Whisky Squad #12 – Compass Box

Twelve down, many to go – Whisky Squad has almost reached its first birthday and to mark the occasion we had a rather special evening nestled in the hands of Chris Maybin from Compass Box. I’ve mumbled out Compass Box in the past and they remain one of my favourite whisky companies, with consistently interesting and tasty products as well as a really friendly team working to put them together. I met Chris briefly at Whisky Live London in 2010, when I went to the Compass Box stand for a second time at the end of the show and he insisted on making me taste everything they had for a second time…what an evil man.

Bottles
Picture by Chris Matchett and his shiny iPhone

The company has just had its 10th anniversary, starting out in 2000 with former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser putting together his first whisky and selling some cases of it to Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (if I remember the story correctly). Ten years on they’ve created a variety of interesting blended whiskies (as well as a few very limited single cask bottlings), won a stack of awards and stuck out as an innovator in the generally conservative world of blended whisky. They take the opposite tack to most blending companies, focusing on producing whiskies where you can taste the various components, and how they compliment each other, rather than a more amorphous combined flavour. This is in part achieved by using a smaller number of component whiskies (typically three) as well as doing the blending in smaller batches a number of times a year, creating whiskies that vary slightly from batch to batch but always keeping the same idea behind the flavour.

EvilFrom the tasting I did with John Glaser last year I know he is not a fan of spirit caramel, used to colour many whiskies for a variety of reasons good and ill, and Chris agreed, passing around a bottle for us to have a sniff. I rather liked it, burnt sugar that it is, but am not a fan of it in whisky. While I understand the usual use for colouring whiskies, so that they are consistent between batches, and don’t think it has as much of an influence on flavour as many say, it does mask flavours and alter the mouthfeel of a whisky when used in larger quantities, and isn’t something that I think should be needed if consumers understood their drinks more. However, most people aren’t whisky geeks and don’t care so the colouring continues. Compass Box also don’t chill filter their whiskies, a process that definitely has an impact on the flavour and mouthfeel of whisky, leaving their bottlings as close to ‘natural’ as you can have without leaving chunks of charred barrel in the bottle (cf Blackadder whiskies…).

Their production process is quite simple for their regular range – buy maturing casks of spirit, test them until they get to the point where they are ready to be used, make small test batches of blended whisky in their Chiswick office, send the finalised recipe up to Scotland where the whiskies are vatted together, recask the whiskies after blending, leave them to marry and further mature, bottle. The marrying process takes at least 6 months, but they leave some whiskies longer depending on what they are trying to do with them. The choice of wood for that final maturation stage is very important, with their experimentation in the area getting them into trouble with the SWA (as John Glaser explained in a comment when I wrote about it before), but I’ll talk about that a bit more later on. On with the whisky!

AsylaAs usual we tasted blind, with each bottle being revealed after tasting, and first up was a lightly coloured dram. This was my first correct guess of the evening, although my cheating by looking up its recipe in an earlier blog post fell down due this batch having different components. The nose had stacks of vanilla, backed up with some lightly sweet wood smoke, coconut, sweet butter, apples, pears, marzipan and a hint of cherry – cherry bakewells in a fruit bowl? To taste it started with sweet citrus (candied lemons?) and worked its way through sour wood and fruit salad chews to a dry wood and spice finish, with a bit of a boozy prickle. Water brought out big sweet caramel (rather than the evil burnt caramel) and left a nice chunk of woodiness at the end. This was, as expected for the first dram of the tasting, Asyla, the closest that Compass Box have to a ‘regular’ blend and a great entry point to their range. It’s 50/50 grain and malt whisky, with the grain half coming this time from Cameron Bridge (for sweetness), and the malt from Teaninich (for grassiness) and Glen Elgin (for rich robustness). All the whisky is matured in first fill bourbon casks and after vatting is put back into those casks to marry for 6 months before bottling. The name isn’t the bad pun on Islay that many people think it is, myself included, but instead the plural of ‘asylum’ (a word meaning both sanctuary and madhouse) and taken from the name of a piece of music by Thomas Adès. They make about three batches of Asyla each year, with tweaks to the recipe to keep it in the same area of flavour based on what whiskies they have available, and are planning on numbering the batches soon. Chris mentioned that the SWA, traditional foils of Compass Box, are planning on regulating the listing of batch numbers and blending constituents, but I can’t find any information on that – anyone know anything? It wouldn’t surprise me, although in recent times I’m coming around to not disliking the SWA as much as the initial stories I heard about them, from Bruichladdich and Compass Box, encouraged me to.

