Discerning scotch whiskey drinkers have significant cause to celebrate. Compass Box Whisky Co., a “boutique scotch whiskey blender,” began selling its award-winning products in our state last August, and a small but extremely happy group got to sample them at the Freakin’ Frog on April 23.
U.S. Brand Ambassador Robin Robinson couldn’t disguise the pride in his voice as he explained how much Compass Box has grown in popularity in a relatively short time. The brand is now in 17 countries and 30 U.S. states. After tasting some of the company’s more notable whiskies—Great King St., Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism—it wasn’t tough to see why.
To call company founder John Glaser an innovator is a major understatement. Since he decided to create his own company in 2000, Glaser has continually questioned some of the whiskey world’s unflinching rules: the use of caramel coloring, chill filtering and excessive barrel use. In the process, he has created some of the whiskey world’s more amazing concoctions, a true alchemist at a time when experimentation is not the exception, but the norm.
Glaser, who initially envisioned a career in wine, uses the wine negociant approach in finding the best Scottish whiskies to blend into his creations. "We're very choosy about the barrels we choose," Robinson says. "Every barrel has to pass a weeklong taste test by two people three times per."
Glaser's blending philosophy is another aspect that sets him apart from others. As Robinson puts it, there are two approaches to whiskey making: orchestra and jazz. "With the orchestra, you have 40 or 50 different instruments, and each of them sublimates their own individuality in order for you to get that enormous sound." In Glaser's "jazz" approach, Robinson says the goal is to find the Charlie Parker of whiskies and pair it with, say, a Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton and Ornette Coleman. "Four beautiful sounds, but when they get together, they produce something realy special."
Compass specializes in three of the five whiskey types: blended malts (a blend of single malts); blended grain (a blend of only grain whiskies); and blended Scotch (a blend of malt and grain, a la Johnnie Walker, J&B, Dewar's, Cutty Sark, etc.) The first of our drinks was Great King St., Compass Box's blended Scotch, which Robinson says converted him to what was possible in such blends. "This was our shot across the bow to the malt whiskey drinkers to tell them that we think blends are worth your time, palate, consideration and money." Most blends, he says, have 30 percent malt and 70 percent grain because of the high cost of malt. Great King St. uses 55 percent malt. "That's a really nice drink, and that's coming from someone who previously hated Scotch and soda," Robinson admitted. Great King St. would go on to win Whiskey Advocate's "Blend of the Year" for 2012. (And by the way, the name of the whiskey derives from the company's address in Edinborough, Scotland.)
Next up was Oak Cross, a blend of three premium single malts. "One has a gorgeous waxiness to it, another has malty fruitiness and the third has meatiness," Robinson explained, adding that the age of each varies from 10 to 12 years. Everything is aged in a first-fill barrel (a barrel that has not previously been used for Scotch), with a very unique twist: Compass Box takes an American oak barrel, pops the heads off and replaces the American oak with French oak. (Get it? Oak Cross.) However, Robinson stopped short of offering specifics as to how the deed is done: "If I told you, I'd have to kill you." What is clear is that Oak Cross derives the vanillas and caramels of one oak and the aromatic spices of the other oak from the process.
The next dram, Spice Tree, another blended malt, is perhaps Compass Box's greatest story, although not one with a happy ending. Glaser turned the company into, as Robinson puts it, "the bad boys of whiskey" with this creation, a result of putting French oak staves into the first fill barrel. The first iteration of the product was so revolutionary it received almost universal acclaim. However, the Scotch Whiskey Association took Glaser to task for doing something that doesn't fit with its traditions (i.e., only traditional oak barrels can be used). Despite his pleas, he was forced to quit making it, and although Spice Tree is still produced, it is considerably different than its original version. Still, as Robinson pointed out, the current version is a lovely drink, spice and fruit mingling well together. And, just to give you an idea of how influential Glaser has been, consider this: According to Robinson, Maker's Mark got the idea for its newest product, Maker's 46, from Glaser's Spice Tree.
Peat Monster was easily the hit of the presentation. Not an eyebrow went unraised as those in attendance nosed this beast, a blend of three of the world's finest peated whiskies—Laphroaig, Ardmore and Ledaig (Caol Ila was previously used in place of Ledaig, but Robinson explained it was becoming harder to find quality barrels). It's Compass Box's biggest seller because, Robinson joked, "It's the one label you can read and figure out what's going on!" As Robinson burned a piece of peat to give everyone an idea of what it smells like while being used for fuel, the comments on Peat Monster could be heard everywhere. "Wow!" "So much going on in this!" "Beautiful smokiness!" As someone who's never been a big fan of peaty whiskies, I absolutely adored this one. It's arguably a whiskey everyone could enjoy, regardless of experience level.
The last pour, Hedonism, is a completely unique product in the market—a blended grain, which, according to Robinson, is the only blended Scotch grain on the market on a regular basis. The average age of the whiskies within is 23 years, and Robinson calls it a "sexy" whiskey—"A gorgeous velvet coating, like a nice honey drip on the back of your throat. It's the bourbon of Scotch whiskies; it's made in big column stills."
Freakin' Frog owner Adam Carmer really ramped up the experience with two surprise products: Compass Box's Orangerie and Flaming Heart. Orangerie is a "Scotch whiskey infusion" that Robinson was careful to point out "is not a whiskey experience." It's infused with orange zest, cassia bark and Sri Lanka cloves, and Robinson called it a "crazy product" that makes an amazing mixer.
Flaming Heart, a blend of single malts, had both the characteristics of Peat Monster and Great King St., as well as a bit of sherry. But I couldn't help but notice how many in attendance were going back to the Peat Monster after all the products had been sampled. It was the clear winner of the evening.
All Compass Box's products are available in Southern Nevada at Total Wine and select Lee's Discount Liquor stores. Because of the sheer volume of product, I'm going to be reviewing each of these individually in the Booze Blog. Grab a bottle if you can while supplies last, but please don't be angry with me—I think I took the last remaining bottles of Oak Cross and Peat Monster from the Total Wine on Stephanie.