Category Archives: Blends

Compass Box Week, Er, Fortnight – The Peat Monster

Many apologies for the delay in closing out the slightly-longer-than-a-week Compass Box Week. February seems to be my month for home IT failures and this February was no exception. I tend to have a limit to how much I’m willing to deal with and this pushed me into full-bore disgust. Any energy I would have devoted to typing up even a quickie review ended up going towards race prep and everything involved with that.

As a brief review, the last few notes I’ve posted have been reviewing the core range of Compass Box – Hedonism (Blended Grain), Asyla (Blended), Oak Cross and Spice Tree (both Blended Malt). The final entry in this range is The Peat Monster, an ambitiously named whisky, but in a world of Octomores and Supernovas, is it really a “Peat Monster”? We’ll see.

The Peat Monster has a lightly lemony and slightly malty nose with a pretty well-balanced level of peat. It’s not some sort of untamable beast of peat; it’s just fairly well-peated. It’s got a bit of the rubbery note I associate most strongly with Caol Ila, and a surprising bit of young whisky vegetal tones in there. Not overpowering but definitely noticeable to me.

The palate is big and full with some oiliness; a little black pepper and chili oil, some rubbery notes, dry campfire smoke and a slightly diesel/tarry industrial quality to it. There’s some barley in the background too.

The finish starts warm and has some dry campfire smoke and chili oil. It stays smoky, but then gets sweeter with some maltiness. It’s also got a nice mouth-and-tongue Sichuan peppercorn tingle to it.

The Peat Monster isn’t a “monster” in the sense of a double-barrelled blast of peat that knocks you down at 40 yards. It’s just a full, slightly wild ride with some heat and a little bit of youth and a ton of different peated characteristics. Its a nice mix, but based on the asking price I see these days I don’t know that I’d consider it superior to the single malts available from Islay these days. However, variety is the spice of life…

Overall, Compass Box has an interesting range. In general I’ve been more pleased with their limited releases; Spice Tree is also a fantastic whiskey that I think manages to take a good thing (Clynelish) and make it better in an affordable way.

If you’re hungry for a change, I think it’s worth testing the waters.

At a glance:

Compass Box The Peat Monster 46% ABV
Nose:
  A lightly lemony, slightly malty nose with a pretty well-matched level of peat. Not as beastly as the name suggests; a little rubbery note; maybe just the slightest hint of young whisky with a slightly vegetal note.
Palate:  Big and full mouthfeel, somewhat oily, a little pepper and chili oil, some rubbery notes, dry campfire smoke and a hint of a diesel and tar type industrial note. A little barley in the background.
Finish:  Warm at first; dry campfire smoke, a little more chili oil, stays slightly smoky and then gets a little sweeter with some malt after a moment. A pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle too.
Comment:  Nice mix of peat from Islay. It’s good but at the asking price these days I think I’d still rather buy a single malt of almost any distillery and pocket the change.
Rating: B

Compass Box Week, Days 3 & 4: Oak Cross & Spice Tree

In continuing the blitz through the Compass Box range, today our attention is turned to two of their blended malts: Oak Cross and Spice Tree. Both of these use special wood treatments to achieve a unique profile – Oak Cross has secondary maturation in casks with new French oak heads; Spice Tree has French Oak heads on their casks as well, but the heads are heavily toasted.

Being blended malts, without a grain component, the basic expectation is to have a slightly more robust whisky. Let’s see if that holds up.

Compass Box Oak Cross 43% ABV
Nose: 
Malt and a trace of white wine, some vanilla, light fruit cocktail notes.
Palate:  Slightly woody upfront, a little light black pepper and spice, a touch of green wood, light tobacco, a little orange liqueur, some faint fruitcake notes (sitting on a table in a different room).
Finish:  Spicy with a little more tobacco upfront, a little warmth, and that orange liqueur note follows through.
Comment:  I don’t think the nose really indicates what lies within. The tobacco notes on this one are really nice. The bitterness on the early palate keeps this from being a clean B though.
Rating: B-

There’s a little more to Oak Cross than the nose suggests. While the nose seems like a million forgettable inactive cask whiskies, there’s a really nice tobacco presence. Unfortunately, there’s some bitter wood that runs this one off track for me. What about Spice Tree?

