In the latest in her series plotting her journey in to the heart of whisky, Miss Whisky sets about unlocking some of the secrets about blending
“We’re all about challenging assumptions and doing something different.”
So said Chris Maybin of Compass Box during a recent trip I took to the the company’s twee office in Chiswick, west London.
This statement worked perfectly for me since I was there to try something different myself: take a group of non-whisky drinking women to learn about the drink and see what they would get out of it.
I chose Compass Box for two reasons: a) it’s London based; and, b) I like the company’s attitude. Compass Box do things that are fun. From the company’s packaging to events (such as bottling ‘the last vatted malt’ on Westminster Bridge last year before the stroke of midnight when the law changed around naming something a vatted malt), Compass Box and its blended whiskies always stand out from the crowd.
The team – made up of Chris, founder and whiskymaker John Glaser, assistant whiskymaker Gregg Glass and brand ambassador Celine Tetu – is always full of energy when I’ve come across them at festivals or events. Heck, the W Club’s editor Dominic Roskrow and John even set a new world record earlier this month for the number of whisky tastings held in different cities in a single day. It’s a bit bonkers, but it’s great fun and it raises the profile of whisky in an entertaining fashion.
But, the question was: would a young, modern whisky company be able to win over my non-dramming girlfriends?
We arrived at the fabulous lab that is the Compass Box office to be greeted straight away by Chris who had pre-made a refreshing cocktail from Great King Street, cognac, orange bitters and soda. It was a perfect way to begin to get the taste buds used to whisky.
While we tried not to be mesmerised by the hundreds of little bottles filled with various drips and drops of the individual whiskies used in the company’s blends, Chris gave everyone a thorough introduction to whisky, explaining the differences between blended and single malts, the importance of wood and the processes of distillation through to ageing.
Outside of learning we were, of course, there to try whiskies and I couldn’t wait to see how Andrea, Lucy and Nathalie reacted to each one. This turned out to be the most interesting point and showed how you can take three people from a similar demographic and get such varied reactions. While Nathalie veered towards the sweeter grain whisky, Hedonism, Lucy was all about Peat Monster. Andrea, meanwhile, was similar to me – a lover of most drams.
And Compass Box doesn’t only do regular tastings. Instead, the company runs what it calls The Blending School. This allows each attendee to get stuck in and try to blend their own whiskies. This was to be the real challenge: could we take what we had learned over two hours and make our own drinkable dram?
Pulling out various measuring tubes and tasting sheets, Chris told us to taste each of the five single malts – including a Highland (French oak), Highland (American oak), Lowland grain, Speyside and Islay – and figure out in what proportions we might blend them to create a whisky featuring our choice flavours.
For me, this was the most exciting and nerve-wracking aspect – for someone who loves whisky so much, the pressure to blend one that would be drinkable was very high. For the others, it was like a giant chemistry set to play with.
In the end, I chose a mix of Lowland grain, Highland (French oak) and Islay malts – a similar choice for Andrea and Lucy although her love of peat meant she upped the latter quantity. Nathalie stuck to the sweeter grains and French oak. We were told to leave our bottles for two weeks to let the whiskies marry and taste them only after that time.
What most impressed me about the visit was the fact I could take three people who don’t love or normally drink whisky and find they could be occupied by and interested in learning about the drink for a whole afternoon. For them all (except Andrea who had tried some with me before) it was a new learning experience that Chris and Compass Box pulled off perfectly. And while they weren’t all converted (Nathalie is still a bit wary of the strong flavours) all were intrigued. I think it’s a model for whisky companies and shows that you can get the uninitiated involved in the world of whisky and target a completely new consumer if you do it in the right fashion.
Oh, and what did my whisky taste like? I’ll admit – I’ve got nothing on John Glaser (nor did I hope to). But, it was drinkable, which made me proud. The grain and French oak married well, creating a silky sweet, honey and grainy wood flavour, but I would cut back on the Islay portion the next time.
I would highly recommend anyone in London who is interested in learning about whisky making and blending to visit Compass Box. The company definitely lives up to its pledge to challenge expectations and it might have even gained a couple of new customers just by being open about its processes and by letting a few novices get stuck in.