Concerned his fondness for blends is down to his inexperience with Scotch, our Whisky Virgin heads to Compass Box HQ for some professional guidance.
Okay, so I have a serious question for all you whisky heads out there: what’s wrong with blended Scotch? Since I set out on my mission to get whisky woke I’ve enjoyed plenty of blends and blended malts but everywhere I go I keep hearing experienced drinkonauts talking smack about them.
‘Blends? Blends?! They’re probably alright for chasing with Irn Bru at an illegal cock fight, boy, but there’s just no sense of distillery character there!’ – A single malt die-hard.
The message I’m getting is that blended whisky lacks sophistication and is mainly for people who don’t care what they’re getting loaded on, or who’d have their faces melted off by the raw power of a single malt. Even people who are okay with the idea of blends seem to agree that single malts are the real heavyweights.
The thing is, not every blend I’ve run mouth-first into has been that cheap, and some have been downright challenging to my newbie palate. If the single malt supremacists are right and they’re automatically inferior to solo distillery sauce then why bother making them? Why drink them? With these questions in mind, I headed to the home of new wave blender Compass Box to find some answers, and nab a few free drams.
Since Compass Box arrived on the scene in 2000, lead by industry veteran John Glaser, it has caused many a dropped monocle in the whisky establishment by embracing non-trad techniques and practices. The company has broken the rules by making casks with extra staves in pursuit of spicy new whisky flavours; pushed for greater transparency in the business by publishing its blending recipes online; and even pioneered a new category of Scotch – blended grain whisky. Most importantly, it has challenged the ‘single malts are the only whisky worth your time’ way of thinking with its fly-looking range of blends and blended malts. I figure if anyone can make the case for the Scotch whisky mashup, it’s this lot.
Magician’s lair: Where the Compass Box crew get to work blending samples for ‘non-trad’ whiskies
On arriving at the Compass Box HQ in Chiswick, West London, the first thing I’m struck by is that they have an office dog. Once I’m over that adorable revelation, I’m shown into the blending room where I start to get a sense of just how much work it takes to stir up a Compass Box whisky. My host, hot-shot whisky maker and confirmed Scotsperson Jill Boyd, talks me through the process over a few drams from the CB back catalogue.
The whole thing starts with this crew setting out to find the best possible casks of grain and malt they can from distilleries and brokers all over Scotland. Everywhere I look there are rows of sample bottles, all waiting to be carefully tasted to see if they have what it takes to make the cut. Once they’ve secured quality spirits, these whisky makers – a term apparently coined by Compass Box – get to work like chefs, chopping up these samples and combining them in ways that complement their unique character.
Y’see, a buttery vanilla-y grain whisky can just be the thing to provide backup to a big ‘ole fruit bomb of a Sherried malt; throw in a dash of spicy French-oaked spirit to tie the whole thing together and you’ve arrived right in the centre of flavour town. The idea, so Jill-Bo tells me, is that when the pros make malt by blending the contents of casks from a single distillery, they’re working with different shades of the same colour. When you bring spirit from multiple sources to the party you have a much broader palette of colours to work with and a new set of flavour possibilities.
This makes sense to me. If single malt was the only legit way to enjoy whisky, because of its supposed purity and individuality, then by that logic the only food worth eating would be a piece of raw steak or a single mushroom, or something. That mushroom might be absolute magic, and that beef might be that Japanese one that gets massages, but they’re certainly not the only things on the menu. Y’see, blenders are like chefs or painters and perhaps a third metaphorical thing, DJs maybe?
Jill Boyd: The Compass Box whisky maker brings many different styles of whisky to the party
Anyway, by mid-afternoon we’re arriving at the logical end of the tasting session, the peatier and more intense drams that CB has to offer. This is good timing because after a few hours tasting I’m but sips away from grabbing the aux cable off the office stereo and making everyone listen – ‘no, mate, really listen’ – to my new tropical house playlist. We conclude with shots from a black bottle covered with occulty symbols that looks like the kind of thing Nick Cave probably breaks out when he has Bauhaus over for dinner. The name of this serious looking blended malt, No Name.
One sip of goth juice and I’m tasting roasty meat and smoke and herbs; this stuff is like a midnight ritual behind the devil’s deli counter and for a moment I’m sure I’ll never want to drink anything else. Whisky Jill tells me that the majority of the hooch in this here bottle is smoky-sweet old Ardbeg. The key supporting players in the mix are Caol Ila and Clynelish.
Now this makes me think again about one of the key arguments I’ve heard for single malt supremacy, the preservation of distillery character. The purists might argue that to really get to grips with what they do at Ardbeg you should taste their stuff by itself. Maybe true, but tasting that Islay smoke bomb in harmony with other whiskies that highlight its nuances is an experience I’m glad I’ve had.
As I’m ushered politely out of the Compass Box home base with assurances that there’s no more whisky left for me to taste and that the office dog needs to rest and that if I email my playlist over they’ll definitely give it a listen, I feel this month’s hot whisky take congealing in my head. Seems to me that with blends, as with single malts, the trick is finding the firms making whisky I like, rather than worrying too much about which category their wares fit into. I’d been worrying that my erstwhile enjoyment of blended hooch was a sign of my inexperience and all-round whisky virgin-ness. I now see that while single malts may be sexy, there are blends out there that more than hold their own against them flavour-wise and make a great show of the spirits they contain. Single malts may always be the A-side, but it’s fun to flip that record and hear the remix.