Sunday, 13 April 2014

Compass Box Spice Tree

Compass Box Spice Tree is a blend of Highland malt whiskies that have been creatively spiced up with a second maturation in oak casks fitted with new French oak heads with three different levels of toasting. The different levels of toasting allows the spice rich French oak to release different flavour compounds and absorb unwanted flavours through what is in effect carbon filtration, and this contributes to the energetic and intricate display of full-flavoured picante magic that is the Spice Tree. At £39 or $85 it is a good value malt blend that showcases high quality Highland malts with a creative spicy twist.   

Toasting Temperature of oak and flavours, source: World Cooperage
The predecessor to this delicious whisky, also called Spice Tree, was discontinued by Compass Box because the company was threatened with legal action by the Scotch Whisky Association (“SWA”). Instead of using new French oak barrel heads, the original Spice Tree had used oak stave inserts which were placed within used oak barrels and the SWA claimed that this practice was illegal. Compass Box chose to re-invent Spice Tree as a result, and this is why Compass Box now relies on the new French oak barrel heads, and not inner staves, to give the Spice Tree its unique spicy twist.  

Nose: Rich waves of vanilla emerge with candied citrus peel, dried fruit, spicy gingerbread, chocolate, rolled oats and mild scorched nuts, as herbaceous undertones merge beautifully with oily barley and mild bourbon notes. 

Taste: Rounded, rich and dark with lots of spice, zest, tang and oak, the whisky has an entry of rich dark chocolate, clove and almond biscuits, orange peel cake, scorched crushed nuts, toasted vanilla, gingerbread, burnt bitter toffee and dried herbs. At mid-palate the heat intensifies with the bite of sweet picked ginger that radiates in the palate, gently warming it with sparks of cinnamon, clove and overtones of a dark chocolate black forest layered with dark cherries and a softer vanilla.  

Finish: Deliciously oak driven but hardly oak dominated, the finish offers intensifying clove, cinnamon, dark chocolate and burnt vanillas with the lingering sugars of reduced caremalised cherries. 

Compass Box Great King Street Artists Blend

The Great King Street Artists Blend is a blended Scotch whisky, which means that it is comprised of both malt and grain whiskies. Produced by Compass Box Whisky Co, the whisky is a blend of different whiskies (46% is Lowland grain whisky, 45% Northern Highland single malt and 9% Speyside single malt) that have matured in different oak types (mostly American oak, with 66% from first fill American oak, 26% from whiskies finished with French Oak and 8% from first fill sherry buts). The use of these whiskies and oak types indicates that Compass Box aimed to produce a whisky of great complexity. They have succeeded.  

The whisky itself is elegant, smooth, complex and silky with an inviting nose – the kind of whisky you want to melt into a lounge with, remote control in hand. The American oak provides the foundation of this blend, with gentle vanillas and raisin notes mixed with chocolate. The use of French oak is a masterstroke, because it seems to give the whisky a toasty edge with hints of spice that are softened by the dried fruit and winy nip from the sherry butts. The malt content of the whisky also seems high, and the clean fruity malts meld together beautifully with the more aromatic heavier malts to create a whisky that is light yet substantial.  At £25, or $50, this whisky is an absolute bargain – a must try.

Nose: Waves of vanilla with cherry cough drops and dried fruit (dates and raisin) combine with chocolate, herbaceous mint sauce notes, honeyed ham and flashes of peppery spice.

Taste: Smooth, light and extremely palatable, the milder grain whisky takes the lead on the entry with vanilla, caramel and toffee but it is followed closely by the grassy malts and the heavier fruity malts. At mid-palate the wood becomes more dominant, adding spice and richer chocolate notes with hints of tannic herb.

Finish: Toasty, with slowing dying spice, cocoa and coffee notes supported by dried fruit counterbalanced by the more bitter wood tannins.   

Compass Box The Peat Monster

No whisky company can ever feel truly complete without the addition of a peaty whisky to its happy little family, and the peaty member of the Compass Box family is Peat Monster. The whisky is a blend of malts from Speyside and two Scottish islands that are known for peaty perfection, Islay and Mull. 

Peat Monster combines the classic peaty, medicinal, fiery and tarry notes common to whiskies from Islay and Mull with rich medium-peated Speyside malts, and marries them together in refill American oak casks. The American oak imparts vanillas and some sugars but they taste subdued, dominated by the peat rich distillate as it holds back the sugars with its heavy, almost earthy, character. This is definitely a monster of a whisky, but a friendly one at that! At £38 or $79 it is a good value malt blend that marries the flavours from Islay, Mull and Speyside and puts them into one bottle. It is however challenging and seems to be designed for the serious peat lover in mind precisely because it showcases the layers of complexity that can be achieved by blending peaty malts from different distilleries.  