Oak CrossNext up was the beginning of my no longer having any idea of what the whisky was, despite having tasted most of them before. On the nose there was whiteboard marker sweetness, foam and real bananas, vanilla and a hint of woody smokiness. The taste was bigger and richer than the Asyla, with more fruit salads, astringent wood, hints of marzipan, thick sweet woody spice and a thicker, slightly oily mouthfeel. Water brought out more of the fruit chew-ness and more prickly wood along with some sweetened cream and liquorice. The paper came off to reveal that this was Oak Cross, the first of a trio of whiskies that vary mainly in the wood used for maturation. It’s made up of mainly Clynelish (about 60%) with the rest split between Teaninich (for the grassy freshness) and Dailuaine (for structure). After vatting this whisky is filled half back into the original first fill bourbon casks and half into special Oak Cross barrels – first fill bourbon casks with the regular heads (the barrel ends) replaced by new French oak, not touched by other drinks and lightly toasted. New French oak is used a lot in the wine industry but not really touched by whisky as the nature of the spirit quickly draws lots of tannins from the wood, making whiskies dry and woody before their time. However by only using new oak heads during the 6 month marrying process the whisky can pick up some of the French oak characteristics without going too far. In a way this technique can be seen as retaliation for the SWA’s reaction to the next whisky.

Illegal Spice TreeThis one was one of my favourites of the night, with vanilla, candied lemon, some floralness, raisins and wood on the nose – ‘Crepe Suzette’ according to whisky wordsmith Mr Matchett. To taste it had spicy apple, creamy custard, raisins, hints of chocolate, big woody spices and a woody end. Water brought out more wood and fruit, as well as some sourness. When the label came off I was pleased to see that this was one I’d not tried before, having no clue what it was – Illegal Spice Tree. The illegal bit isn’t quite right, but it was Compass Box’s first edition of Spice Tree, which the SWA told them they weren’t allowed to sell, under threat of legal action, due to the wood maturation process. Taking the same recipe that is now used for Oak Cross they filled some of the vatted whisky into first fill bourbon casks that had new heavily toasted French oak barrel staves tethered to the inside, giving the whisky contact with a lot of wood, including a big surface area of the new oak. However, the SWA felt that this was not a traditional enough maturation method to allow the product to be called whisky and thus was it withdrawn from sale in 2006. This was from Jason’s personal stash and one that only occasionally appears in the wild these days.

Spice Tree (legal)Next up was the third in bottle in the Spice Tree saga and one that most of us guessed even before pouring would be the newer, legal version of Spice Tree. On the nose this reminded me heavily of Fry’s Orange Cream bars, with an underlying spicy earthiness. To taste it had sweet polished wood leading to a lingering, warm, woody finish. On the way there there was lightly burned toast, a sherbety fizz, dark caramelised oranges and coffee. Water brought out dark chocolate in the nose, some floral notes (violets? I need to find some violets to smell to see if the scent I think is violets really is…) and Turkish delight. A more elegant whisky than the older Spice Tree but one that I didn’t like as much, although that could well be a subconscious love of that which I can no longer easily obtain oozing out. This whisky is very similar to the Oak Cross in nature, but with the 6 months of maturation in the new oak headed casks extended to 2-3 years, the new oak heads undergoing a heavier toasting, 60% of the whisky coming from the special casks and the bottling strength upped by 3% to 46%. It’s made a bit of a stir, appearing on a number of 2010 best of lists including getting the Best New Whisky award in Jim Murray’s 2011 Whisky Bible.

Peat MonsterWe moved on to a whisky that everyone who knew the Compass Box range immediately guessed after a quick sniff – stony peat, coal smoke, smoked meat and a hint of iodine medicinalness. To taste it was sweet, with a creamy slightly cheesy note, ending with coal smoke and a blue cheese sweetness (the latter note one that others told me, as I don’t touch the evil, mouldy stuff). Water brought out soft, mulchy fruit in the middle, more fruit in the upfront sweetness, and left the finish intact – like breathing in while standing next to a coal burning stove. It was, of course, The Peat Monster. Much less peaty than the name suggests, a whisky that shows that peat and smoke in a whisky don’t need to be overpowering. This is made up of a combination of 20% Laphroaig, 40% Caol Ila and 40% Ardmore, the only mainland highland distillery doing exclusively heavily peated spirit, and comes in at 25ppm. The Laphroaig and Caol Ila really come through on the nose, with the minerality and medicinal punch, but in the taste they are overcome by the more rounded smoke of the Ardmore – an excellent combination. This one was originally put together for Park Avenue Liquor in New York, as The Monster, and was a chunk peatier, but after some softening it joined the regular range with a different name, even if that name does confuse people who are looking for something to strip away the inside of their faces with a peaty punch.

