There is almost no overlap on the Venn diagram of “people who think all blends are terrible” and “people who have heard of Compass Box”. This tells us a couple of things about the whisky industry. Firstly, there are still many whisky drinkers who believe that single malt is the highest form of art and have not yet encountered any blends beyond the equivalents of Famous Grouse. Secondly, that since its founding in 2000, Compass Box has been really making waves.
John Glaser, the company’s founder, doesn’t style himself as a blender. Instead, his team is made up of “whiskymakers”, a term that seems accurate as mixing spirits is only a part of what they do. Compass Box sources and creates its casks for use in the maturation process for some of its drams, with early iterations containing additional staves having famously attracted the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association in 2005.
The cask controversy surrounding the early versions of Compass Box’s Spice Tree is not the only time John Glaser has attracted the SWA’s attention. More recently, Compass Box came under fire for being too transparent in their labelling, allegedly in breach of EU law, an incident covered in Dave’s article from earlier this week.
However, I will not use this article to delve deeply into the innovation and controversy that are so much a part of what John and his team do. I suspect, given the two categories of whisky drinkers I have already mentioned, most readers will either be fully aware of the history of Compass Box or instead still incredulous about blended whisky being any good at all. The former group will be addressed in time: future articles will cover some of Compass Box’s Limited Edition whiskies and examine particular innovations in detail. Instead, as an introduction to Compass Box, this article must now address the concerns of the latter group. To do this, we will have to assess some Compass Box whiskies.
The blends that we will look at have been taken from Compass Box’s “Malt Whisky Collection”, which is their core range of drams produced year-round. These are all quite affordable, sitting between £45 and £55: not quite entry-level money, but not far off. All are non-chill-filtered and without colouring. In keeping with Compass Box’s core value of transparency, there is a huge amount of information available on the composition of these whiskies. Indeed, their website allows visitors to download fact sheets and recipe cards for each of their whiskies, and these are no exception.
The Peat Monster
£46.75 (Compass Box Online Shop)
Nose: Charcoal and peat smoke, glacé cherries, iodine, pepper, and golden syrup.
Palate: Peat leads the way again. Other flavours do slowly emerge, however. There’s mango, honey, crispy bacon, and chilli jam, as well as a central thread of peat smoke.
Finish: Smoke, charred oak and maple glazed bacon.
The Spice Tree
£48.95 (Compass Box Online Shop)
Nose: Rose petals, perfume, and spices. White pepper is joined by cloves and nutmeg. There’s a sweet side to it too: vanilla and a hint of banana.
Palate: It starts with quite herbal flavours in a way reminiscent of Génépi liqueur. However, the name is apt: there’s a growing spice warmth, as ginger, allspice, cloves, pepper, and finally chilli join the party. The texture is pleasant and creamy.
Finish: Lots of warmth from chilli pepper and paprika, with an underlying honeyed sweetness.
The Story Of The Spaniard
£51 (Compass Box Online Shop)
Nose: Sweet and fruity, with lots of citruses. There’s marmalade, fig jam, vanilla and cinnamon, undercut by Hershey chocolate, malt and treacle.
Palate: Peach crumble and custard, joined by apricots, raisins, oatmeal, and orange zest.
Finish: Once the sweetness has faded, there’s a lingering oak, almond, and bitter dark chocolate.
The Peat Monster, Spaniard, and especially Spice Tree demonstrate the quality that can be achieved in a blended malt whisky. All offer really interesting flavours and aromas without breaking the bank. The decision by Compass Box not to chill filter any releases results in great texture and mouthfeel across the board.
If I’m being critical, I find that the Peat Monster, while a very nice whisky, doesn’t offer me quite the same experience as the Spice Tree or Spaniard. Because of the dominance of the peat and smoke flavours (the clue being in the whisky’s name), I’m not able to appreciate the nuances brought out by the Compass Box team as much as I would like to. Adding a little subtlety to big flavours of peat and smoke doesn’t do quite enough for me to choose the Peat Monster over established Islays like Ardbeg or Lagavulin.
The Spice Tree and Story Of The Spaniard, however, present an entirely different picture. Neither of these whiskies would be easily mistaken. The way that the Spice Tree transitions from herbal flavours to a building spice is excellent. This is a true flavour journey in a single sip. I enjoyed the Spaniard’s sweet flavour and creamy texture interface, although the slight butyric note I’ve captured as Hershey chocolate was a drawback, preventing me from scoring it much higher.
That said, these Malt Whisky Collections drams aren’t where Compass Box really shows off. When there is no requirement for consistency or an accessible price, John Glaser and his team show off just what blending can achieve. And that’s not to mention the company’s grain whiskies. However, an examination of these categories must await future Water of Life articles.
In summary, Compass Box’s Malt Whisky Collection range is made up of enjoyable, drinkable whiskies, which are definitely worth looking out for. While they don’t quite have the same “wow” factor as the company’s Limited Edition releases, the Collection range shows that good blends can more than stand scrutiny against equivalent single malts. John Glaser and his whiskymakers really know what they are doing.