Nose: Peat, coastal notes, tarry rope, nylon, cayenne pepper, sweet paprika and toasty vanilla fill the glass with salted caramel, mild ground coffee, cocoa and shimmers of cherry flavoured cough drops that carry medicinal notes of betadine and menthol. There are also a few surprises, as the bouquet offers occasional gusts of filo pastry, honey and nuts, raisin, white chocolate and strawberry-vanilla macaroon. No single distillery comes to mind when nosing this whisky, because it does comprise of whiskies from Mull, Islay and Speyside. Part of this whisky does however glisten with sherry matured Ardmore, as gusts of sweetness shine through the fog of peat – intriguing.     

Taste: Fiery on the entry, the peat takes the lead with dashes of salinity and a big smoky meaty core – think thick rashers of oily bacon served sizzling hot, but not crisp, with some HP sauce slathered on the side with very mild hints of hot English mustard and the (good?) old days of the morning cigarette. Red peppers emerge within that meaty and peaty haze, and as it settles grassy floral notes emerge with dried petals and green foliage (not particularly perfumed but aromatic, flowering strawberry fields on a hot sunny day come to mind). 

Finish: The grassy floral notes gradually dry, as the peat lingers with charcoal embers and an underlying metallic note akin to biting a coin (as you do...).  

Friday, 11 April 2014

Compass Box Hedonism

Compass Box Whisky Co are purveyors of blended Scotch whisky. Each product in their core range aims to give consumers a glimpse into one particular style within the spectrum of flavours offered by Scotch whisky – light, delicate, smoky and full flavoured. Compass Box buys different styles of whisky from different distilleries and blends them to create a desired flavour profile in each of their core products, which include Oak Cross, Asyla, Spice Tree, Great King Street Artists Blend, Peat Monster and Hedonism.

Compass Box Hedonism is a blended grain whisky that showcases creativity and a fresh approach to Scotch whisky, at least in living memory. A century ago blended grain whiskies were more common. These days the shelves of liquor stores are dominated by either malt whisky, which is made from malted barley, or blended whisky, which is made from blending malt whisky with grain whisky. For a very long time the vast majority of grain whisky has disappeared into the bottles of blended whiskies. This all started in 1831 when Aeneas Coffey invented a still that allowed for the continuous process of distillation and this led to the production of grain whisky, which, being lighter in style to malt whisky, tempered some of the fire of malt whisky and therefore malt/grain blends appealed to a wider market.  Grain whisky is usually designed to be as neutral as possible so that it can balance the fiery kick of malt whisky and it is this grain whisky that gives grain whisky its reputation as boring, uninteresting and unspectacular. Some blends also contain grain whisky that smells very young and this contributes to the bad name of grain whisky. Times have changed, and while blended whiskies continue to dominate the market, single malts have become more popular. Rising with the tide is grain whisky, and heeding to this demand is Compass Box with the release of Hedonism – a whisky that is designed to be a grain whisky and not blended with malt whisky, which means this blended grain is comprised of lovely aged whiskies that, when blended, are rich, complex, full flavoured and, frankly, delicious.  

The whiskies used in Hedonism have matured in 100% first-fill American oak barrels or rejuvenated American oak Hogsheads, and are typically sourced from the distilleries Cameron Bridge, Carsebridge, Cambus, Port Dundas or Dumbarton. Hedonism is the kind of whisky you want to selfishly drink alone – smooth, rich and complex with lots of depth to explore. The spicy fire from the wood and firmer grain (rye comes to mind) seems to be softened by the caramel, toffee and sweet vanillas from the softer grains as the anise seed snap of unfiltered full-flavoured vodka common to more neutral grain distillate melds with an array of sweetened tea leaves, wood tannins and bourbon themed notes of wood vanilla, dried fruit, raisin and chocolate that commonly occur when grain whisky, such as corn, wheat or rye, is matured in American oak. This is a hugely enjoyable whisky that is crafted with lots of creativity and clearly intended for the spirit lover. It is bottled at 43% ABV and non-chill filtered with natural colour, and at £54 or $110 it is an affordable glimpse into a rare blend of older grain whiskies.

Nose: Toasted coconut macaroon with creamy vanilla and the whiff of a classic cream layered birthday cake melds with caramel and light strands of toffee layered over mashmallows. Heavier wood notes bring chocolate as notes of red pepper seeds combine with the most interesting marriage of bourbon, the dry sugary gusts from English style pot still rum and the anise seed kick of a sublime unfiltered vodka. The bourbon notes are entirely understandable, because bourbon is essentially a grain whisky made from at least 51% corn and then matured in newly made American oak.

