Our SnapShot series continues with an exploration of a company we’ve long been curious about: Compass Box Whisky. They have been on our proverbial radar for years but we only recently dipped our toes in with bottles of the Great King Street “Glasgow” and The Peat Monster. One reason is not wanting to plunk down the price of a bottle without trying any first, and none of the bars we normally frequent in the metro carry blends. Hey, don’t blame us for having standards. The set featured here is an elegantly put together kit with a snappy foldout attempting to distill the tastes and sources of each whisky into something digestible. It manages to walk the edge between too much for beginners and not enough for the more curious. We tasted the entire set in the space of about an hour in the following order.
Asyla |Link|- Light on the nose. Light pear and apple. Orange or cherry blossom, maybe a little honey. A small nose and very narrow palate of light sweet grain that seems to disappear before you get a proper sense of it. Then a touch of heat blooms in the chest instead of a finish, gone again before you can appreciate it much. Overall, the bland and anonymous flavor profile is disappointing. It’s just forgettable.
Oak Cross |Link|- Nicely floral. A little bit of citrus on the nose. Toast and vanilla too, with a bit of growing smoke after it has sat in the glass for a while. Subtle smokiness on the palate and a finish just at the back of the throat. The palate is surprisingly two-dimensional before the smoke kicks in; there is a gap between the nose and the finish, occupied by a shrug. We like it, but the florals disappear too quickly and you’re just left with this oak backbone until a man with a cigar walks by. Drinkable and pleasant. It pleases, but does not excite. The nose promises, the palate disappoints, and the finish leaves you wondering what just happened. Easy on the eyes, bad in bed.
The Spice Tree |Link|- The nose is less interesting than the palate. Fruit on the nose. Rising green apple with a little time and oxidization. Florals transfer into the palate. Once it sits in the glass a bit, the nose opens with greater perfume and florals like the Oak Cross. The spice is present in the palate, on the back end, and makes you salivate. It’s fruity, appley, with maybe a little raspberry. It benefits from spending time in the glass so all the components mix together better. It’s sweet and gentle. Bespeaks the Old English blandan or blondan (“to mix”), which is arguably from the same root for “blond” and appropriate here, as the color of this blended malt is a vibrant yellow. The dry astringent quality we thought was a gentle smoke actually develops into a heavier smoke. Amazing to think that the raw elements here are the same as those in the Oak Cross.
The Peat Monster |Link|- This is really fascinating. Strong banana on the front for some of us, but only on the edge do you catch something akin to Ardbeg or Laphroaig. The palate and finish outclass the nose. Islay influences of smoke and peat come on strong but a banana sweetness keeps coming in at the last minute to varying degrees. An unsavory sort of banana too. Not a strong presence but distracting once you realize it is there (sort of how one mention of cat piss entirely ruined the Penderyn for some of us). The fruit is like canned pineapple funk. While smoking a Marlboro. Some of the elements are enjoyable but there is ultimately too much going on and it doesn’t quite gel together as we’d like it to. Like the dump bucket at a whisky tasting. Once the glass is empty, the actual Islay smells are there and very pleasant. Tinged with banana.
Hedonism |Link|- Vanilla and oak. Like a Scottish bourbon. Orange juice or orange flavoring, maybe orange oil? Bright start and then a fall off. All that bourbon nose disappears once it touches your tongue. A premature finish. Actually, it finishes like a glass of orange juice. It does cause salivation but disappears too quickly. It’s clean, at least. A trace of sweetness and warm citrus on the palate. Like Tropicana left on the counter on a warm day. Normally, if it were not so premature, it’d be a great introduction into Scottish beverages for those who are afraid of scotch but love bourbon. But it dissolves, finishing too quickly.
Conclusions: You might not think so from our above comments, but we were actually really happy to try these whiskies. First, because we fully support the values Compass Box operates under. Working creatively to turn blends into something adventurous and surprising. Challenging convention and tradition where it doesn’t make sense. Rock on! Second, because Compass Box has a stellar marketing department, and we were tempted taste unseen to try these whiskies and see if they matched up with the hype. We simply discovered that we are probably not their target audience. There were a lot of really interesting things going on with the blending and maturation with these whiskies, but none of them managed to go all the way for us except for perhaps the Spice Tree. We talked a good deal about the potential audience for such drinks, especially at the price level many of these occupy. Is a good blended whisky worth as much as a good single malt? Maybe, maybe not, depending on what you’re looking for in your glass. We know a lot of folks love many of the above. Tastes are subjective, after all, and these are only our impressions.