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You probably won’t encounter a review of Compass Box whiskies without the word “innovative” somewhere in the first paragraph, so let’s get it out of the way: they’re innovative! Innovative with cask experimentation, oak selection, malt-grain blend ratios, flavors, packaging, and interior decorating (okay, maybe not the last one). The mad genius behind it all is master blender John Glaser, a Yank who bears a slight resemblance to actor John Malkovich. Connosr co-founder Pierre Thiebaut conducts a wonderful interview with Mr. G. in the second edition of “Distilled” on this website. The video’s introductory blurb tells how the man brews a cup of coffee, which will give you an idea as to the care Glaser invests in anything he crafts. He’s clearly a bit obsessive, but those of us who enjoy the fruits of his labors wouldn’t want it any other way.
We’re in the midst of an age when whisky-making is becoming increasingly marked by experimentation, which is a good thing insofar as it goes. Some of this experimentation, however, often takes the form of tricks and gimmicks to disguise the youth and tired casks of certain single malts. Some would argue that good ends can justify such means, whereas others contend that shortcuts can only lead to diminished quality throughout the industry. I’ll avoid that debate by acknowledging both points of view, but I’ll editorialize a bit by saying that such shortcut experiments seem too often classified as innovation in recent years. It’s blenders such as Mr. Glaser that are leading the way with what I regard as true innovation.
Great King Street is a separate line for Compass Box. The New York Blend is the newer and more limited release, whereas the Artist’s Blend is a permanent and ongoing expression. According to Compass Box’s website, it consists of 46% Lowland grain whisky, 9% Speyside single malt, and two Highland single malts make up the remaining 45%. Despite any (very minor) grumblings I may have about the end result, this is clearly a blend made with care and the highest level of craftsmanship. Notes are based on a 750cl bottle, opened for about three months and at slightly above the halfway mark.
Nose: Soft fruits and sharp spices in good balance. Vanilla merges with the grain in a single unit. Those are the most dominant notes I get, while other aromas make fleeting cameo appearances: caramel, cake frosting, coffee, grass, and some hearty oak. Very nice.
Palate: A somewhat soft arrival soon turns hot and zingy, with spices galore. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and light brown sugar mostly. Creamy vanilla and canned fruits (peaches and pears) appear in short order, and the balance between the two extremes is very effective and pleasant. Hold this one on your tongue as long as you can.
The finish seems weak at first, but it grows in intensity after a few moments. This is the hit-and-miss aspect of this whisky for me. The fruits, spices, and creaminess remain, but the tail end is a bit bitter and much too woody. Had to knock off a few points for this, but my 90 rating shows how highly I regard this whisky overall.
“Tradition evolves with time,” according to John Glaser, and the Artist’s Blend reflects that philosophy. Its old-school components have undergone new-school crafting, and the results are a blend that doesn’t have to apologize for being a blend. The Compass Box whiskies I own (this and the Spice Tree) or have tried (Peat Monster and Flaming Heart) suggest that “innovative” is the most understated of compliments for this brand.