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Compass Box

Try the range of John Glaser's artisan whisky with our Compass Box tasting.

Secreted in a corner of West London is one of the most innovative whisky makers in the business. Look for copper stills, washbacks and pagodas, however, and you'll be disappointed. Compass Box, formed in 2000, produces artisanal, handcrafted whiskies using some of the finest Scotch malt and grains available. The founder, John Glaser - an American who had spent years in the wine trade - is now one of the most respected whisky-makers in the business. Being an outsider means that Glaser is not constrained by the traditional ways of doing things, and innovation doesn't have to mean being disrespectful to tradition. He simply seeks to evolve traditional techniques. Using malts from distilleries such as Caol Ila, Clynelish, Laphroaig, Glen Elgin, Linkwood and Dailuaine, and grain whiskies from, among others, Cameron Bridge and Cambus, Glaser experiments with secondary maturation in French and American casks of exceptional quality, producing a range of stunning small batch whiskies. With superior packaging and evocative names such as Flaming Heart, Asyla, Lady Luck and Hedonism, he has both taken the whisky world by storm and stretched and broken the rules regarding what is and what isn't whisky, at least in the eyes of the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA). Ironically, it was one of Glaser's early efforts - The Spice Tree - that got Compass Box into trouble and drew the attention of the wider world. By placing new French oak staves inside a used cask to 'rejuvenate' the whisky, he ended up being taken to court by the SWA, but not before the whisky had received a rapturous reception from the public and press alike. The SWA objected to the fact that this had never been done before and was deemed inappropriate practice for whisky-making. Compass Box had no option but to back down. Some years later however, in an effort to replicate the original taste, they tried again, this time using new oak 'heads' (i.e. ends) on the casks. 'No problem', said the SWA. Go figure. Eleven years after they started, Compass Box is a byword for quirky, high quality whiskies. It has widened the appeal of those most misunderstood of whiskies, grain whiskies and vatted or 'blended' malts. A vatted or blended malt contains only malt whiskies with no grain whisky added. Four of its five 'core' whiskies are either vatted malts or vatted grains, with plenty of other fine examples in their limited release range. The Whisky Tasting Club has brought you the five Compass Box core whiskies, including one blended whisky, one vatted grain (i.e. using only grain whiskies) and three vatted malts. All are very different beasts, from the sweet and delicate Asyla all the way to the growling, thumpingly phenolic Peat Monster. We're big fans of Compass Box and we hope that after tasting these, you will be too. Their range is constantly evolving, so keep an eye on their home page for John's latest masterpieces.

Compass Box Asyla

Asyla is a blend of 50% malt and 50% grain whiskies. It contains a range of single malts from Speyside and the Highlands (Linkwood, Glen Elgin, and Teaninich) and single grain whisky from Fife (Cameron Bridge). All whiskies are aged in first fill bourbon barrels for 10 to 12 year old. The whiskies are then combined according to the recipe before being recasked for up to 12 months. Asyla is the plural of Asylum.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Exceptionally sweet, light and fruity. Icing sugar and faint lemon drizzle cake. Faint oak.
Palate: Reminiscent of vanilla slice with squidgy cream or perhaps a traditional Bakewell tart. Sweetness held in check by the grain. Light and yet substantial. Marzipan.

Retails for around £35

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Compass Box Oak Cross

Oak cross is a vatting of three 10 to 12 years-old highland whiskies: 50% Clyneleish; 30% Dailuaine; and 20% Teaninich. After blending, half goes into first fill bourbon casks and half goes into especially constructed casks American oak staves and toasted virgin French oak heads. The effect is a dusty, dry, fruity and spicy whisky.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Orange squash. Tangerine zest. Aniseed. Nail polish.
Palate: A tour de force. Gentle citrus fruits, sandalwood spice, then pepper takes over. Sweet and sour citrus.
Finish: Late on there are some Battenburg cake and milk chocolate flavours. Sweet chilli spice. Sour lemon and lime. A delightful aftertaste.

Retails for around £40

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Compass Box Spice Tree

The same blend as Oak Cross is used however the secondary maturation involves 80% of the blend going into mixed oak casks with heads from 195 year old Vosges Forest trees having three different toast levels. The first release of Spice Tree in 2005 was innovative in that the whisky was matured with flat high quality virgin French oak barrel inserts (staves). It was an instant hit, but unfortunately the Scottish Whisky Association claimed it broke their rules and banned it. Compass box revised their method to keep the bean counters happy, and this 2009 rerelease is the result.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Spiky, jabby nose with dusty sweet spice, and perhaps some blueberry and blackcurrant.
Palate: Big, aromatic and liqueur-like, with an oral rainbow of spices including ginger, nutmeg and clover and moving through to chili and paprika.
Finish: Long, savoury and spicy. Outstanding.

Retails for around £40

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Peat Monster

The Peat monster is a combination (vatting) of three whiskies: Caol Ila (50%) and Laphroaig (10%) from Islay and Ardmore (40%) from Speyside. All the constituent whiskies are aged between 10 and 16 years. As with Asyla, the whiskies are combined and returned to wood up to 12 months before bottling. The Caol Ila and Laphroaig are both heavily peated, the Ardmore less so.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Rootsy. Lemon zest. Wafting smoke.
Palate: Sweet and balanced, with sugar fruits, kipper smoke, and sea notes.
Finish: Medium, balanced and peaty.

Retails for around £40

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Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend.

According to Aeneas McDonald’s 1930 book “Whisky”, Glaswegians preferred fuller-bodied and flavoursome whiskies to those in other parts of the world, so Compass Box have come up with a rather more In Your Face version of their excellent Great King St blend.

As is usual with Compass Box, the malt to grain ratio is high. 33% of this comes from a Lowland grain distillery, and the rest from Islay, Speyside and the Highlands. The wood is a combination of first-fill sherry casks, first and refill bourbon casks and some new French oak to finish.

The Whisky Tasting Club Notes:
Nose: Light and yet heavy. Tarry and dry. Underlying fruit (oranges?). White grape juice. Floral.
Palate: Again, pulls off the trick of managing to be both rich and light. Although less pronounced than on the nose the smoke holds the chocolate, spice and coconut together.

Retails for around £25

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