I’m a big fan of Compass Box whiskies, particularly Flaming Heart and Spice Tree, so the chance to blend my own concoction under the expert tutelage of John Glaser was like offering chateaubriand to a starving dog.
You may have noticed we’re also running a competition to win several bottles of Compass Box, and giving away a free dram with each bottle bought, so it was good to go up and sample some of the company’s whiskies and meet the team at their office in Chiswick.
We started with a food matching session to get things off to a salubrious start. This in itself was both tasty and fascinating; Peat Monster pairs particularly well with blue cheese, while Spice Tree packs enough body to hold up against a hefty cheddar.
But the real eye opener was Hedonism matched with millionaires’ shortbread, the delicious confection baked by none other than the wife of Commercial Director Chris Maybin. The soft sweetness of Hedonism, Compass Box’s blended grain whisky, really complimented the biscuit caramel notes of the shortbread, accentuating the effect of both.
I thoroughly recommend trying it. After reaching these important conclusions, and having consumed a small truckload of millionaires’ shortbread, we sat down and John shared some Compass Box secrets.
He started by dispelling the myth that “malts equal good, blends equal bad”. Many whisky drinkers still labour under this misconception, much like Axl Rose still retains the impression that anyone cares what he has to say. Unlike a lot of the bigger blenders who use hundreds of different whiskies in their expressions, Compass Box blends use only two or three different casks.
This means the individual character of the components are much more pronounced, and it’s possible to pick out the separate elements of each blend while still enjoying the effect of the whole. It goes against conventional blending wisdom where most products include a cast of hundreds, making it impossible to pick out separate elements. This means it’s easier for Johnny Walker or Bells to replace whiskies they can no longer source for their blend, and thus creates a very consistent product, but it can also lead to a very uniform flavour profile.
John Glaser holds court… and a glass of whisky.
With Compass Box, you get instead a focused blend with a very obvious concept, often summed up simply by the name itself… no prizes for guessing what Peat Monster or Spice Tree are looking to achieve. Now I’m going to embark on a complex and potentially disaster-fraught metaphor to explain what I learnt from John, and all I ask is that you send a search party if things go awry.
Imagine blended whisky in the medium of film. One the one hand, you have scenes with hundreds of extras, all saying the word rhubarb. You can’t discern their individual voices because it all merges into one, as is the intention. This is your typical blend. Now imagine a scene with only two or three actors. Big personalities that play off one another and create a sense of drama. This is a Compass Box Blend. The whisky I created was something of a ménage a cinq, featuring some sherried highlanders and Speysides along with a soupcon of Islay – a mere 10%. But even at this proportion it’s still easily detectable on the nose and may provide more than the wisp of smoke I was looking for.
It’s currently marrying in the bottle at the moment as John told us to leave it a couple of weeks however hard that may be, so I’ve been exercising my self-control in the hope of getting a well-integrated whisky. But ingredients are only half the story, and there is another vital difference in how Compass Box goes about producing its blends. This difference is oak, and the way it’s used has an enormous effect on the finished blend. Would it surprise you to know that Spice Tree and Oak Cross are actually made of exactly the same whiskies, in identical proportions? Yep, before its second maturation it’s literally the same blend.
What makes the two taste so different are the casks they spend between 18 months and two years in prior to bottling. Oak Cross spends 60% of its time in first fill American oak, and 40% in new French oak. This means the vanilla and caramel notes from the American oak dominate, with the clove spice from the new French oak playing second fiddle. Spice Tree on the other hand is, as you may have guessed, going for the full spice hit, and resides in new French oak for 80% of its maturation. This imparts the signature spice, which is only slightly tempered by the American oak casks in which it spends the remaining 20% of its time.
The result is two entirely different whiskies which started from the same components. If you were in any doubt as to the transformative powers of oak, this is a great example of how vital it is to great whisky. I’ll let you know how my blend turns out in a future post, and if you fancy trying some Compass Box whisky, don’t forget now is the best time to do it as you’ll be automatically entered into our competition.