Sunday, 22 February 2015

Johnnie Does Compass Box

Compass Box Blending School

I couldn't have put it better myself

Those of you that subject yourself to my inane ramblings with any regularity will know that I'm a sucker for attending tastings. In particular, I try to attend as many Whisky Discovery events as possible. In my experience, they always offer something unusual or not widely available and Dave and Kat do a bloody good job of running them (I'm hard enough to converse with when sober; how they manage it when I've had a skinful is beyond me).

As a result of my acquaintance with them, I'm also on nodding terms with The Bedford Whisky Club and, consequently, find myself in an odd little room in West London surrounded by a series of glass bottles, cask samples and lab equipment. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Compass Box.

Chemistry was never this fun

For the benefit of those that have yet to come across it, Compass Box is a small producer of blended Scotch whisky. It was formed in 2000 by a former Marketing Director at Johnnie Walker, John Glaser, and has since routinely produced whiskies which, in my opinion, show what can be done with the right casks, the right people and the right attitude. Having tried the majority of the core range before today, I am expecting great things.

Ohhhhhhh mamie!

We are welcomed by Chris Maybin, the firm's Commercial Director, who immediately sets about making us a cocktail. Based on a similar concoction from the turn of the 20th century, it follows the same principles as a Moscow Mule, substituting vodka with their own Great King St. Artist's Blend. As a child of the infamous British 'alcopop era', and in spite of my usual disdain for anything not taken neat, I heartily approve. So far, so excellent.

A whisky geek's dream

After a brief talk on the history, methods and ethos behind Compass Box, including a taste of some one year old Caol Ila spirit out of a first-fill bourbon cask (surprisingly good!), we were invited to take our places for the first tasting.

The Tasting

Softy, Steely, Creamy, Spicy and Smoky

What follows is a tutored tasting of a sample of the Compass Box Great King Street blends and some of their core range. As we taste and nose each glass, Chris fills us in on the component parts and the types of cask used for each.

The GKS Artist's blend is a marriage of delicate Girvan grain with some Clynelish and Teaninich added for a malty, fruity streak and a dash of Dailuaine for added meatiness. It's a very creamy malt with bags of sweetness on nose and palate.

The GKS Glasgow blend is an altogether more robust affair. The grain in this one is Cameronbridge and is fruitier and more perfumed than the Girvan. It also contains Clynelish which throws some steel to the mix, although this is built upon with a high proportion of sherried goodness in the form of Benrinnes. A significant slug of Laphroaig completes the blend and bestows a smoky, maritime edge. It's a bit ballsier than its sister blend and ticks a lot of boxes.

Hedonism is a mixture of two grain whiskies; Cameronbridge makes up the lion's share and gives notes of toffee, fruit and caramel, while older Port Dundas gives your glass a rich coconut creme brulee aroma. The whole lot has been aged in first-fill American oak and this enhances the creaminess. 

The Spice Tree is a blend of three single malts, 80% of which have been matured in French oak with heavily-toasted heads. Clynelish is the feature malt here with Dailuaine and Teaninich being employed respectively to add meatiness and perfumed fruit. The star of the show for me is the French oak, adding a hefty whack of spice (Ahhh, now I get it!) to the whole thing. Champion.

The Peat Monster is a marriage of four (although the literature states three) peated malts from three regions of Scotland. Laphroaig and Caol Ila make up the Islay contingent, contributing over half of the whisky on show. Ardmore makes an appearance in a supporting role, bringing a sizeable amount of wood smoke to the party. Lastly, from the Isle of Mull, Ledaig (pronounced Ledaig, and not Ledaig) brings some oily, mineral peat. I can see why this is last in the tasting but it really throws a spotlight on the different styles of peated malt . Very good indeed.

The Intermission

I need to get down to Ikea

After such a hard session nosing and tasting, Chris calls half-time and rewards us with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. He casually mentions "Oh yeah, there's a cubbyhole over there with some open bottles of our back-catalogue. Feel free to grab yourself a glass, they're all fair game." I briefly consider marrying him before coming to my senses and getting stuck in to some weird and wonderful bottlings.

The very definition of a no-brainer

The next twenty minutes is a whirl of old releases, superb parmesan and some very fine salami. One particular bottling has me swooning and I ask Chris what the story is. "That's a release we did for Juveniles in France", he says. "It's a mix of three Clynelish casks (I'm reaching for my wallet already) which make up 90% of the mix and the other 10% is Glen Elgin. It was only released in France (I put my wallet back) but you may be able to find some online." I make a solemn vow to brush up on my French and settle back in my seat for part 2.

The Blending

Ready, Steady, Blend

Chris gravely informs us that fun-time is over. "Now, you have to do some work", he states. In front of us we have five ingredients from which to make our own blends. "I want you to nose and taste each of these carefully", he continues. We are told that, contrary to popular belief, tasting a blend as you go along is next to useless. Apparently, you can never know if a blend is going to be any good until you've given them a chance to marry for a couple of weeks. With that in mind, we set off contemplating the samples before us.

1994 Port Dundas Grain - Creamy and coconutty. Very reminiscent of the Hedonism.

2008 Clynelish Malt - Bold and feisty. This is going to be my feature malt, naturally.

Highland Blended Malt - Huge spice from the French oak. Might have to go easy on this one.

2005 Benrinnes - Wonderfully floral nose, bold and sherried on the palate. Interesting.

Laphroaig 2005 - Everything you'd expect from a young Laphroaig. This could easily dominate if I'm not careful.

I got at least 30ml on my trousers

I set about creating my blend around 40% Clynelish, with 30% Port Dundas to smooth things out. I want a little spice in there but not too much, so 10% sounds about right on the French oak blended malt. I'm not averse to some floral sherry, we'll stick 15% of that in there, courtesy of the Benrinnes, leaving 5% of the Laphroaig to add a bit of smoke into the mix. I christen my blend 'Uisge Baby!' and Chris clocks it at 56.4% abv. Let the marrying begin.

Winding Up

I've never been prouder

As a reward for all our hard work, Chris rewards us with a parting dram or two and thanks us all for coming. He casually mentions, should we want a souvenir, he has a few bottles out the front that he could sell us, including the aforementioned Juveniles. I absolve myself of my previous lingual vow and nearly tear his arm off. It would appear that most of my classmates are of the same opinion, given that I see a lot of green jester-adorned bottles being handed round the room. Happy, content and slightly merry, we bid Compass Box farewell. Anyone fancy a nightcap?

Needless to say, a huge thanks to Chris for playing host, especially on a Saturday (I hope your dinner turned out ok!). Also big thanks to Dave, Kat & Sam for organising and letting me tag along. Can't wait for your next event.

You can check out the Compass Box story, range and shop at

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