HedonismNext was a whisky that I knew very well from just the nose – Hedonism. This is the whisky that I wrote about in my first entry on this blog and one that I still vary from day to day whether I love or hate it, although my increasing love of nicely aged grain whisky has hacked away at the days when it’s not one of my favourites. Fortunately it was a day when I really liked it. On the nose it had sweet candied fruit, vanilla, acetone, buttery pastry, rum, garibaldi biscuits, coconut, tropical fruit and banoffee pie. To taste it was sweet and floral, with high alcohols and ripe tropical fruit. Water dropped out some of the sweetness, replacing it with woodiness, and added more prickle, more body and some creamy vanilla. This was Compass Box’s first whisky, starting with a product unlike others on the market – A blended grain whisky. They do a couple of batches a year and this one (H29MMIXB – 29th batch, second batch of 2009, the one after the bottle I have) is a blend of 14 and 29 year old from Cameron Bridge, Cambus (now closed) or Carsebridge, with a little drop of 30 year old Invergordon (not usually added, but in this batch for a little more richness). This one is a more limited release than the others in the range in part due to the niche nature of grain whisky but also due to the difficulty in sourcing good quality older grain whisky, as most is decanted young and used in blending.

Hedonism 10th AnniversaryThe last whisky was the wildcard. For their 10th anniversary Compass Box had bottled a number of interesting whiskies and having tasted through the rest of their core range it seemed likely that one of those would appear as whisky number 7. On the nose there was acetone, vanilla,  cherries, flowers (maybe violets?) and icing sugar – combining to give “Cherry bakewells with superglue icing” (thankyou Mr Matchett) and “Manhattan cocktails”. To taste it was less sweet than the nose suggested and like a rich dessert wine with concentrated grapes, a burst of grassy new make spirit and long lingering sweet fruity finish. Water brought out roses, Turkish delight and glacé cherries. I was quite blown away by this and a bunch of head nodding down my end of the table confirmed what we had hoped, it was Hedonism 10th Anniversary Edition. Different to most of the other Compass Box whiskies (apart from their Canto bottlings, I think) in that it is a single cask whisky. It’s 1971 Invergordon (rumoured to be a sister cask to the now no longer available Berry’s Own Selection bottling which I tried last year and which was also excellent) bottled in 2010 at 38 years old, so a single cask single grain whisky, a type of whisky that doesn’t appear much and one that I have so far almost always enjoyed every time I’ve found it. There were 120 bottles produced from the cask, 24 of which were allocated to the UK market at £200 each and there are a few around still to buy. Despite the price I’m very tempted as it was very good indeed and I was thinking about it still two days later, despite having Whisky Live London in between.

Speaking of Whisky Live, which was the day after the tasting, I met up with Whisky Squad organiser Mr Standing at the show and having just visited the Compass Box stand we had our tipsy states taken advantage of by the folk of Connosr and recorded a video about another of the Compass Box limited editions, Flaming Heart, in their Whisky Pod. My only comment on the video is that Niceness is an excellent word. Please do not count the number of uses of the suffix -ness in the text above, I just did and it’s shocking. My fairly drunken tasting notes for the Flaming Heart read: “Nose – Muddy peat, light burning hay, orange peel. Taste – sweet start moving through rich spicy caramel to a smoky fiery end. Water – More Clynelish, but with burnt wood over the finish. Fruity middle, mango and pineapple, butter and ash”. Not bad after 5 hours at a whisky show.

Next month’s Whisky Squad is yet unannounced, but with it being the first anniversary I suspect Things may be happening. We shall see…

Whisky Guy Darren very rudely didn’t attend due to having become a dad the day before. I will forgive this terrible breach of etiquette on this occasion and wish him, Mrs Darren and Baby Darren all the best.

Asyla
Blended Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£25 from Master of Malt.

Oak Cross
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%, ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Spice Tree Version 1
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 43%. No longer available

Spice Tree
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Peat Monster
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£35 from Master of Malt.

Hedonism
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky, 43%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Hedonism 10th Anniversary
Single cask single grain Scotch whisky, 56%. ~£200 from Master of Malt

Whisky Squad #6 – Brilliant Blends

A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.

Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:

  • Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
  • Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
  • Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
  • Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.

While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.

IMG_0044The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.

IMG_0046Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…

IMG_0047Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness,  followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).

IMG_0056The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.

Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£18

Compass Box Hedonism
Vatted grain whisky. 43%. ~£50

Adelphi 34 year old Ben Nevis blend, cask 4640 (186 bottles in total)
Cask strength single cask blended scotch whisky. 50.3%. ~£130

Ardbeg Serendipity
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£70

Whisky Squad organiser Andy already has a blog post up, as does Whisky Guy Darren.

Whisky Blending Class with John Glaser

I like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not only do they allow me to claim that I’m ‘off to my club’ of an evening and there-in drink interesting whiskies, but they also put on events. I may have failed to attend an event for the last 2.5 years, but this most recent one gave me the kick I needed to book a place – an evening of learning about whisky blending with John Glaser of Compass Box. I’m quite interested in whisky blending, as I’ve increasingly noticed decent ones over the years and have come to realise that ‘blend’ doesn’t equal Bells and friends. As Compass Box seem to be the name in boutique blending, hearing from their founder about his views on blending was high on my list.