Taste: The entry is smooth, sweet, creamy and bourbon themed with raisin and dried fruit as the grain itself brings spice and soothing caramels and toffee interlaced with green tea sweetened with barley sugar, polenta, anise seed and some fine hints of high quality full-flavoured and unfiltered vodka (the way it should be, with only the best “cuts” from the distilling run rather than filtered through mountains of charcoal). Then the oak kicks in, and a flurry of spices ignite on the palate with chocolate, vanilla, honeyed oats and the twist of wood tannins.

Finish: The lingering taste of sweet ethanol lingers with bitter green tea ice cream, that grain filled full flavoured Eastern European vodka, earl grey, bitter chocolate and toasty American oak.  

Monday, 7 April 2014

Glengoyne 25 Year Old

The Glengoyne is a distillery located in the Highlands region of Scotland. It is perhaps most famous for its use of slow distillation (which means that sulfides in the alcohol can be more optimally absorbed by copper) and for air drying the barley instead of using peat (which gives its whisky a clean taste with notes of toffee and apple without a single puff of peat smoke). Its core range consists of a growing number of expressions, including the cask strength, 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 year olds (reviewed here), and, the new 25 year old released in April 2014.

The Glengoyne 25 year old is matured for a quarter century in first fill ex-sherry casks, which is an increasingly rare and expensive practice because people do not drink as much sherry as they used to and as a result sherry casks are getting rarer while demand for them from distilleries increases. We are advised that sherry casks cost about 10 times more, on average, than bourbon barrels and that the vast majority of Scotch (95%) is now matured in ex-bourbon barrels because these barrels are much cheaper for distilleries to buy than sherry casks. Sherry matured whisky is therefore increasingly rare, and, as a result, the Glengoyne 25 year old is a rare pleasure. If only 5% of Scotch whisky is matured in sherry casks, then the Glengoyne 25 year old in my view sits near the very top of a very exclusive club! 

On each nosing and tasting of the Glengoyne 25 Year Old the resonating sound of BB King’s Lucille guitar echoes in my mind – smooth, powerful, charismatic, unique, timeless. That Is precisely what captures the essence of this whisky, as its rich overtones of sherry wood meld beautifully with the clean Glengoyne style – smooth, powerful, charismatic, unique and timeless. The wood notes in this whisky are a testament to the fine work being done at the distillery in terms of cask selection and reinforces in my mind at least the traditional edge of Scotch in the world of whisky – you can’t hurry love, because studies suggest that the compounds in oak need to break down to release optimal flavours and that takes time, sweet time. This is not a woody whisky. It is a mature Scotch. At £250 it is certainly on the higher end of the spectrum but it is important to remember that it has sat for a quarter century in increasingly rare sherry casks. In the words of BB King himself:
“You only live but once, and when your died your done, so let the good times roll.”
This whisky may have scored 97 points in a blind tasting which included some of its peers of a similar age, but when savouring this fine dram with the soothing sound of some classic Blues the good times roll to a solid 98 - a delight! 

Nose: Big medium-dry sherry notes accompany vanilla, cocoa, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, burnt orange, orange zest marmalade, dried dark fruit (dried fig, raisin) and grilled stone fruit with hints of balsamic and green peppers. As the whisky rests its aromas develop with notes of salty goats cheese, scorched almonds, banana bread, honey and occasional flashes of a refreshing gust of crushed peppermint fisherman’s friends. With more time, even more aromas develop with chocolate brownie, caramel, toffee, toothpaste (in a good way), star anise, Brazil nuts and the dry sugary gust of English style pot still rum. The bouquet on this whisky can keep me entertained for an hour, and over that time hints of different aromas sparkle. Amazing.

Taste: So graceful and smooth, the whisky expresses rich dark chocolate, sherry and dried fruit as calming waves of vanilla carry sparks of spice, crushed nuts and zesty sugary marmalade. This is an impeccably balanced full flavoured fruit cake on the palate with the gradual development of a spicy sweet heat that is the unmistakable magic of European oak sherry wood.  

Finish: Cinnamon, pepper and other spices emerge with more dominance than on the palate, glistening in the fog of sherry wood, dried dark fruit and glazed cherries, candied orange peel and shaved citrus rind with the most curious lingering taste of a medium-dark ale. This is absolutely brilliant that the flavours of the barley still shine, despite 25 years maturation in first fill sherry casks. The finish is long and progressively drying.  

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Johnnie Walker Double Black

When most people think of whisky, the striding man emblazoned on Johnnie Walker bottles comes to mind.  The vast majority of people enjoy blended whisky in a mixed drink and, for this reason, Johnnie Walker will most likely be available in almost every bar, pub, restaurant, liquor store and grandparents dusty liquor cabinet. Taking heed of changes in the market, however, Johnnie Walker has seemingly sought to modernize its products with new bottle designs and some changes to its core line up which now include: Red Label, Black Label, Double Black, Gold Label Reserve (replacing Green Label), Platinum Label (replacing Gold Label), and, Blue Label. Each product in the Johnnie Walker core range offers something different, but perhaps one of the most interesting is the relatively new Double Black.

