Tag Archives: Compass Box

When nurture trumps nature

Putting their stamp on it.  PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).

The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast.  It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess).  Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production.  Not so with whisky.  Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling.  Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.

Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party.  This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so.  At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”.  If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing.  The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky.  Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.

The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers.  We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way.  There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit.  This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence.  In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet.  If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.

There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover.  The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made.   Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them.  The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling.  The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices.  Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt.  The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.

The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition.  Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity.  The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour.  An explosion of variety.  The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants.  If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique.  It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness.  Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.

The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix.    The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace.   Single casks are a precarious business.  There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend.  It’s either good or it’s not.  In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product.  The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices.  If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.

In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers.  There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated.  Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies.  Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky 2

As it appeared – p2.

 

 

Grain versus Malt

A family affair.   PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

There are two brothers in the Whisky Family.   Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order.  It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else.  He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious.  His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside.  He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success.  Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt.  He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.

This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion.  And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story.  Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention.   I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers.  Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.

The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats.  Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain.  The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize.  American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance).  This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit.  In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.

Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation.  The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour).  Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths.  It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush.  Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.

Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation.  Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending.  As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt.  These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous.  They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.

I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential.  Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation.  Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable.  The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue.   Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background.  It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.

There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first.  This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed.  The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force.  It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent.  There’s room I think for lot more of it.  May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

Whisky on the not-so-cutting edge

Building a better mousetrap in an industry where mice cannot be trapped

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

Someone recently told me that Blackberry is on its way out, eaten up by Apple and Samsung, as good as gone, kaput.  I had no idea.  It doesn’t seem like too long ago that it was the next best thing.  Admittedly I’m not the best barometer when it comes to mobile technology.  I’m currently using my wife’s hand-me-down and I always seem to be one upgrade behind everyone else.  My finger is so far from its pulse that I wouldn’t know what was happening in this market until two years later.  Regardless it can’t be disputed that change is taking place at a breakneck pace – driven by rapid innovation.  Whisky, with which I’m decidedly more familiar, offers a stark contrast by comparison.  It’s an industry in which true innovation is rare – its product has been made in largely the same way for centuries.  Here it is heritage more than anything else which is the key to success: the common thread amongst the world’s big whiskies is that they’ve all been around for a while.

Unlike the cellular phone whisky is old and deeply traditional.  Change is resisted – in many cases it is institutionally resisted.  The running gun battles – hugely entertaining by the way – between the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the guardians of industry, and John Glaser, the most maverick whisky maker in living memory, have become almost legendary.  His company, Compass Box, named Innovator of the Year on four separate occasions by Whisky Magazine, has continually attempted to push the boundaries.  Most recently he and his team cocked a snook at the SWA with the release of their “Last Vatted Malt” – a dig at the latest regulations.   In reality though, as inventive as these guys might be within whisky’s narrow confines, a few oak staves here and few hazy blends there would hardly qualify as innovations amongst the Steve Jobs of this world (may he rest in peace).  Compass Box has prospered but I sometimes think that it’s the resultant publicity rather than the actual merits of its inventiveness that is more responsible – and this is said without casting any aspersions on the quality of the whisky, which is good, very good.

Whisky, during its long history, has of course seen a few genuinely transformative developments.    The column still paved the way for more affordable supply in greater volumes.  Blends, which today dominate the market, made whisky more acceptable and palatable to a broader spectrum of people.  More recently, the inception of “finishing”, also known as double maturation or even extra maturation, added a new diversity of flavour to the whisky repertoire by introducing exotic casks (port, rum, cognac and others) into the ageing process.  But these have been few and far between.  Today the industry is too tightly regulated to permit much more than a few Compass Box-type peculiarities.

I often wonder whether this status-quo is in our best interests as whisky lovers.  Are we not perhaps missing out?  Would it not serve the greater good to loosen the reins and see what happens?  I’m a renegade at heart so I’m always thrilled to see guys like Glaser tangling with the Establishment and giving the what-for.  The limits should to be tested, and the agendas of entrenched interests need to be kept in check.  But equally there must to be limits, otherwise this path may take us to places where we might not want to go.  Consider this eventuality: would the addition of external flavours (blasphemy!) not make for a better, or at least a worthwhile, whisky?  This is a realistic consequence of uncontrolled innovation.  The answer?  Perhaps – but would such a concoction still be whisky, the drink we’ve come to know and love?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its connection to the past and from its mystery, rather than from any kind of mechanical functionality with which to be played and manipulated.   It is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundred more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.

I attended a tasting not long ago which reinforced to me why I’m passionate about whisky rather than anything else, cellular phones included.  During the function I tasted two whiskies aged in similar Oloroso sherry casks (probably sourced from the same bodega):  the first younger (a 1992 vintage), the second significantly older (a mystery whisky).  Strangely, inexplicably, the 1992 was considerably darker and its sherry flavours more pronounced.  Furthermore the mystery whisky exhibited citrus notes – highly unusual in sherry casks.  This is the type of phenomenon – in this case the visceral, unpredictable organicity of the casks – that makes whisky so special and so enigmatic.  There may not be the potential to release a new app every few days, but whisky makers can and do build better mousetraps just by focusing on the fundamentals and leaving the rest to a time-honoured, intangible “magic”.  In its different casks, in the shape of an individual still, and in its varying terroir whisky has the power to surprise and to astound.  May the dram be with you!