The evening was centred around making our own blended whisky but first we got to hear about the Compass Box approach to blending and taste a few samples of finished whiskies, all of which are no longer available (either by being discontinued or having their recipes noticeably changed). First up was an early version of Asyla, the ‘standard’ Compass Box blend, from August 2002. It’s 50% grain whisky, from the Cameron Bridge and (now closed) Cambus distilleries, and 50% malt, with the malt coming mainly from Linkwood with a bit of Glen Elgin and Cragganmore. The big noted difference about this whisky is that all of its components come from first fill barrels (an uncommon enough situation that it may well be the first modern commercial bottling to have done so), so have taken on more of the wood characteristics than they would have in a more reused barrel. On the nose it’s quite light with fruit, pepper and some vanilla, and to taste it has bananas, green apples and a touch of caramel, with a rubbery finish – very nice but maybe a bit light for me. The recipe has changed over the years, with availability issues meaning that the Linkwood has been slowly replaced by Teaninich over the years to today’s no-Linkwood version. The theory behind it is quite simple though – grain for vanilla sweetness, Linkwood/Teaninich for perfumed fruitiness, Glen Elgin for some more fruit and Cragganmore for a ‘meatiness’. The main difference between this strategy for blending and the big batch blends is that generally Compass Box aim to take a single whisky and build the flavour around it – in the case of the Asyla it’s the Linkwood/Teaninich flavour that is complimented by the light grain flavours and the slightly more obvious (hence their smaller concentration) Glen Elgin and Cragganmore influences – rather than build consistency and ‘complexity’ by adding lots of whiskies together.

Next on the sample list was Juveniles, named for the Juveniles wine bar in Paris. This one comes in at 44% (as requested by the owner of Juveniles, to be ‘like the elephant gun’), was bottled in 2002 or 2003 and is now discontinued. This one is built around Clynelish, a whisky whose name appears quite often when John talks about his recipes. It provides a waxy, oily fruitiness as a base which is then built on with Glen Elgin, for fruit, and Glen Ord, for some smokiness – it’s about 1/3rd of each, all first fill again. On the nose it’s oily with pepper and red fruit and to taste it has that oiliness along with a chunk of smoke and fruit, finishing off with charcoal.

Last of the pre-blended whiskies was Eleuthera, which I am quite pleased to have got a miniature of from John’s sample sack, which has also now been discontinued. It’s one of Compass Box’s attempts to make an easy drinking but still smoky whisky, like the Peat Monster in idea but not quite as peaty. It’s 80% Clynelish (1/2 first fill and 1/2 refill) with 20% Caol Ila to add some smokiness, as a little bit of Caol Ila goes a long way. On the nose it has sweet peat, salt, pepper and a little bit of fruit. To taste it has warm smoke, woody spiciness and a some nice fruitiness. It’s rather good and one that I wish I’d found before it disappeared.

Next we moved on to the task for the evening – making our own whisky. We were told to think about what sort of dram we wanted to make and were let loose upon tasters of our 5 potential components:

  • Port Dundas – grain from a recently closed distillery, made in 1991 and recently drawn from the barrel. On the nose it had vanilla, coconut and biscuits, and added toffee and caramel in the quite delicate taste, giving a combined effect of fruity caramel digestives. Which was really very nice indeed.
  • Clynelish – a predictable addition to the list and very welcome, this was provided by the SMWS rather than from the Compass Box stocks – it was very good, with John expressing disappointment that the society didn’t have a spare bottle to sell him. On the nose it was salty with sour fruit and sherbert lemons, with the taste turning towards salty preserved lemons. Water brought our a fragrant wood polish flavour and some spice.
  • An unnamed vatted malt – from the Compass Box stash, this was a barrel with new wood french oak heads that will go on to make up Spice Tree, a mix of Clynelish, Teaninich and Dalhuaine. It had a bit of sweetness and caramel on the nose but opened up to a rich woody sweetness with dried fruit on the taste. Water worked well, bringing out vanilla from the wood and a chunk of spiciness. If Spice Tree tasted more like this then I suspect I would have a case hidden somewhere in the house (I got a chance to taste one of the older Spice Trees later on and it did used to taste more like this, but they are now moving towards a more refined style which while very nice isn’t quite as much to my rather unrefined taste).
  • Ardmore – aged somewhere between 10 and 13 years this was brought in as a potential peaty element. On the nose it had salty wood and tasted of smoky fruit. Water softened the smoke and brought out some vanilla. Nice, but not one for my blend.
  • Laphroaig – an 11 year old that Compass Box have held for a number of years (and that was lovely at 7 years old) this was our more extreme peaty component. It smelled of sweet mulched peat and had a flinty peaty taste. A nice Laphroaig, but a bit of a beast.

Billy's BlendI decided to pinch the idea from some of the Compass Box range and build my blend around Clynelish, bringing in some of the sweetness from the Port Dundas and then ‘enriching’ it with the Spice Tree. Armed with the idea, a pipette and a measuring cup I did a few test drams, gradually dialling out the Spice Tree until it didn’t come through too much. I ended up with 50% Port Dundas, 45% Clynelish and 5% Spice Tree, although as there was a little bit of space in the top of the bottle still there may be a little bit more spice tree in the mix than that suggests.

