Whisky Blending Class with John Glaser

I like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not only do they allow me to claim that I’m ‘off to my club’ of an evening and there-in drink interesting whiskies, but they also put on events. I may have failed to attend an event for the last 2.5 years, but this most recent one gave me the kick I needed to book a place – an evening of learning about whisky blending with John Glaser of Compass Box. I’m quite interested in whisky blending, as I’ve increasingly noticed decent ones over the years and have come to realise that ‘blend’ doesn’t equal Bells and friends. As Compass Box seem to be the name in boutique blending, hearing from their founder about his views on blending was high on my list.

The evening was centred around making our own blended whisky but first we got to hear about the Compass Box approach to blending and taste a few samples of finished whiskies, all of which are no longer available (either by being discontinued or having their recipes noticeably changed). First up was an early version of Asyla, the ‘standard’ Compass Box blend, from August 2002. It’s 50% grain whisky, from the Cameron Bridge and (now closed) Cambus distilleries, and 50% malt, with the malt coming mainly from Linkwood with a bit of Glen Elgin and Cragganmore. The big noted difference about this whisky is that all of its components come from first fill barrels (an uncommon enough situation that it may well be the first modern commercial bottling to have done so), so have taken on more of the wood characteristics than they would have in a more reused barrel. On the nose it’s quite light with fruit, pepper and some vanilla, and to taste it has bananas, green apples and a touch of caramel, with a rubbery finish – very nice but maybe a bit light for me. The recipe has changed over the years, with availability issues meaning that the Linkwood has been slowly replaced by Teaninich over the years to today’s no-Linkwood version. The theory behind it is quite simple though – grain for vanilla sweetness, Linkwood/Teaninich for perfumed fruitiness, Glen Elgin for some more fruit and Cragganmore for a ‘meatiness’. The main difference between this strategy for blending and the big batch blends is that generally Compass Box aim to take a single whisky and build the flavour around it – in the case of the Asyla it’s the Linkwood/Teaninich flavour that is complimented by the light grain flavours and the slightly more obvious (hence their smaller concentration) Glen Elgin and Cragganmore influences – rather than build consistency and ‘complexity’ by adding lots of whiskies together.

Next on the sample list was Juveniles, named for the Juveniles wine bar in Paris. This one comes in at 44% (as requested by the owner of Juveniles, to be ‘like the elephant gun’), was bottled in 2002 or 2003 and is now discontinued. This one is built around Clynelish, a whisky whose name appears quite often when John talks about his recipes. It provides a waxy, oily fruitiness as a base which is then built on with Glen Elgin, for fruit, and Glen Ord, for some smokiness – it’s about 1/3rd of each, all first fill again. On the nose it’s oily with pepper and red fruit and to taste it has that oiliness along with a chunk of smoke and fruit, finishing off with charcoal.

Last of the pre-blended whiskies was Eleuthera, which I am quite pleased to have got a miniature of from John’s sample sack, which has also now been discontinued. It’s one of Compass Box’s attempts to make an easy drinking but still smoky whisky, like the Peat Monster in idea but not quite as peaty. It’s 80% Clynelish (1/2 first fill and 1/2 refill) with 20% Caol Ila to add some smokiness, as a little bit of Caol Ila goes a long way. On the nose it has sweet peat, salt, pepper and a little bit of fruit. To taste it has warm smoke, woody spiciness and a some nice fruitiness. It’s rather good and one that I wish I’d found before it disappeared.

Next we moved on to the task for the evening – making our own whisky. We were told to think about what sort of dram we wanted to make and were let loose upon tasters of our 5 potential components:

  • Port Dundas – grain from a recently closed distillery, made in 1991 and recently drawn from the barrel. On the nose it had vanilla, coconut and biscuits, and added toffee and caramel in the quite delicate taste, giving a combined effect of fruity caramel digestives. Which was really very nice indeed.
  • Clynelish – a predictable addition to the list and very welcome, this was provided by the SMWS rather than from the Compass Box stocks – it was very good, with John expressing disappointment that the society didn’t have a spare bottle to sell him. On the nose it was salty with sour fruit and sherbert lemons, with the taste turning towards salty preserved lemons. Water brought our a fragrant wood polish flavour and some spice.
  • An unnamed vatted malt – from the Compass Box stash, this was a barrel with new wood french oak heads that will go on to make up Spice Tree, a mix of Clynelish, Teaninich and Dalhuaine. It had a bit of sweetness and caramel on the nose but opened up to a rich woody sweetness with dried fruit on the taste. Water worked well, bringing out vanilla from the wood and a chunk of spiciness. If Spice Tree tasted more like this then I suspect I would have a case hidden somewhere in the house (I got a chance to taste one of the older Spice Trees later on and it did used to taste more like this, but they are now moving towards a more refined style which while very nice isn’t quite as much to my rather unrefined taste).
  • Ardmore – aged somewhere between 10 and 13 years this was brought in as a potential peaty element. On the nose it had salty wood and tasted of smoky fruit. Water softened the smoke and brought out some vanilla. Nice, but not one for my blend.
  • Laphroaig – an 11 year old that Compass Box have held for a number of years (and that was lovely at 7 years old) this was our more extreme peaty component. It smelled of sweet mulched peat and had a flinty peaty taste. A nice Laphroaig, but a bit of a beast.

Billy's BlendI decided to pinch the idea from some of the Compass Box range and build my blend around Clynelish, bringing in some of the sweetness from the Port Dundas and then ‘enriching’ it with the Spice Tree. Armed with the idea, a pipette and a measuring cup I did a few test drams, gradually dialling out the Spice Tree until it didn’t come through too much. I ended up with 50% Port Dundas, 45% Clynelish and 5% Spice Tree, although as there was a little bit of space in the top of the bottle still there may be a little bit more spice tree in the mix than that suggests.

On the nose it has bananas, pineapple, candied fruit and a hint of salt. To taste it starts with a burst of red fruit and moves on to tropical fruit with a vanilla-y wood finish. A drop of water changes things quite a bit, with some more oiliness appearing on the nose and in the taste, along with a rubberiness to the finish. Unsurprisingly, I rather I like it, almost as if someone made it just for me. John advised us to leave it for a few weeks and then to try it again as the flavours should develop – I’ve always been slightly dubious about this, but I’ll give it a go and report back…

Anyways, a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I must remember to keep an eye on the events list – there’s been a change of manager at the SMWS London rooms (with former boss man Darren now at Master of Malt) and it looks like there might be some interesting things coming up.

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.