New Year is quickly approaching and no doubt bottles of whisky will be hauled out of the cupboard to toast the start of 2012. A century ago, a couple of years before half the world decided to try and kill each other, people around the world would be doing exactly the same. Having parties and drinking whisky, but with one major difference.
Back then, the whiskies being served would not have been single malts, they would be blends with names such as Dewers, Black & White and Famous Grouse. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the single malt market exploded and was deemed to be of higher quality than blends. Since then, whisky snobs have looked down on blended whisky as an inferior product, writing books about how great single malts are and rarely, if ever, mentioning anything else. The producers themselves haven’t helped their cause by hammering down the price of bigger named blends like Bell’s.
But this new year, instead of opting for your normal single malt, I suggest you take a look at blended whisky again. Not the big name brands, but the small, artisan producer called Compass Box.
Founded in 2000 by John Glaser, the company embraces the styles of whisky throughout Scotland but used a range of different malts and grains to produce whiskies of exceptional quality. I tried a selection of his whiskies just before Christmas and they excellent examples of what can be done when you have a blender making whisky that doesn’t have to hit a price point.
Great King Street (43% vol)
This whisky is Compass Box's 'entry level' blended whisky - focusing on the traditions that made blended whisky so popular, but maintaining high quality. The whisky has light honey with some creamy rhubarb and custard aromas. A little dark wood emerges from the nose with some cinnamon spice. Bitter match stick is the first thing you get on the palate, but then some lovely sweetness with honey on the back end. A tasty blended whisky. 89pts
Compass Box Asyla (40% vol)
A blended whisky containing malts from Linkwood, Glen Elgin and Teaninich and grain whisky from Cameron Bridge. Put into first fill ex-Bourbon barrels, it is not chill filtered and has honey and lemon aromas, followed by Trebor Fruit Salad sweets and vanilla. The palate is lovely and sweet with some soft melon pith and an oily, delightful finish. 88pts
Compass Box Oak Cross (43% vol)
Several ten to twelve year old malts make up this whisky from Teaninich, Brora and Carron, and are then put into American and new French oak casks. Lots of Vanilla, some ethanol too and a bit harsh. Pineapple comes off on the palate, quite sweet, medicinal and with leather and lavender. A bit crude. 82pts
Compass Box Spice Tree (46% vol)
Similar in age to the Oak Cross, this whisky is mainly made from malt whisky distilled at the Clynelish distillery and put into first and re-fill American oak. It is then transferred to heavily toasted new French Oak barrels made from wood from the Vosges forest. Rounded aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg and rice pudding with some liquorice covered in honey. The palate has a touch of earth, some sweetness initially then a big, gutsy wallop of spice. It is a bit of a bruiser, but delivered really well – this is the Mohammed Ali to the Oak Cross’ drunken street fighter. 92pts
Compass Box Peat Monster (46% vol)
An un-named Islay whisky, a smoky malt from Mull (Ledaig?!) and a peated Speyside Malt make up the Peat Monster. There is smoke, a lot of burning oak and pipe tobacco sweetness on the nose. Very mellow palate with some pear drops mixed with some spice and cream to cancel out the slightly abrasive alcohol. Mint and smoke on the finish that is very delicious. 90pts
Compass Box Hedonism
Whiskies between 14 and 29 years old from the grain distilleries of Cameron Bridge, Carsebridge and Cambus make up Hedonism. The aroma is creamy with lots of vanilla, currants, crème brulee and a touch of sulphur on the end. Delicious bread and butter pudding flavours with a tiny bit of honeydew melon and coconut. A really tasty bottle of whisky and proof that grain whisky can be fantastic and the match for any single malt. 92pts
I know we are in a world where we all want to know the history of the food and drink we consume. We buy locally sourced meat and vegetables in the supermarkets and with single malts we know which distillery the whisky was made in. But is it relevant? With Compass Box, it is better to look at their whiskies as you would a meal from a Michelin starred restaurant. You trust they are using good ingredients, but it doesn't matter where the food comes from as what you are really paying for is the skill of the chef.
With this range of blended whiskies, you are paying for the skill of 'chef' John Glaser, and his produce is, in a lot of cases, both tastier and better value than single malts with the same flavour profile.