On the nose it has bananas, pineapple, candied fruit and a hint of salt. To taste it starts with a burst of red fruit and moves on to tropical fruit with a vanilla-y wood finish. A drop of water changes things quite a bit, with some more oiliness appearing on the nose and in the taste, along with a rubberiness to the finish. Unsurprisingly, I rather I like it, almost as if someone made it just for me. John advised us to leave it for a few weeks and then to try it again as the flavours should develop – I’ve always been slightly dubious about this, but I’ll give it a go and report back…

Anyways, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I must remember to keep an eye on the events list – there’s been a change of manager at the SMWS London rooms (with former boss man Darren now at Master of Malt) and it looks like there might be some interesting things coming up.

Whisky Tasting Chez Moi #1

Being someone who likes to talk I’m jealous of those lucky folks who get paid to wander around and talk about whisky. So, in an effort to get at least part of that I invited an exclusive posse of people around to my flat to have a bit of a whisky tasting. The intention was to try a few things that were in someway different to the norm and to span as much of the whisky spectrum as I could with 4 or 5 bottles.

Tasting
Compass Box Hedonism, Benromach Organic, Kilchoman New Spirit, Benriach Curiositas, Yamazaki Sherry Cask

So, here are my notes on what to say about each one, as well some audience reactions:

Compass Box Hedonism: There are number of different legal classifications of whisky, which due to recent lobbying by the SWA changed at the end of 2009. The three main types are:

  • Single Malt Whisky – malt whisky from one distillery. It will be most probably be a mix of various different batches (to get a consistent flavour and style for each line of whisky), but all of the whisky comes from the same distillery.
  • Blended Malt Whisky (formerly known as vatted malt) – changed November 2009, a move not entirely popular amongst many whisky makers. This is a blend of malt whiskies, which can come from any distillery. It is, however, only made up of malt whisky.
  • Blended Whisky – whisky that is made of malt and grain whiskies from any producer.

This is a fourth type – a vatted grain (maybe now a blended grain…who knows?). While grain whisky is usually used as a bulking agent for blends, produced quite cheaply in a continuous rather than batch distillation process, there are some producers who take a more malt-like approach to its creation and there are companies who try and do interesting things with it – Compass Box are part of the latter group and buy whiskies from the former. Run by John Glaser (who corrected me last time I wrote about them), they produce interesting blended whiskies that are in a totally different league to the Bells and Teachers of this world. This has some flavours in common with a bourbon, coming from grain as it does, but definitely has a different style.

From the audience: It seemed to go down fairly well. It’s the lightest of the whiskies I was presenting, hence its position at the front of the line-up, and even the less keen whisky drinkers appreciated it.

Benromach Organic: The distillery reopened in 1996, after years of closure. Rather than the more regular ‘mothballing’ of the site, where they leave everything in place, Benromach was pretty much stripped of all its equipment and had to be almost rebuilt. Their regular whisky is lightly peated (slightly more than the Speyside norm of 0-5ppm of phenols at about 8-12) to try and capture the flavour of speyside whiskies when peat was a more common fuel for drying malt, but the Organic is different. It’s the first Soil Association certified organic whisky and as part of this process everything involved in the making needs to be organic, from malt to barrels. Whisky barrels are normally used before the whisky gets to them – sherry and bourbon are the two main spirits that go in beforehand, and they take on a lot of the woody flavour from the barrel, allowing whiskies to mature without extracting quite as much of those flavours. However, In order to keep with the organic certification the Benromach Organic uses new american oak barrels that have never seen another drop of booze. This whisky is also entirely unpeated, which is fairly normal on Speyside, although their stocks of the regular Organic are running out due to their switching of production to a peated version. I’m not a fan of the new “Special Edition Organic”, so I’m pleased that after a short while they switched back to the unpeated version, so while there will be a gap in availability it will be returning in the future.

From the audience: this one started off less popular, with the woodiness not well received. However, with a drop of water the flavour changes a lot, with creamy vanilla appearing, and it grew in popularity.

Kilchoman New Spirit: One of the problems with whisky production is the time it takes between making your whisky and making money from it. This is especially difficult for brand new distilleries as they have no older stock to keep themselves afloat with until they can start selling their wares. Kilchoman opened in 2005, the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years, and was setup to be slightly different. Their barley is grown on the attached farm, they are one of the last 6 distilleries who have their own maltings and they bottle on-site. In order to keep cash coming in they sold cask, case and bottle futures for their first production runs, keeping them going until they hit the 3 year mark at which their maturing spirit legally became whisky and could be sold as such. The first release was in 2009 and has been received quite well, although their upcoming 5 year is something I’m keeping an eye out for. Another way that they raised money was to sell samples of their maturing whisky – their New Spirit. This bottle doesn’t have a maturation time on it, but the otherwise identical one I bought at the same time claimed that it had been in wood for 1 week…

From the audience: I didn’t pour everyone a shot of this – a very young, heavily peated 63.5% spirit is not something that you generally knock back much of – instead pouring a small slug into a large wine glass so that everyone could get at least a smell. Almost everyone tried it in the end, with the reactions being what you’d expect for something that I generally describe as tasting like cattle feed and death. That said, I do quite like the flavour and there were a couple of nods that it wasn’t all that bad, even it was burny and eye watering.