The Johnnie Walker Double Black is described as a “rich, intense, smoky blend containing whisky matured in deep charred old oak casks”. It is intended to be smokier and more intense than the Johnnie Walker Black Label and as a result Johnnie Walker appear to have created the Double Black for people who want more smoke, peat, ash and richness than the Black Label. The whisky itself is a masterful piece of blending, because in my opinion it has all the hallmarks of a deliciously smooth blend that should appease the mass market but at the same time bursts on the palate with rich malty flavours that single malt aficionados often admire in malts from the mainland and Islay – the luscious caramel, toffee, vanillas and chewy honeyed malt with hints of apple melds with ashy cigar smoke, spicy BBQ, mild medicinal notes, grassy peat and the mild spray of sea salt with a creamy, almost buttery, edge. At mid-palate the peat and the wood begin to intensity and eventually fade into a smoky, drying, finish with lingering sweet malt and toffee.

Given the arsenal of single malts at the disposal of Diageo (the owners of Johnnie Walker), it is clear that the Double Black is very carefully crafted with malts from Islay at its core. The use of the heavily charred oak casks may also be masterstroke, because studies suggest that heavily charred oak tends to give a whisky more smoothing sweet vanillas. That is precisely what, in my opinion, makes the Double Black so delicious – the wood, spice, peat and sweet smoothing creaminess. The Double Black certainly boasts a rich flavour profile with smokier and more intense flavours than the Black Label, so in this regard Johnnie Walker have succeeded. At $50, it is great value and a fine example of a peaty whisky that has actually gained a creative edge thanks to the expertise of a blender. 

Looks like the Double Black will now sit comfortably in my whisky cabinet, waiting to be savoured on a frosty night when super smooth easy drinking peat is desired. 

Black Grouse

The Famous Grouse can trace its roots back to 1896, when it was first produced by the merchants Matthew Gloag & Sons. Now owned by the Edrington Group (who also own The Macallan and Highland Park), The Famous Grouse produces blended whisky. Its core blend (The Famous Grouse) proudly features the Red Grouse, the national game bird of Scotland, on all its bottles and has been the highest selling whisky in Scotland since the 1980’s. The company has also produced 100% malt whisky blends with age statements, such as the Famous Grouse 12 Year old and Famous Grouse 30 Year Old, but these offerings now appear to be discontinued as the company moves to a no age statement format which sees it now have four core products: Famous Grouse, Snow Grouse, Naked Grouse and Black Grouse.

The Black Grouse is a blend that includes The Famous Grouse blended whisky married together with peated malt whiskies from the Isle of Islay in Scotland, which is the traditional heartland of peat and home to nine distilleries. Curiously, none of them are owned by The Edrington Group which prompts some thought as to the origin of some of the Islay malts that have made it into this blend. The whisky itself is so much more than the honeyed fruit and vibrant caramel rich malt of the Famous Grouse with a dash of peat. Peated malts from Islay appear to be added to The Famous Grouse, and this means wonders for the nose and palate – the added peated malts bring a greater malt content, more oak influence including more textured vanilla and energetic spice, and, some oily undercurrents of barley that carry the plumes of peat smoke. All this is smoothed and skillfully tamed with the grain whisky from The Famous Grouse, and this all translates into The Black Grouse – a highly enjoyable smoky blend with a noticeable malt content that puts it a level above The Famous Grouse but which has enough grain whisky to make it smooth enough to be enjoyed by most people who salivate at the whiff of some peat. At £20, or around $40, Black Grouse is an exceptional blend that in my opinion can comfortably sit alongside Johnnie Walker Black Label as one of the best value smoky blended whiskies on the market.

Nose: A light and aromatic smoky nose melds peat with honeyed fruit (peach, nectarine, apricot) and a bright malt interlaced with notes of caramel and vanilla custard. The peat is soft, sweet and a delight to smell amidst the malt and grain. Hints of salted butter develop with fresh peppery tropical fruit (papaya, for example) after the whisky is allowed to rest in the glass, and this appears to introduce the nose to the wonders of Islay.

Taste: Peat, malt and toffee take the lead on the entry, but the oak soon follows with notes of vanilla, wood and hints of cocoa and peppery spice. At mid-palate mild salty notes and lashes of betadine commonly associated with whisky from Islay are softened by more dominant overtones of the sweet honeyed grain and bright summery fruity malt of The Famous Grouse. The Islay malts certainly appear to play an important role in this blend, adding malt content and mild undertones of salt and betadine, but the stars of the show are the peat itself, the spices from the oak and the softening touch of The Famous Grouse.

Finish: The spices continue to tingle on the tongue, peppery and yet fruity all at once, as waves of caramel and vanilla smooth those sparks of spice and leave the taste of salted butter lingering.