History lesson time my friends: Let's go back to the mid 19th century. Irish whiskey was queen -> Yes, you read correctly. The whiskey from Ireland was the world's sweetheart and Scotch was mostly crap. Now don't send me hate mail because these are the facts... However; the Scots got really smart and started distilling grain whisky. They in turn blended those with their single malts which created a milder product much more suitable to the foreign palate. By the mid 20th century Johnnie Walker was now king and blended Scotch whiskies were being drunk all over the world. Then came the disastrous 80's where the bottom of many whisky distilleries fell out. Closures, mothballs, bankruptcies and loads of whisky barrels sitting in warehouses occurred. Not long after that, the birth of "age statement" whisky was born. (That's the Cliff note versions...)
My favorite 80's show, MASH, quote:
Radar: Is 12 year old scotch ok for everybody?
Colonel Blake: Yeah, fine Radar, perfect.
Radar: (as he hands him a glass) Uh, I ran out of ice sir so I used bourbon.
Blends took a back seat as aged statements demanded the stage. The blended whiskies became the bottle to have on hand if your grandfather came over or if you had a friend who liked mixing it with coke.
Then comes the 2nd revolution of the 21st century (oh good you are still paying attention).
Recognize that guy? Well if you don't you are still a single malt snob or worse you've been living in the mountains off the grid for the last 15 years?! John Glaser, ex Johnnie Walker International Marketing Director, who founded Compass Box Whisky Co. in 2000. This highly respected man has been featured at least 5 times as Whisky Innovator of the year and the range of Compass Box spirits have won close to 75 awards including package design. This company has rocked and pushed the limits of definition to the point where the SWA had no choice but to pay attention and as a result changed some of their rules and regulations... which of course caused the rest of us in the whisky world to wonder what exactly Compass Box Whiskies were all about?
Still have no clue what I'm talking about? Awwww man now I seriously feel for you at this point ;)
Behold the loveliness:These John Glaser creations are the not bland harsh young whiskies thrown together for the sake of mass consumption! Au contraire my whisky frère, these are small batch, high quality blends. I will even go as far as saying these are a whisky art form. Yes, yes, I know there are many, MANY blends on the market that are not even fit to clean your garden shears but the same can be said for wine, beer or any other spirit on the market. What I'm saying is, from a chemistry perspective, blending is a far more complex and creative process and when done right demonstrates a deep understanding of distillery whisky & flavour profiles. It's the difference between buying a canned spaghetti sauce and watching an Italian display the magnificient relationship between garlic, fresh vine tomatoes and basil by creating the most delicate yet delicious marinara you've just tasted.
THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT HERE!!!!
Still don't believe me? Well then I will tell you from personal experience what it feels like to create your own blend. You see on my fabulous trip to the UK in 2014 I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Compass Box School of Blending. We spent the better part of a day with a hands learning experience about the fascinating process of making a blended whisky.
The first thing we did, of course was enjoy a few whiskies, as one should on a Friday morning :)
Then we proceeded to learn about many of the core whiskies that Compass Box has on the market. This involved an intense hour of schooling about what goes into each of the five whiskies we had before us.
Many opportunities to ask questions, take notes and truly understand the compositions for Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism. Then it was our turn to use all the tools and information we were provided to create, name and bottle our own blend. If I wasn't already brimming ear to ear like a true geek we then relaxed while we were offered the opportunity to sample some of the whiskies of years gone by. Glass in hand the room came to a hush as we sat in an enlightened state of pure whisky bliss as we sipped the holy grails of the Compass Box world. I think I may have cried a little when I experienced this one:
At the end of the day I left an even bigger fan and/or geek. If ever you have the chance to speak to John Glaser he's a lovely man who truly is passionate about his whiskies (and he's got great taste in music -> Miles Davis poster in his office). He takes the time at almost every whisky show I've ever seen him at to spend it with the people who come to the table. Mr Glaser never rushes, always has an ear for every fan and is more than happy to introduce a novice to the core line.
One of the greatest things I love about Compass Box is the fact that I use them to demonstrate to "blend nay-sayer friends" that it's not crap. So, I have a tendency to say: What shall I pour and when they say surprise me, I do... I usually pour a Spice Tree, an Oak Cross or as of late The General. The absolute joy I get listening to them go on about what a great single malt they are nosing/tasting followed by the shocking gasp when I say: it's a blend, surprise is simply devilish! I dare say, often they sit speechless until finally they ask for the price and whether it's available at our local liquor establishment. A few months down the road, I'll notice they have a bottle in their own collection and no longer badmouth blends. But then again, it goes to show that good whisky made by innovative people doesn't need a number on the bottle nor does it have to be a single malt to have value for money appeal.
I'd also like to mention John is not the only one who is doing this. He may have started the 2nd revolution but since then many companies have also been producing some really amazing blends. This is currently my top 10 list:
1. Blue Hanger: Any of them
2. Chivas: 18 year old
3. Cutty Sark: Prohibition
4. Douglas Laing: Big Peat, Timorous Beastie
5. Duncan Taylor: Black Bull 12
6. Monkey Shoulder: Any of them
7. Spencerfield Spirits: Pig's Nose, Sheep Dip
8. Springbank: Campbeltown Loch 21 (My newest discovery - DELISH)
9. Tweeddale: Any of them
10. Wemyss: Lord Elcho 15, The Hive 8, Velvet Fig
And I SHIT you not when I say the following: I practice what I preach. I own a blend from every of the above ten above mentioned. If you don't believe me, let me know and I'll happily post a picture to you.
Are you still complaining about single malt prices going through the roof? I'm not. I know where the value for money is (for me) and right now it's in good quality blends. Then again, I don't put much thought into age statements. I simply am a consumer who loves and shares good whisky.
So: VIVE LA RÉVOLUTION and let me drink blends! Be damned the people who don't know any better or who choose to wear whisky blinders because in the end that means more for those of us with open minds and wallets.
Now, if you'll excuse me there's a Compass Box Cocktail waiting with my name on it to start my lovely weekend.
Cheers #whiskyfabric and until next time.