BenRiach Curiositas: I’d not heard of the distillery until recently (and I now have a box of miniatures of their aged expressions to try) but heard of the Curiositas through Anna’s twitter stream when her friend Jon got a bottle and rather enjoyed it. The distillery is another that has changed hands a lot, recently being picked up by the independent Benriach Distillery Company (who recently picked up their second distillery – Glendronach) in 2004. It had a sad beginning, opening in 1892 and then mothballed in 1900 when the bottom fell out of the whisky market. It reopened in 1965 under Glenlivet, sold to Seagrams in 1978 and then dropped to a 3 days per week production in 2001, before the more recent purcahse. This is one is different because it’s a peated Speyside whisky. As I mentioned earlier Speyside whiskies are normally peated lightly to not at all, coming in at about 0-5ppm, with Islay whiskies like Laphroaig and Ardbeg being much more famed for their peaty smokiness (with barley peated to about 40ppm and 54ppm respectively). The Curiositas is peated to 55ppm – which is about as peaty as you get for a widely available whisky. They also have a younger version (3-5 years?) of their peated spirit, Birnie Moss, which I found at Whisky Live – it’s mainly sold into the French and Spanish markets, where there is a strangely high demand for young, unmellowed, peaty whisky.

From the audience: As expected this one was the least popular, although the speyside sweetness coming through the smoke brought it up the popularity scale quite a lot. The progression from raw spirit to matured whisky worked quite well though, with the mellowing process really showing (although choosing something as powerfully flavoured as the Kilchoman probably helped there).

Yamazaki Sherry Cask: The whisky that I ran from Blackfriars to Soho to buy the day before the tasting; one that I tried in Milroy’s at Christmas and rather liked. The difference with this one is that it’s Japanese, which isn’t really all that unusual as there are 90 years of history backing up their produce, and very heavily sherried, which is slightly more so. Whisky production in Japan was started by Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical importer, who founded the company that became Suntory and started bringing foreign booze into Japan. He hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had trained at Hazelburn in Scotland (a name now used by the Springbank distillery to brand their triple distilled, unpeated Campbelltown whisky, as the original distillery has closed), to start distilling at the Yamazaki distillery and Japanese whisky was born. Taketsuru left Suntory in the 1930s, travelled around Japan looking for a spot that felt like Scotland and built a distillery in Yoichi on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, starting Nikka, the other famed Japanese distiller. The mix of whiskies that goes into a single malt will often contain at least some spirit matured in sherry casks and other whiskies will be matured for a length of time after they have been married together in a cask which has held sherry or another drink to ‘finish’. However, you don’t get many bottlings which have sat exclusively in a sherry cask for as long as this – a very dark reddy brown whisky, it almost looks like flat Coke and is a bit thicker and stickier than your average dram.

From the audience: Far and away the favourite of the night (which is one of the reasons why I did my cross-central-London run the day before to make sure I got some before Milroy’s closed). It’s sweet and rich, with fruitcake and dates. It’s quite unlike the ‘regular’ whisky flavour that people expect, although with enough hiding behind the dried fruit to remind you that you’re not drinking port. I’ve tried an even more heavily sherried Yamazaki at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but that almost felt like a fortified dessert wine than a whisky – this is an excellent winter dram, and unfortunately one that seems to be becoming scarce as stocks start to sell out.

Anyways, my choices seemed to work and lasagna was fed to the assembled throng. On top of my selections there were also some pressies and temporary donations brought along, with Nikki‘s sloe gin, and Alan and Ruth‘s chocolate vodka, blackcurrant vodka, homebrew beer and bottle of Marble Chocolate Marble all sitting on the side waiting for me to do some tasting and writing about them. Alan also brought along his bottle of Glenallachie single cask 18yr old, also matured exclusively in sherry casks, to compare to the Yamazaki – it compared very well, coming in as the second favourite of the night on flavour and favourite for price – £35 from the web or in person at the Strathisla distillery, home of the Chivas Brothers experience…

I suspect this may happen again, especially as Nikki and Ruth now seem to be whisky converts. I must use my powers for good…

Alan and Anna have also done write-ups on their blogs and I think I need to give a general thanks to all of my victims for letting me talk at them for an afternoon: Anna, Alan, Ruth, Paul, Nikki and Michael.

