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Thursday, 29 July 2010

An All-Points-Bulletin of Brilliance- A Day With Compass Box

The word Artisan is often applied to many gifted craftsmen and women across a variety of creative arts. From woodwork to pottery, the term conjurers up an image of a master at work, developing and honing the object of their attentions into something truly extraordinary.

Well a little while back, we got to hang out for the day with a true 'Artisan' of the whisky world. Mr John Glaser, the creative force behind Compass Box has been honing the art of great whisky making for the past decade - and this year sees the company trying out even more exciting, revolutionary ideas and recipes, wonderfully balanced with an unlikely sense of English eccentricity.
We say 'unlikely', as John (as many of you are already aware) is an American living in London, but take a visit to Compass Box's (fairly) recent HQ in the heart of London's leafy Chiswick and you'll be greeted by an office which fits somewhere between the zen tranquility of an LA beach house and one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations.

Everything about Compass Box HQ screams (sorry, persuasively whispers) creativity; from the calming Jazz playing in the background, to the mantra-like inscription on one of the walls -
'Above All, Share & Enjoy' - an air of simplicity, which is perhaps lost on the large number of more corporate players.

John essentially started Compass Box from his apartment kitchen table (above a hairdressers) with a desire to create "something outside of single malts", focusing on one distinct mission statement; To become a boutique blending company using better casks, achieving a house style, whilst applying an artisan's approach.
And it seems to be working. From, as John puts it "traveling around with a ruck sack full of whisky" Compass Box has achieved considerable successes in not only the UK, but with exports to over 25 countries worldwide. Not bad for a team of just three people eh...

So what was the 'Eureka Moment' when it all clicked into place?

John explains that "It was the discovery of using first fill bourbon casks, which led to a richer, softer whisky- I wanted to take quality aged whiskies and then develop them even further in quality oak. Compass Box isn't particularly about single malts" he continues, " it's about us starting with one lead whisky and then complimenting it with perhaps two or three more."

So do you see this as a blending skill?

"Actually, I think it's probably the antithesis of blending" he laughs. "Blends are more like a symphony orchestra, with no particular lead flavour, whereas we're probably more like a Jazz quartet- certain things tend to stand out, with their own character."

John cites Clynelish as one of the important tools in the company's arsenal of flavour, the distillery which sits at the heart of his sensational Oak Cross bottling, along with Teaninich and Dalliuane. His creative touch is perhaps most apparent with this marriage of whiskies, which uses oak casks developed by a small mill in France, that produces some of the highest quality cooperage oak in the world. John continues that "It was our work with this mill that led us to experimenting with secondary maturation of malt whiskies in casks fitted with new French oak heads. This is something no one else in Scotland does."

This innovative technique gives the whiskies much greater character and complexity, before they are married for up to a year in further oak.

Here's our notes on this excellent bottling:

Compass Box - Oak Cross- 43%

Nose: Superb sweet, fruity aromas, reminiscent of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Soft cereal notes, buttery vanilla, a hint of waxiness and toasted grain. Superbly balanced between the three main component distilleries (Clynelish, Dailuaine & Teaninich)

Palate: Very rich and mouth filling- barley sugar, a hint of grapefruit, crystalised ginger and Demerara sugar. In essence, rich, buttery and sweet. Absolutely sensational.

Finish: Lingering notes of sweetness, watermelon juice and really clean barley.

Overall: A brilliantly put together whisky, which serves as a refreshing aperitif, especially in the barmy British summertime. We'd recommend this as the starting point into the many great Compass Box whiskies.

John gave us a quick demonstration into the (quite frankly disturbing) effects of adding caramel colouring into whisky (Compass Box of course use none of the dreaded stuff in their whiskies) and it surprised us just how small an amount was needed to effectively take something like a lightweight 4th fill whisky up to a rich and deeply coloured 'Faux Fill'. The results aren't just noticeable on the eye either, take it from us!

We also got to try two of the other standouts from the Compass Box collection, Peat Monster (the company's best seller) and Spice Tree which again demonstrates just how forward thinking John and his team are.

Spice Tree is perhaps the company's most controversial bottling, because of its innovative production techniques. In 2006, they were almost forced to stop making it- absurdly, the SWA decided that secondary maturation of the whisky using casks with 'inserted inner French Oak staves' was not appropriate, on the grounds that it had never been done before, despite being a technique used by winemakers for the last 30 years. But effectively being dubbed an 'Illegal Whisky' can have its advantages and the bottling quickly became the stuff of legend, selling incredibly well and creating a huge demand for more.
And thankfully, more has been created, this time developing a new (and apparently legitimate) technique of using casks with differently toasted french oak cask heads, to obtain the rich spicy profile of the original Spice Tree. The label is also suitably avant garde- apparently the creative brief was to produce something resembling the LSD infused thoughts of Bjork... already a big thumbs up from us...!

Compass Box - Spice Tree - 46%

Nose: Wave upon wave of sweet Demerara sugar, fruity and dry vintage Cognac notes, heather honey and sliced green apple, maybe even a hint of fresh melon thrown in for good measure.

Palate: A lovely coating mouthfeel, with an initial spiciness, cinnamon, nutmeg and fruity, juicy green apples coming to the fore. With a little water, the palate starts to explode with a dizzying array of sweetness- some raspberry jam, a dusting of icing sugar and a lovely rich oaky base. Another triumph in the balancing stakes.

Finish: The fruit lingers on, with absolutely no dryness creeping in, giving a very satisfying fresh but complex, spicy aftertaste.

Overall: Spice Tree achieves all the objectives of well matured whisky, ie depth, lightness, sweetness and richness but delivers it in such an unusual and exciting way, your mouth eagerly looks forward to the next sip long before you've finished the first. It just has a real air of innovation about it, or to put it into Monty Python terms... And Now For Something Completely Different! It's certainly two fingers up to the pen-pushing bureaucrats and long may that continue.

As we leave John, Chris and Gregg to more experimentation, it is patently obvious that the whisky industry needs more mavericks like Compass Box. In a world where lighter spirits are grabbing the headlines with their youthful attraction, whisky almost needs to work twice as hard to compete for the same attention in the contemporary market place. It is worrying that the policy makers have a tendency to frown on innovations such as Spice Tree, but as Compass Box have proven, when you create something which is unique, perception challenging and... just downright drinkable, the results speak for themselves.
If you'd like to get more information on Compass Box and their range of great whiskies, check out