I didn't think going back to school was something I'd find myself doing in my middle age. However, my memories of back yonder didn't seem to bear much resemblance to what greeted me on arrival at the charmingly laid back studios where the clever people at Compass Box reside. John Glaser and Céline Têtu were our hosts for the day. My friends were already enjoying a cocktail when I arrived late morning so this seemed to be a good place to start.
I had visited the studios back in 2006 but they have recently been refurbished to gently separate the hard work from, well, the hard work, but slightly more enjoyable side of what goes on at the office. A large table spread with tasting mats and glasses, unlabelled bottles of spirit of varying colours, rustic bread sticks, spittoons, pipettes and a measuring kit awaited us. The motley crew assembled. We consisted of a retired excise man, some SMWS members and general enthusiasts, and big Steve, the man with the camera.
John started with a brief synopsis of what inspired him to develop what we know as Compass Box. Having worked on Johnnie Walker in New York, John decided to move to London. A self confessed 'product geek' he was privileged to work with Master Blenders Maureen Robinson and Dr Jim Beveridge. John struck me as one who likes to ask a lot of questions, rather like when children get to that age when they keep asking 'but why?' His love and interest in wine showed him that there were many successful independent wine producers. Why couldn't the same be done to create a boutique blending house making really great blended whisky? The 'why' was met with lukewarm 'nice idea'. So John asked another question, this time of Turnbull Hutton. Would Diageo supply him with casks? Indeed they would. Clearly this asking questions produced results.
This arrangement continues today with around 90 per cent of the supply of casks from Diageo's warehouses. This is the only company they sell mature spirit to. Last year, Compass Box purchased over 1,000 casks from Buffalo Trace and these are being filled with spirit from Cameronbridge, Clynelish, Linkwood, Benrinnes and Caol Ila and warehoused at Cambus.
Great King Street is the latest creation, and a fantastic example of blended whiskies for single malt drinkers. When you look at the component parts it's obvious to see why The Artist's Blend is so good. 46 per cent of eleven Years Old Girvan with Clynelish as the star, some of it having been matured in new French oak. Add a sprinkling of Dailuaine and Teaninich matured in sherry butts and the result is sweet, toasty, waxy and delicious. The percentage of malt, combined with very good casks, bottled at 43 per cent, makes this a contender.
The true stories are the best. In 2003 Park Avenue asked John to make them their own vatted malt and they would take the lot. In the peaty arms race this was to lead the charge. When they tasted it they declared 'this one's a monster!' And so it was and 'The Peat Monster' was born. It was originally made up with Caol Ila and Ardmore but now is constructed with Laphroaig, Ardmore and Ledaig, with a touch of Caol Ila making an appearance. This alone demonstrates the skill of blending with interchangeable parts.
John's brain reminds me of Pandora's Box. We relived the story of The Spice Tree that rattled the cage of the Scotch Whisky Association with the use of the inner stave. Now they are using fine, tight grained French oak, air seasoned for two years and heavily toasted to create custom casks. The intensity of this spirit comes from the period of time it has been racked into these casks enhancing the clove and spice.
After a sumptuous lunch and suitably fortified we set about the blending session. John tasked us to consider the following: to think about the style of the finished whisky and who was it being created for, and to create an occasion when the whisky would be drunk. My celebration was an aperitif drink on a significant middle aged birthday in midsummer.
Although John suggested we allow all the component parts to be allowed to shine he recommended that one should be the hero. The other whiskies should be selected to be the support act. My hero was the second whisky which had delicious notes of orange and honey. The first supporter was the grain, which was sweet with almonds and fresh mint and had a pleasingly short finish. The whisky matured in the French oak had toffee and butterscotch to give some spice and body. For texture I added a small quantity of the fourth whisky and for colour a dash of the Glenallachie which was the colour of polished mahogany.
Once the final percentages were decided we all carefully measured out our own blends and filled them into a small bottle which was carefully sealed and labelled. A small sample from each one had been poured before this so that we could share and compare our experiments with the usual discussion that is generated when whisky lovers discuss their favourite subject.
John advised us to leave our sample to integrate as the whiskies need to find their own equilibrium with time but he was delightfully complimentary about our attempts.
Perhaps to show us how the professionals do it, or maybe just because he is a good guy we finished off the afternoon with a dram of 'The General' which John described as "old, eccentric and powerful." He had come upon two old parcels of stock that had been blended at a young age and then put back into casks for over thirty years, the contents were unknown and one could only speculate what they contained. Many bottlers would balk at this prospect but that's where John's gambling hand refused to shy away. Only 1,698 bottles of this whisky were produced and it is now sold out. Unsurprising really.
Lowland grain (Cameronbridge) from a first fill American oak barrel matured for about 15 years at 59.9 per cent.
A vatting of Highland and Speyside single malts (Clynelish, Teaninich and Dailuaine) matured for ten years in a first fill American oak barrel and at a strength of 58 per cent.
A vatting of Highland and Speyside single malts matured for 10 years in a first fill barrel, then transferred to bespoke casks with highly toasted new French oak heads for four additional years and sitting at 56.4 per cent.
Highland malt (Teaninich) matured in a first fill sherry butt for eight years at 54.7 per cent.
A vatting of Islay, Highland and Island single malts (Laphroaig, Ardmore and Ledaig) heavily peated and matured in first fill American oak with 1 per cent of new french oak and at 55 per cent.
Speyside malt (Glenallachie) distilled in 1974, from a sherry butt at 50.2 per cent and we could only include less than 5 per cent of this as it was so intensely flavoured.
'Forty Five in the Hive'
Colour: Golden plum.
Nose: Bagfuls of ripe peach and apricot laced with orange oil. Freshly baked carrot cake with ginger buttercream icing. Hints of fresh almond and old fashioned sun tan oil. Blood orange and honey on the comb.
Palate: Toasted oak with tingling spice like gingerbread biscuits with lemon icing. Water brought out vanilla fudge, and dried stone fruits like mango.
Finish: A spicy drum roll, followed by a softer flourish.