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended scottish grain whisky
43%, component whiskies 14-29 years old
£45 from Waitrose

Benromach Organic
Unpeated Organic speyside whisky
No age statement, 5-6 years
43%. Limited stock available

Kilchoman New Spirit
Islay new spirit, 1 week old
43.5%. Occasionally available in whisky specialists (I got mine from Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh)

Benriach Curiositas
Peated speyside single malt whisky
40%, 10 years old. Peated to ~45ppm.
Available from whisky specialists (I got mine from The Whisky Shop)

Yamazaki Sherry Cask
Very sherried Japanese single malt whisky
48%, 10-12 years old
Limited availability – worldwide release of 16,000 bottles (I got mine from Milroy’s)

New Wood

Barrels
I like big butts and I cannot lie…

My week up in Scotland recently not only introduced me to Benromach whisky, but also to the idea of putting whisky in new casks. Now, this may not sound like a particularly wild idea, but the majority of whisky is matured in casks that have already held some other form of booze – bourbon and sherry being the current mainstays before you get on to ‘wood finishing’. The first fill of booze will temper the barrel and remove a lot of the transferable woodiness, letting the second fill pick up different flavours and not be overcome by the wood. However, while up in Scotland I heard of three different whiskies using brand new wood – Benromach Organic and two from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a Glen Moray and a Glenmorangie.

I’ve written about Benromach before, but its use of new wood intrigued me enough while at the distillery that I quizzed our tour guide a bit about it. The wood comes from a US forest which, while maybe not intentionally planted as such many years ago, has been kept up to Soil Association ‘Organic’ standards and that certification suggests a reason why they are using new wood – in order to be certified as Organic they would have to use products that have not been subject to any processes that are not up to scratch, something that I suspect Jack Daniels (the usual first spirit in whisky barrels) don’t really aspire to. While the wood choice may be in part forced on them by their move to make the first organic whisky, it has also pushed them to make an interesting production whisky – the other two I found from new wood are single cask bottlings rather than generally available. The wood comes across clearly in the Benromach, appearing at the start of the taste as a tannic kick and adding vanilla to the aftertaste as well as a lingering woodiness. With water an oaky creaminess pops up and the tannins mellow slightly. During our tour the guide commented that the new barrels add a hint of bourbon flavour to the whisky and now that I have tasted it I can now tell some of the elements of Bourbon that come directly from the wood – some of the sweetness, the slight bitterness on the center of the tongue and the vanilla creaminess that you often miss if you drink your whiskey with ice. I rather like the Benromach organic and am slightly sad that it has almost disappeared in it’s original incarnation, currently replaced by the peated Special Edition, but Sandy the distillery tour guide did assure me that it will be reappearing soon.

While visiting the Edinburgh SMWS rooms on the way back from my sojourn in The Highlands I tried to grab a dram of their new Glen Moray, intrigued by the talk of new wood and my new found liking for the Benromach. However, due to an issue with the bottle labels (either they had the wrong ABV or they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bottle, depending on who you spoke to) it hadn’t turned up in time and I was directed towards a Glenmorangie bottling using a similar idea – 125.31, Tropicana then luscious poached pears. At the recent Whisky Exchange Glenmorangie tasting I learned about the ‘designer casks’ that they had put together for the their Astar – specially selected trees, grown slowly so as to have the right consistency to allow the whisky to be flavoured by the wood in the manner they wanted. However, Astar is not matured in new wood – the barrels are sent over to Jack Daniels for the first four years of their lives, arriving at Glenmorangie after the whiskey has been removed. With a litle reading between the lines on the SMWS website it seems that it is a whisky matured in an Astar barrel untouched by JD. Rather than the upfrontness of the Benromach, the Glenmorangie’s wood was all at the end – it’s a sweet whisky with a slight prickly spiciness that lands in a mouthful of twigs. I wasn’t all that keen, but it wasn’t in any way unpleasant.

Glen Moray have until recently been part of the Glenmorangie family and were a testbed for some of their crazy ideas – according to the barman at the SMWS, if you saw something strange come out of Glen Moray and do well then you could be sure that it would probably appear from Glenmorangie shortly after. I finally managed to find a dram of this final new wood example at the London tasting rooms, after the bottle wrangling had been completed – 35.34, Moroccan Tea-room Masculinity. On the nose there was salt and aniseed, and not a lot of the woodiness I was expecting. To taste there was more wood and tannins, but also toffee, salt and peppery lemons. With water the wood came out more, with a chunk of vanilla, but it wasn’t quite so overpowering as it is in the Benromach. Interesting, but not one for me to add to the collection.

