In an industry dominated by age-stated single malts, Compass Box is an enigma (or paradox, if you prefer). Whichever adjective you choose, the self-proclaimed “whiskymaker,” which began life in 2000 in founder John Glaser’s kitchen, has always bucked Scotch whisky orthodoxy. According to its website, Compass Box is built on “the long-lost model of the Scotch whisky blending house.” Eschewing the tradition of ever-expanding age-statement-focused single malts, they “design” impressively complex and flavorful blends- malts, grain whiskies, and a combination thereof. Based on their awards, popularity, and (dare I say) prices, they must be doing something right!
You can always identify a Compass Box whisky by looking at its labels. They’re noticeably “different,” with artwork featuring images ranging from surreal-flavored 19th-century-style newspaper ad-like to the truly avant-garde and, in the case of Peat Monster, science-fictiony-bordering-on-horror imagery. Yet despite their obviously intentional forswearing of tradition, you can argue that they’ve actually rekindled the original art of Scotch. It’s important to understand that Compass Box is not a distillery- their whiskies are blended from carefully selected component whiskies sourced throughout Scotland. This allows them incredible flexibility to experiment and ultimately craft flavors that might be unobtainable from traditional distilling.
I was fortunate to connect with Compass Box’s Western Region Manager, Scott Ellis, who graciously offered me samples of several current whiskies. It’s been years since I’ve tasted a Compass Box whisky (it was the flagship, Hedonism), so I was eager. I was not disappointed!
In ethics, Hedonism is the ideology that pleasure, in all its forms, is life’s most worthwhile pursuit. As Compass Box’s flagship product, its name is the guiding principle behind the whisky’s production. More of a concept than a product, Hedonism changes yearly based on the desire to produce a rich, vanilla-forward Scotch. As a 100% grain whisky blend, it bucks the trend toward malt madness. The result is all Scotch, but without the heaviness often associated with barley-based whiskies. Like all CB whiskies, it’s highly correlated to the wood used in maturation, which accounts for the intense vanillin flavors.
My sample poured a golden straw in the glass, with aromas of vanilla (of course), caramel, hazelnuts, coconut cream, milk chocolate, and a hint of honeysuckle. On the tongue, it’s round and slightly oily, but not cloyingly, with a notable floral mouthfeel reminiscent of rose petals. Initial flavors lean into the coconut, accompanied by a candy-like sweetness reminiscent of Brach’s caramel chews. Toasty oak follows with hints of nutmeg, orchard fruits, and cooked oatmeal. The finish is moderate in length, revealing notes of vanilla extract, more caramel, and finally, peach cobbler and baked dark berry pie- sweet but not too sweet. This is a complexly elegant whisky without requiring too much “thinking.” It’s sweet, but I wouldn’t call it a desert dram. I’d serve this as an aperitif with creamy cheeses, biscuits, sliced fruit, and figs or with a light, fruity dessert after dinner.
Orchard House is part of Compass Box’s core expression collection- a blended malt featuring ex-fill bourbon cask Clynelish, Linkwood, and Benrinnes in the mix. It’s also one of their most affordable bottles. It was developed to feature a juicy and ripe orchard fruit profile, as intimated by its name. It’s proudly hailed as an aperitif whisky (or “pre-dinner” dram, per the website), and I concur. It shares many common traits with Hedonism’s visual and flavor profile: pale straw-gold in color, sweet, with a light and fresh aroma. Above all, the nose clearly features fresh orchard fruits (apples and pears, in particular), backed by notes of dried fruit salad (I can identify dried pineapple, apricot, and possibly banana), plus hints of caramel, vanilla, and ginger. It has a lightly oily mouthfeel, although not cloyingly so, with a warm, round, and silky finish, compliments of its 46% ABV. The apples are front-and-center in the flavor profile, with notes of tart berries, canned pears, and hints of vanilla, caramel, toffee, dates, and a touch of white pepper spice. I’d call it “complexly simple,” foregoing intensity in favor of clean delicacy. It’s a welcomed counterpoint to heavily peated or sherried Scotch.
