After Nic from Speciality Drink’s little mini-class about the American craft distillers I had a bit of time out and then a couple of quick drams at the Jameson stand. The intention was to get to try the new Yellow Spot Single Pot Still but the 26 year old vintage (retailing around £250), and a Redbreast 15 year old kind of got in the way somehow. By the time it came to have a go on the Yellow Spot they were calling for the next mini-class from Compass Box head honcho John Glaser. And this was one I didn’t want to miss.
Compass Box are probably one of the best known, artisan whisky makers. They don’t actual distil any product. They create whisky by buying excellent casks and blending them together to get the flavour profile they’re after. John Glaser started out in the wine business before moving into the arena of whisky. At home, in his kitchen, he would create his own unique blends from different bottles of single malts that he would then pass on as gifts to friends. It’s essentially what he does now, but just a lot bigger in terms of scale.
John’s class was based around the concept of blended whisky throughout history. He identified the three golden ages of Scotch, the first around the 1900s. the second post World War Two and the third right about now. In today’s blends around 30% of the components are malt whisky, however, in the 1900s that figure would have been reversed. John gave an example of a blend recipe straight from the 1890s to prove it: 5 Glenlivet (Speyside), 3 Islay, 3 Lowlands, 1 Campbeltown and 4 Grain. So not only would malt dominate the whisky, with the grain acting as a kind of binding agent to harmonise and smooth out the malts, but also with the ratio of Islay being as high, the final product would have been smokier and a lot more full bodied than the blends that we are used to today. To reinforce the point the first sample was of a modern, very popular blend. Although it was easy to drink, it lacked any real character, relying on caramel sweetness and a heavy cereal character to steer it’s way through the palate. Unoffensive but unimaginative too.
Luckily the next three were all Compass Box offerings. The Great King Street Artists Blend was next up and showed huge tropical fruits on the nose, a fair bit of tinned pineapple and with a great depth that revealed coconut elements too. This may have been the fourth time we’ve drank this and it just seems to get better every time.
The next dram up, the Great King Street New York Blend, which is a riff on the standard issue, certainly upped the ante. Limited to just 250 cases it’s the same idea but modelling for the American market, meaning the recipe has been tweaked. I guess being brought up on Bourbon and Rye means a palate accustomed to spicier, heavier elements as this version had them ramped up a lot more so than the Artist Blend. On the nose it was all paprika crisps (Lays!), with edges of marine style sea-salt, a touch of ozone (waves) and chlorine (swimming pools, medicinal). The palate was lighter than expected, but still big and full. Smooth, with the paprika and spice from the nose continuing onto the palate combining it with a slight herbaciousness. The balance and interplay of all the elements was faultless. John claims that this blend uses a 1850 recipe with only 20% of the component being grain and 25% peated malt, the rest made up from Speyside distilleries and a fair influence of good quality sherry oak casks. From the response of the attendees this was clearly the best received.
Finally, the blend tailored especially for Selfridges called the Entertainer. We got to try this at the WhiskyLounge festival in Manchester a few weeks previous and were impressed. A kind of middle ground between the New York and Artist blend, a spicier, heavier affair than Artist Blend with 25% being malt and 23% of the component being heavily peated malt. Although you shouldn’t judge a whisky by it’s cover, the artwork for this is nothing short of stunning, and with only 1000 bottles available it’s worth snapping up pronto.
Overall the mini-class was quite simply amazing. John Glaser is a natural showman, witty, passionate and informed. His talk was factually based but also incredibly entertaining and showed the belief, honesty and providence of the Compass Box products in full.
Final post: Kilchoman