quite sweet enough to taste like a bourbon, but the traditional American oak notes are obvious. On the nose one will smell green apple and lemon, along with a very mild hint of vanilla oak and roasted oats or toast. On the palate one should taste apple, vanilla and cream soda flavors.
We also sampled Oak Cross
and its slightly older sibling, the Spice Tree
. As with the Peat Monster, Spice Tree and Oak Cross are what used to be known as a "vatted" or malt whisky, which means it is a blend of single malt whiskies instead of blended Scotch whisky that also includes grain with the single malts. Clynelish is the main whisky in both. When tasting Oak Cross, one will find a very smooth, subtle blend of vanilla, clove (perhaps nutmeg?), along with some fruity flavors. On the nose, I smelled caramel (others may catch brown sugar notes) along with a floral scent I could not identify.
While Oak Cross sits in French oak barrels for one year, Spice Tree matures for three. Compass Box racks the whisky into barrels with heavily toasted new French oak heads, using oak with three different levels of toasting on the barrel heads, thus allowing additional layers of complexity. This secondary maturation lasts as long as two years.
The additional aging process really brings out the spicy aromas in Spice Tree, while also creating a much richer and deeper amber color. I tasted apple pie, vanilla, brown sugar and pipe tobacco, along with a plethora of other spices that I could not quite place. On the nose, Spice Tree's bouquet included vanilla and cardamom aromas, followed by white chocolate, bright red fruits and hints of other baking spices like allspice. This is a well-rounded, smooth, fun, refreshing and complex dram.
In fact all five drams were very fun and interesting. Each displayed great depth and Compass Box's iconoclastic approach to blending whisky. It's clear the company will be navigating the world of blended whisky for years to come.