Compass Box is renowned for producing a wide swath of limited-release whiskies comprised of rare, hard-to-find, and sometimes stray barrels squirreled away in the dark corners of rickhouses. They are fleeting reflections of CB’s commitment to experimentation “with little deference to categories or dogma.” Flaming Heart, named for the M. Ward song of the same name, is in its seventh “remix,” consisting of 9606 bottles. Each release is based on the goodies they find, and this version is symbolic of their LE releases, consisting of the following component whiskies (percentages rounded):
– Highland Malt Blend (23.5%, blended malt, custom French oak cask)
– Laphroaig (20.1%, single malt, re-charred hogsheads)
– Glen Elgin (17.1%, single malt, re-charred American oak barrels)
– Balmenach (12.8%, single malt, first fill bourbon barrel)
– Caol Ila (8.1%, single malt, refill bourbon barrel)
– Talisker (7.7%, single malt, re-charred hogshead)
– Highland Park (4.1%, single malt, re-charred hogshead)
– CB Nectar 15th Anniversary remnant (3.1%, blended malt, re-charred hogshead)
– CB Peat Monster Arcana Remnant (2.3%, blended malt, re-charred hogshead)
– CB Flaming Heart 2018 Remnant (1.3%, blended malt, refill bourbon barrels)
With Laphroaig, Caol Iia, and Talisker featuring prominently, it seems obvious why this is such a peaty beasty, or “smoke machine,” as they state! At 49.9% ABV, this is not a “gentle” whisky, but slams you full-face with intense campfire smoke, but only after you’ve tried to douse it with water. It’s an earthy, ashen aroma leading to notes of toasted oak, cedar, caramel, and burnt sugar. It’s surprisingly light-bodied, given the smoke, with plenty of offsetting sweetness. The smoke is less intense in the swallow, with accentuated citrus rind, toffee, and spice-forward flavors backed by maple bacon, black pepper, and a hint of lemon. The finish is long and warm, with lingering smoke and sweet notes that finish with caramel chews and oak. It’s complex and chewy without being overpowering.
The superstar of the four (and I’ve enjoyed them all), Ultramarine, one of their “Extinct Blends Quartet,” sits right near the pinnacle of CB’s strengths. A traditional “blended” Scotch combining malts and grains fashioned after blends of the late 1980s and early 90s. Peat and sherry form a powerful union, simultaneously melding and competing for attention. It reminds me of sitting in a leather wing chair in front of a fireplace at the El Tovar Hotel where Teddy Roosevelt’s sat years before- old, familiar, rich, and important, yet homey! And it should, selling for more than the other three combined. This luxury blend combines some of the best component whiskies ever made. The tech sheet is a “Who’s Who” of Scotch distillation, although you may not have heard of half of them.
It pours a deep gold, with an intense toffee nose leading to “clean smoke” and earthy peat, backed by aromas redolent of loamy soil, pipe tobacco shop, lemon, treacle, and gooseberries. At 51% ABV, it has a bit of bite, balanced by sweetness and a round, aged quality. Initial flavors focus on the sherry, balanced by lemony citrus, honey, egg custard, leather polish, and roasted pecans. The finish reveals more smoke, raisins, apple cobbler, brown sugar, and salt. There’s a pronounced afterglow that’s long and warm, with fading hints of vanilla, roasted beef, and winter spices. It’s impressively complex- an ideal after-meal pontificator meant for thoughtful conversations on politics and “the good ole days.”
Compass Box is on the “cutting edge” of a return to the past. Despite not distilling a thing, they’ve successfully returned the art of blending to its glory day, and we’re all the richer for it. With the dizzying array of options they create, there is sure to be at least one (in my case, many more than one) Scotch that you’ll like if not love. The hard part will be finding the time, not to mention the budget, to try them all, but I unwaveringly believe it a worthy endeavor!