Compass Box has just unveiled the third expression in its Extinct Blends Quartet. It’s called Metropolis, it’s now available from us, and we can tell you all about it because we tasted it in the company of whisky maker James Saxon at the launch event.
The evolution of blended whisky
The Extinct Blends Quartet series is inspired by blends of the past and the intention is to create whisky that can serve as something of a time capsule. Our setting for the event, Sir John Soane’s Museum, was apt then. Slip past the usual sights of Greggs and Pret A Manger in London and you find his glorious former home tucked away in an unassuming corner of Lincoln Inn Fields. Step inside, however, and what opens up before you is itself a time capsule of the Georgian man’s enviable taste and ingenuity, which stretches across art, architecture and history.
The space is perfectly preserved by its dedicated staff, retaining its enchanting original aesthetic and revealing the spoils of Soane’s considerable collection, from the 3,000-year-old sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I to hidden Hogarth and Turner paintings. It’s one of my favourite places I’ve ever enjoyed whisky and the way it reflects the era it was established and moulded by its creator was a parallel Saxon drew on. He explains that blends themselves are a reflection of the tastes and trends of the era in which they’re made as well as of the people who made them.
Whisky is always evolving and that naturally means certain processes and perspectives get left behind. As fashions change, formulae follow suit, so blended whiskies from the 1970s are very different to what we drink today, even if the brand is the same. When we taste old bottles, we’re being introduced to the production methods and personalities of the time.
From his own experience, Saxon explains how old school sherry was funkier (or paxarette was. Can I say that?) or how smokiness used to be more gentle, like an autumn bonfire, compared to the drier and more aggressive smoke of today. Although he also concedes spending decades in a bottle might have a softening effect. It’s interesting to consider, though, that if the shortage of Islay malt worsens, perhaps the gentler smoke of distilleries like Ledaig or Ardnamurchan will be the ones in demand. Always evolving…
Stepping into Metropolis
But reviving the flavours of the past is no easy task for a whisky maker like Saxon. While extinct distillers can be revived, blends of the past cannot be recreated at scale. Its complexity is its downfall. You change just one element and the whole blend is different. That could be that some of the whisky is from a closed distillery, or a distillery’s production process has been altered. There’s no perfect Jurassic Park-style, dino DNA approach. Saxon has to analyse old samples and then work to create a new blend that best reflects the bottle that inspired him.
For Metropolis, we can’t actually reveal which blend, originally created in the late 19th century by a wine merchant, inspired him. We’ll just have to look for clues in the new whisky’s label. Maybe while we sip on a Rob Roy. Made with Glenmorangie whisky.
Anyway, while the flavour was inspired by the profile of that recently discontinued blend, the name and theme are a homage to the bustling cities of the past where blended Scotch whisky was born. “For us, Metropolis represents all the people, places, and moments that blend together making city life so vibrant,” says Saxon. “We really wanted to capture the soul of blended Scotch that continues to reside in the city today.”
This is Compass Box, so we get an exact breakdown of the blend. It’s 25.8% blended malt Scotch whisky aged in a refill sherry butt, 25.1% Aberlour single malt aged in a re-charred American oak barrel, 20.5% blended grain parcel aged in refill bourbon barrels, 16.6% Miltonduff single malt aged in first-fill bourbon barrels, 7.1% Bowmore single malt aged in a refill bourbon barrel, and 4.9% blended Scotch parcel aged primarily in first-fill bourbon barrel. You gotta love that transparency.
All that remains is to taste Metropolis and see if this blend lives up to its considerable billing. Which it does, I think. The nose is full of stone fruit, cream vanilla, floral honey, and sultanas, while the palate has the fudgy goodness of a great grain whisky plus tropical fruit, woody smoke, and delicate spice. I couldn’t tell you how it compares to the whisky it was inspired by, I never got to try it. I can say, however, that Metropolis is a further demonstration of the complexity, quality, and personality that is inherent in top blends, a fact that Compass Box is relentlessly good at demonstrating. Time after time.