The Thomas Edison of whisky makers

November is Whisky Festival time in South Africa.  I’m not going to rehash the details – they’ve already been put out there by every Tom, Dick, and their uncles.  Safe to say it’s a whisky extravaganza; if you’re even remotely partial to the golden nectar then you shouldn’t miss it.  The participating brands shell out some long dollars to be present, a fair portion of which goes to subsidising the tasting stock that you’ll be imbibing.  So there’s really only one thing for it – make hay whilst the sun shines.

How to approach the Whisky Festival

You’ll be tempted to gravitate to your old favourites, or maybe to the big boys with their flashy stands.  However the single most appealing feature of the Festival, for me anyhow, is that it brings a wide range of whiskies together under one roof, giving you and me, the whisky lovers, a magic opportunity to sample some off-the-beaten track, sparsely available, sometimes obscure but equally worthy, and often superior whiskies.

Top of my list for this year’s Festival is the new Compass Box initiative: the Great King Street range, or if you want to be whisky-hip, just GKS.  They’ve named the first-born “Artist’s Blend” and it’s been making quite the buzz in whisky circles.

GKS takes its name from the address of Compass Box's Edinburgh HQ

If you’re unfamiliar with Compass Box whiskies then this is something that you should remedy at your very soonest convenience.  There tends to be a common thread amongst premium brown spirits the world over – by and large they share a critical success factor: heritage.  It seems that if you want to make it to the big time, you need to have been around for a while.  So when a brand breaks the mould, especially in whisky, you know that there’s got to be something very, very special about it.  Interesting then, compelling even, that Compass Box is barely 10 years’ old…

The home page on their website touts them as “Four-time Whisky Magazine Innovator of the Year”, and this, innovation, is really what sets them apart.  Very simply they do things differently – not just different-different, but better-different.  Whisky has been made in largely the same way for hundreds of years – this is an old, conservative, traditional industry with deeply entrenched interests.  Change is resisted, and true innovation is rare.  Not long ago the guys at Compass Box ran afoul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) with the production technique used to create their Spice Tree product.  This whisky was given a secondary maturation in casks fitted with new oak staves, judged by the SWA, who exist to make sure that those entrenched interests stay entrenched, to be contrary to the law that stipulates that whisky be produced in “the traditional way”.  The product was forced to be withdrawn but Compass Box later replaced the staves with barrel heads – made from the same new oak – to even better effect.  In whisky this is innovation of Apple-like proportions.

Why was I wasting my time with light bulbs?

The man behind Compass Box, John Glaser, has, like most whisky makers, emphasised the importance of wood in creating great whisky.  Unlike many others he’s backed up the talk with hard facts, which gives me some serious confidence in his products.   My default assumption when a whisky brand is secretive is either that disclosure is unflattering, or that the bar is likely to be lowered on occasion.  Compass Box is entirely, refreshingly transparent.  When Glaser claims that they use better wood than the majority of the Scotch whisky industry, I’m inclined to believe him.  Specifically Compass Box eschews the use of older, tired casks, which are commonplace, instead ageing whisky exclusively in either first-fill oak, or in a wood style that it has effectively pioneered: superior quality, slow growth, air-dried (as opposed to kiln dried), virgin French oak.

The only Scotch whisky blend aged in new wood

Here are the wood specifications for the GKS Artist’s Blend:

WOOD (Flavour Impact)

1             First Fill American Oak Barrel (vanilla)        62.3%

2             New French Oak Finish {New-Headed Barrel}         27.7%

(Grilled Marshmallow, toastiness, roasted coffee)

3             First Fill Sherry Butt (wine, dried fruits)      10.0%

I was fortunate enough to get a sneak-preview – a tasting at the Bascule last week.  It was a quick in-and-out which didn’t give me the time to study the whisky at length and compose detailed tasting notes (which I find somewhat tedious anyhow), so I’m only able to share general impressions.

Firstly, in appearance the whisky is satisfyingly hazy – no ice or cold water needed.  It is out-of-the-closet, proud-as-you-like, riding-on-a-float non-chill filtered.  This may not seem, in this enlightened whisky era, like something particularly distinguishing, but bear in mind that this is a blend, and that it is significantly aged in new wood.  In either case, never mind both, how many others can make this same claim?  Very few I’ll warrant.

I'm Scottish, I'm non-chill filtered and I want everbody to know it

Secondly, it is without a doubt the creamiest whisky I’ve ever tasted, a feature attributable, according Compass Box Tweetmeister Chris Maybin, to the quality of the grain whisky used (their grain is fully aged in first fill American oak), but I’d venture that my first point also plays a big role.  Well worth drinking for the luxuriant mouth-feel alone.

Thirdly it is a gunslinger of a whisky.  Probably not the most complex or sophisticated, but with flavours that are big, bold, and well-balanced.  I picked out vanilla, biscuit (paste of chewed up Maries), fruit, spicy wood and nut as they came thundering past.

Compass Box have heralded the GKS range as the “Rebirth of the Blend”, on the premise that the reputation of blended whisky has been tainted by low-quality, inferior products.  This makes for great copy but I’m not sure if blended whisky in the price range at which GKS is certain to be bracketed particularly needs a rebirth.  Regardless, the wordplay aside, this is an unusual, vastly interesting, hugely enjoyable whisky that carries forth with great aplomb the mantle of innovation established by its predecessors.  I’ll be seeking it out and so should you.