Compass Box Spice Tree 46% ABV
Nose: 
Floral and fruity with pears, but also a notable light waxiness. Light vanilla and a touch of orange.
Palate:  Waxy, lightly spiced – a light mix of white pepper and Sichuan peppercorn, a very faintly smoky wisp. Moderate fruit, more dried than young and aromatic.
Finish:  Wood initially, nice bold oakiness and some pepper, with light apple skins.
Comment:  This just screams Clynelish, but with more dimension. A really nice one. Great body.
Rating: B+

Spice Tree is really great. I’m a sucker for Clynelish; the waxiness I get off of it is a really nice, rich note that conveys age (and also helps promote a weightier mouthfeel) without being over-oaked or tired. This takes the tried and true Clynelish profile and adds a little more spicy zip to it with some nice heat on the mouth and tongue. Honestly, this is one of the first blends in a while where my reaction was “I need to buy a couple bottles of this!”

Spice Tree is a heck of a great blend and one that will definitely have a spot on my bar in the future.

High West Campfire Whiskey

I started Scotch & Ice Cream last year, roughly around the time I started showing up at LAWS meetings. It really was not designed to be anything other than a regular writing exercise and a way to share some of my tasting notes with my friends. The fact that it’s found any audience at all has been a pleasant surprise. If that audience vanished, though, I’d still be writing this for myself and a handful of people I know in person.

One of the weird things about being part of the teeming horde of whisky bloggers is that people have an almost irresistible urge to put you into the appropriate boxes. “Primarily American”; “Scotch”; “That guy who does the Canadian whiskeys” and so on. There’s also this back-and-forth about your supposed integrity, largely based on if you’ve received any free samples from distillers or people on their behalf. It seems it’s a Norquist-like purity test designed to sort whisky bloggers in general.

Well, count me as a horrible sell-out officially with this review, but not in the way you might think. I’m not about to start writing conciliatory, florid puff pieces or regurgitating press releases, highlighting the whisky du jour as probably the greatest thing ever. Nope, S&I will stay firmly in the realm of marginally introspective self-indulgent writings that frame a discussion of a whisky, with strained setups to questionable jokes and general jackassery.

Last year, I met David Perkins of High West at a LAWS tasting. Before continuing, I must say that you should take the opportunity to attend any tasting he ever conducts. It was fascinating and loaded with tons of information, which unfortunately didn’t stick because the tasting was also loaded with TONS of samples. Sixteen to eighteen samples, if memory serves (and I’m not sure it does).

In my brazen and certainly inebriated state I started talking with David at that meeting and picking his brain about various whiskeys. I shot him a few samples (including some Woodfords I was only too glad to part with which apparently agreed more with his palate) and have stayed in semi-regular correspondence with him.

Earlier this year he hinted that he was working on Campfire Whiskey, which was going to be American whiskey with a peated Scotch component – either other whiskey or whiskey barrels. Little details would come up every so often as he hunted for the right ingredients (and even the final choices are not known to me). It was a new-to-me opportunity to see things develop over the course of several months and was very interesting.

In April I received a trio of small bottles, labeled “Campfire A”, “Campfire B”, and “Campfire C” – the contenders to wear the Campfire Whiskey label. These samples put the component rye, bourbon and Scotch whiskeys in different proportions, all at 100 proof. All that was sought was my opinion and answers to a few questions. A few of my friends also were included in the roundup.

It was an interesting to see the experiment coming closer. I have to admit though, even the best of the samples seemed like it might be too strange for those but the more adventurous drinkers. The peated component was considerable on some, manifesting as a big smoky blast on some, and an earthy, organic kick elsewhere, and even a medicinal tang in one case (thus knocking down my attempts to guess the source). Even the more heavily peated sample had a distinct kick of rye. It seemed that it might appeal only to the most open-minded of whiskey drinkers who jumped between sweet bourbons, spicy ryes and Scotch of all varieties. I had my preference and noted it to David (sample “A” for what it’s worth, though I preferred it with a little water which seemed to get things in check).

A short while later, David emailed us to tell us about what he ended up doing – Sample A, more or less, and at 92 proof. Apparently he also mentioned a bottle was coming our way, but I missed that entirely. So, when a bottle of Campfire Whiskey showed up, direct from Park City, I was completely surprised.

I even had reservations about blogging this one, not wanting to give the appearance that I was of questionable fairness. However, I feel like I’ve been forthcoming: I consider David to be a friend, and yes, this whisky was provided to me after trying some prerelease samples.

Enough hemming and hawing. Let’s get down to it – Campfire is supposed to be one for the cowboys, and I haven’t seen any good westerns where Eastwood has a soliloquy worrying about how his intentions might be perceived.

