This is the first of a series in Compass Box Whisky reviews. Look for the next several coming very soon!
In an industry where brands often pride themselves on their age, long lineage, and adherence to rigorous traditions, Compass Box Whisky is something of an anomaly. As a brand founded by an American, headquartered in London, and producing Scotch Whisky, these guys are bound to do things a little differently.
Started in 2000 by Minnesota native John Glaser, Compass Box has been shattering preconceived notions since day one. Several times, this has gotten them into trouble with the Scotch Whisky Association and EU regulations. In 2005, merely five years after their founding, Compass Box quickly ran afoul of the SWA with Spice Tree, a whisky matured using inner staves inserted into the casks – a practice that (though effective) is banned by the SWA.
More recently, Compass Box has become embroiled in “scandal” (please, hear the sarcasm dripping from my words here) surrounding two of their whiskies – This Is Not a Luxury Whisky and the Flaming Heart 15th Anniversary Edition. If you’re a Scotch whisky fan, chances are you’re familiar with this already, but Compass Box was informed that they were violating SWA regulations and EU law by the egregious act of…disclosing the exact ages of the whiskies that make up each blend. Compass Box has started a pledge to get these regulations changed, and you can do your part by going to their site and signing your support. I certainly have.
I’m hoping that the ground swell of support eventually results in a change in regulations, but in the meantime, I take all of this as evidence that Compass Box is a brand committed to delivering great, unique products, even if it somehow runs afoul of the organizations dictating what they’re “supposed” to do.
I’ll be reviewing Flaming Heart in the near future, but for now another example of Compass Box doing things differently can be found in this very bottle: Compass Box Hedonism.
“Common wisdom” among many Scotch whisky fans is that single malts are the One True Spirit. Adulterating a fine malt whisky with grain whisky is a heinous crime against humanity. That vile, harsh, and flavorless stuff is reserved for blends – the stuff of lesser drinkers. In fact, blends are often considered to be of better quality if they have a larger proportion of malt whisky (and therefore, less grain). Essentially, grain whisky is the ugly duckling of the Scotch whisky industry.
Therefore, it might seem kind of crazy that Compass Box has come along and produced Hedonism, which is not just a grain whisky, but a blended grain whisky! Multiple grain whiskies! Blended together! With no malt whatsoever! Hopefully you can sense the sarcasm here, because Compass Box Hedonism is damn fine whisky!
On their website, Compass Box provides a breakdown of the component whiskies in this blend, which includes whiskies from the Cameron Bridge and Port Dundas grain distilleries (as a side note, Compass Box provides this detail for all of their whiskies, in handy infographic form!). Although they don’t disclose the age of the whiskies in the blend (remember, that’s a big no-no for now…), this isn’t rough young three-year-old grain. These whiskies have definitely been matured for a good long time in their respective casks, and it shows in the delicate, rich aromas and flavors present in this whisky.
Nose: From the first sniff, it’s clear that this isn’t a malt whisky. The nose is light and quite gentle, but there’s still plenty there. I get a substantial, sweet note of caramelized sugar that pairs with a lot of vanilla custard. Although light in aroma, this is creme brulee in a glass! There’s also a bit of cinnamon, a hint of lemon, and a whiff of coconut.
A few drops of water makes the nose even lighter, and most of the richer notes fade into the background. Coconut becomes the dominant aroma, paired with a little vanilla.
Taste: This is way too easy to drink! The body is quite light, but there’s a creaminess to it that I hadn’t expected with something so gentle. It’s quite sweet, with a ton of custard here, and a bit of caramelized sugar (just like I got on the nose). There’s a rich, sweet grain note too, which reminds me more of brioche bread than a hot cereal. All together, these notes remind me quite strongly of bread pudding. There’s also a pronounced kick of coconut running throughout. That coconut only gets more pronounced on the finish, where it dominates as a rich, sweet coconut cream pie note. It lingers for an extremely long time, with tiny bit of lemony tartness to cut back the sweetness ever so slightly.
After adding a few drops of water, the custardy texture remains, but the flavors are far less rich. The coconut is still there, along with a little almond, but it’s much more muted.
This is an outstanding, unique whisky. It’s packed with tons of sweetness, but (probably because it’s so light-bodied), it doesn’t get cloying. I’d recommend skipping on the water with this one – it breaks up the whisky’s best qualities and flattens it out. It’s an easy and delicious sipper neat, anyway!
I think that Hedonism should be celebrated for doing something completely unique – and getting it to work so incredibly well! If you’re a Scotch whisky fan, you owe it to yourself to try a dram of this at least once.
Questions of the Day: What’s your favorite Compass Box Whisky? Your favorite grain whisky?
Compass Box Whisky has not sponsored this post or offered me any consideration for writing it. I’m simply a fan of what they’re doing and trying to promote great whisky. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.