On the evening of Wednesday 28th of October, I was fortunate to participate in another Arkwrights whisky tasting! This time Compass Box Whisky were the company to grace us with their presence, with Brand Ambassador Herman Van Broekhuizen presenting their wares. It was fitting that this tasting should take place in the same week Compass Box celebrate their 15th anniversary.
With their head office based in London, Compass box do not distil whisky themselves, rather they utilise and blend the products from a select few distilleries (Ardmore, Caol Ila, Clynelish & Laphroaig to name a few… as well as grain whisky from Cameronbridge). Where as some blends could have dozens of whiskies as constituent parts, Compass Box tend to stick to no more than 4 or 5 elements in their blends. Chill filtration and colouring are also a big no-no! The founder of Compass Box, John Glaser saw the art of blending whisky as a platform for creativity. His obsession with wood and the influences it can have on a spirit have resulted in some inventive processes and excellent end results!
We sampled several expressions on the evening. Some details on the drams and my tasting notes follow:
Expression: Great King Street Artists Blend (43% / £27.50)
Notes: This whisky was inspired by the golden age of whisky making and follows a recipe/method from the early 19th century! It contains a blend of 55% Highland & Speyside single malt and Lowland grain whisky which is then finished in new French oak casks.
Nose: Very fresh & fruity with hints of pineapple
Palate: Clean and slightly nutty. Green fruits and hints of spice
Finish: Not a long finish but some pepper evident
Expression: Great King Street Glasgow Blend (43% / £27.50)
Notes: This whisky was based on the fuller bodied whiskies historically preferred by Glaswegians. The branding on the bottle is that of the statue of the Duke Of Wellington in Glasgow – complete with the trademark traffic cone on his head! It contains Islay malts (Laphroaig), Highland malts and Lowland grain aged in sherry casks.
Nose: Initially oily, medicinal & peaty… eventually picking up grass & lemon sheberts
Palate: Some iodine, sweet dried apricots.
Finish: Not much peat evident, but a touch of smoke on the finish
Expression: Hedonism (43% / £59.99
Notes: This was the first whisky produced 15 years ago… by John… in his kitchen in Kew! A 100% grain whisky aged in first fill American Oak casks. One of our party remembered having a bottle of this five years ago and felt it was subtly different. Herman remarked that blends will evolve and change over the years. Hence the reason why the Hedonsim from five years ago differs from that tasted today. Compass Box would retain a ‘benchmark’, but slight deviation cannot be discounted.
Nose: It has the sort of sweetness I’d associate with a sherry finish. Toffee and a hint of marmalade
Palate: Lighter than I was expecting! Hints of coconut & vanilla custard
Finish: Quite delicate. I remember the Hedonism from the past being ‘punchier’
Expression: Oak Cross (46% / £37.99)
Notes: This expression was essentially made whilst waiting for the new version of the Spice Tree to mature. It combines malts from Highland & Speyside distilleries and has been aged in custom casks that are a hybrid of American & French oaks.
Nose: Pear drops, conference pears, apples & floral notes
Palate: Very fruity! Good mix of autumnal ripe fruits and honey
Finish: Surprisingly dry on the finish, some subtle spice with hints of vanilla
Expression: Spice Tree (46% / £41.99)
Notes: This expression was first produced 10 years ago. John had taken some of the skills, lessons & techniques learned whilst working in the wine industry and applied them to this whisky. One such example being the addition of wood chips or staves into the barrel to impart flavour. Early experiments in adding French Oak staves into the barrel killed the whisky, but eventually a balance was reached resulting in a quicker maturation and rich, complex whisky. The Scotch Whisky Association had suggested this technique was illegal, and it was eventually banned (some early bottlings from casks utilising this method do still exist if you can find them!) however, that didn’t stop Compass Box who came up with a new (approved) methodology where by the fresh staves now form part of the head of the barrel, therefore the barrel is considered ‘whole’. This does result in a slower maturation period (2 ½ years as opposed to 6 months) but the end result is the same.
Nose: Has fruity hints of the Oak Cross about it, but is richer… with maple syrup & raisins.
Palate: Chocolate, warm gentle spiciness, sweet with dried fruits. Like a good Xmas mince pie – Yum!
Finish: It has quite a long warm finish where the spiciness is more evident.
Expression: Peat Monster (46% / £41.99)
Notes: As the name suggests, this blend of 100% malt whiskies from Islay, Island and Highland distilleries (including Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardmore & Tobermory) has been produced for those who like their peaty, smoky whiskies! You’ll either love it or hate it… I for one do enjoy a smoky number so I very much enjoyed this one.
Nose: Phenolic, earthy & peaty hit. Some coastal qualities in there too.
Palate: TCP & marzipan! Quite sweet, but with savoury undertones.
Finish: Smooth, wood smoke & salted caramel
Expression: Flaming Heart (15th Anniversary) (48.9% / £97.99)
Notes: This is the 5th edition of Flaming Heart to be produced, and this specific bottling coincides with the company’s 15th anniversary. Earlier blends contained Clynelish and Caol Ila, but subsequent bottlings replaced Caol Ila with Laphroaig. This latest expression however blends 70% Caol Ila, 24% Clynelish and the remainder a vatting of three whiskies from Clynelish, Teaninich & Dailuaine. It is bottled at cask strength unlike the other blends on offer.
Nose: Cinnamon toast, roasted peaches… it’s quite sweet, but does have a hint of smoke at the back.
Palate: Thick mouthfeel. Getting raisins, sultanas, honey & cloves… but with some tempering smoke & saltiness
Finish: Peat more prevalent, as is a nutty quality… pecan pie maybe?
On the night, I was impressed with the Great King Street Glasgow Blend, Flaming Heart and the Peat Monster but my favourite of the night was the Spice Tree. Perhaps it’s because it’s getting towards that time of year, but I do enjoy a festive, spicy yet sweet dram on a cold blustery evening!
In conclusion though, blends may have historically been thought of as inferior to single malts but it’s hard to see how such “whisky snobbery” can exist with the exceptional quality of blends that are on the market today. By carefully and thoughtfully combing quality single malt or grain components and manipulating or finishing them using innovative techniques, Compass Box produce a variety of complex (and delicious!) whiskies. As a respected whisky aficionado I follow on Twitter has remarked on numerous occasions… Let’s hear it for the blends!