I also found another whisky which uses some new wood while wandering around Whisky LiveCompass Box Spice Tree. While chatting with the guy on the stand about the company’s obsession with wood, we talked about the process that led them to the current methods for getting woodiness into Spice Tree. First there was a stage that I heard about elsewhere, where they put wood chips in the marrying barrels – a process well known in the wine industry, even if it is seen as a little dodgy. [They didn’t use chips – see the comment from John Glaser below] This was quickly stopped by the SWA, who don’t like it when people do strange things and try and call their product whisky, but they carried on the idea by putting whole new wooden barrel staves directly into the barrel, another trick pinched from wine. This was, again, quickly banned and they came up with their latest trick (not mentioned on their website yet, which tells the tale of their run-ins with the SWA) – new barrel ends. Rather than making a whole barrel from new wood, which would have a bit more of an effect than they wanted, they just replaced the ends of the barrels with the new wood, giving the whisky some contact while at the same time not breaking the rules. The folk at Compass Box are smart. And a bit mad. The Spice Tree is a 100% malt blend, currently made up of Clynelish, Teaninch and Dailuaine (I think that’s right on the last one – I had been drinking by then and my hearing was going) and it’s pleasantly spicy, as the name and intention suggest, with a rich sweetness and some woodiness from the new oak.

It seems that new wood is one of the latest experiments in the whisky world that’s starting to rear its head after a decade long maturation process. Without thinking about the time the whisky has been in the warehouse it almost seems as if the distillers are reacting to the work of people like Compass Box, who are doing interesting things with wood, but after some consideration (as Compass Box are only a decade old) it looks like it’s all part of the long cycle of whisky experimentation. I’m interested to see what other single barrel bottlings appear from new wood but am also intrigued as to what this new flavour might contribute to regular bottlings. Glenmorangie have already made a bit of a splash with Astar, I’m keen to see who’s next.

Compass Box Hedonism

Compass Box HedonismFor my first proper post I thought I’d start out as I probably will be going on – with a whisky.

Compass Box are a whisky company known for their blending skills. Blends have got a bit of a bad name in recent times, but until the late 70s the concept of single malt whisky was fairly alien to most people. The standard blend that you see hanging from an optic is a load of cheaper grain whisky doctored with some single malts to create a hopefully tasty whisky. While many single malt fans turn their noses up at them there are a few good’uns, but Compass Box’s fare is something quite different. John Glaser, the man behind the blending, is known for his skill at bringing together whiskies to make rather special bottles and I’ve been meaning to pick up one for a while.

They change the available whiskies quite often, making the blends in small batches, but Hedonism is a name that has recurred pretty much constantly since the first bottling. Each batch is different, but as far as I can tell working towards a similar idea. There is normally a conceit behind each whisky family that they put out and Hedonism is no different – it’s made of grain whisky.

Grain is normally considered the poor cousin to the malt whisky that most people drink, mainly used for blending, but, as I’ve discovered recently through the Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s single grain bottlings, it is not always the case. One of my introductions to non-blended whiskies was with grain when I unknowingly picked up a bottle of Black Barrel as I wandered through duty free shortly after entering the world of work and disposable income – I rather liked it and was quite shocked to find that it was made of ‘inferior’ materials.

According to the website Hedonism is made up of between 8 and 15 different grain whiskies, generally matured for over 20 years, and this definitely shows up in the glass, albeit with a delicate flavour. Colour-wise it’s quite light and yellow, contrasting from my initial preconceptions that it would be a dark and sticky dram. On the nose it’s quite poky, with a hint of the back of the chem-lab, with pear drops and a hefty slug of alcohol. Without water it’s quite strong, feeling more than its bottled strength of 43% and tastes quite different to a regular malt – it’s sweet but with a lingering bitterness and a light rubbery taste creeping around the sides of the tongue. A drop of water definitely helps it in my opinion, knocking off some of the burn and opening up the sweetness into its component parts, but emphasising the quite sour and bitter aftertaste – icing sugar fading to fisherman’s friends, with a hint of woodiness. I didn’t get much of the toffee promised on the website, but such is the problem of small batch bottlings – sometimes you get one that is at the extreme end of the flavour range.

All in all this isn’t really a whisky for me – it’s quite delicately flavoured despite its alcoholic kick, missing out on the big mouth feel that I normally go for, and the finish is definitely on the bitter side for my liking, which the lighter whiskies I enjoy don’t tend to. It’s interesting and I can see similarities between it and the other grains I’ve tried over the years, but in the end they chose the flavours that I’m not all that keen on. If you’re a big fan of rubbery whiskies and are looking for something more delicate then this might be something to look at, although be wary that each bottle you find will probably taste different.

Update: This one’s been wearing at me for a while, as I’ve changed my mind a number of times – I don’t quite agree with my final thoughts any more. Firstly, I’ve tried Hedonism in a few other places now and it’s always been the same, the differing batches isn’t something that I’ve heard from the rather solid production line of Compass Box, however it seems my tastes are not – from day to day my opinion on the whisky changes, with the flavours I don’t like one day being my favourite the next. It’s still not one that is definitely for me all the time, although the Hedonism Maximus is definitely something I need to try more often, but when I’m in the mood it’s really very nice.

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended scottish grain whisky
No age statement (generally over 20 years)
Bottled at 43%
Widely available – I got mine in Waitrose.