The nose on Campfire threw me initially – it’s sweet with corn, toffee and maple upfront. Rye first shows up with a lightly floral presence initially. Then there’s a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. There’s a slightly organic character to it that is also woody – honestly, yes, with the name, it does evoke a campfire. Traces of black cherry, a note I get off a lot of High West whiskey, is there as well.

The palate brings some heat and has some nice weight in the mouth, but doesn’t feel overly viscous or oily. It’s slightly earthy at first, which gives way to corn and maple syrup, with cinnamon and black pepper for heat. Light earthiness and faint wood continues, and there’s a little black cherry and vanilla at the edges of the palate, with some smoke on the roof of the mouth.

The whiskey finishes nicely – a sweet start with caramel and a lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. There’s a nice dose of smoke as you exhale, which is also slightly organic and earthy.

The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough smoke to add an unexpected dimension, but it doesn’t really scream “Peated scotch” to me. You could have told me something was smoked in a finishing process and I’d probably believe you. It’s a great mix of sweet and smoky, but enough rye in the mix to add more dimension and keep it interesting.

Black cherry is a note I get on a lot of High West stuff as I mentioned earlier, and it’s one that I catch here. It’s a note that I’m a sucker for as you might have determined from prior entries. The peating I’m sure is a red flag for some guys, but it really doesn’t come across as that band-aidy or bicycle inner tube note that may scare them off. Honestly, I kind of think of Campfire as Bourye’s well-traveled cousin. It’s got a lot in common with it, and to my palate at least, this is dominated by the bourbon notes with rye and peat adding dimension.

David’s serving suggestion is with a s’more. I don’t feel like that’s right for me right now as the LA summer rolls around, but no worry: I will have more bottles on hand to test that suggestion in the future, though.

At a glance:

High West Campfire Whiskey (Batch 1) 46% ABV
Nose: 
Nice sweetness on the nose, very smooth corn notes, mellow toffee, a touch of maple syrup. Light rye floral notes and a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. Slightly organic with a wooden tone to it. Traces of black cherry. 
Palate: 
Warming initially, with some weight to the mouthfeel but not oily. Slightly earthy early, then showing a nice corn and maple syrup presence, a bit of cinnamon and black pepper to heat things up. Lightly earthy notes continue, a faint trace of wood at moments, and a bit of black cherry and vanilla. There’s a bit of smoke on the roof of the mouth.
Finish: 
Sweet with caramel and some lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. A nice dose of smoke on the exhale, slightly organic and earthy. 
Comment: 
The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough to add a very unexpected dimension, but it’s not immediately identifiable as peated scotch, and I think it works to the favor of this. It’s a nice mix of sweet and smoky, but with enough rye in the mix to keep it interesting. 
Rating:  
B+

Two Generations of Teacher’s: 1950s and 2010s

You know the old saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”? It’s an easy one to accept as true without having much opportunity to compare old and new. Usually, the past is viewed through the rosy tint of nostalgia and we remember everything great about the things we loved and forget the faults. That’s of course a powerful point to remember in how you live your life as well — don’t get caught up on the faults; you won’t remember them clearly unless you let them define you.

Recently, my friend Chris sent me a box of samples and one of them was intriguing – a 1950s bottling of Teacher’s Highland Cream. I realized I’d never had any Teacher’s – ever – though it had been on my list for a while. I also saw this as a fun opportunity to see how the Teacher’s blend had changed, if at all, in the last 60 years. After all, the line repeated without a second thought in regards to blends is that they strive for consistency above all else. Well, here’s a great opportunity to test that statement! Would the profile be the same after six decades of blending and sales?

One thing was immediately apparent: this wouldn’t be a 100% apples to apples comparison, even discarding six decades in glass: the 50s blend was bottled at the 43% ABV versus the 40% of modern Teacher’s. Yes, I could dilute, but with the small amount available to me, I couldn’t justify potentially wrecking what I had.

A word about the new Teacher’s before I continue. In doing some research on the blend, I found that there’s some back and forth right now about a perceived slip in quality/consistency of Teacher’s. It’s entirely possible that I got a bad bottle (not having a recent “good” reference point. The comments on Ralfy’s review of Teacher’s are not conclusive; hopefully when he re-tastes it we can get a better sense. I’ve heard of people mentioning slight ammonia smells which i absolutely didn’t get in any quantity whatsoever, so I’m assuming my bottle was on-profile.

Let’s start in the modern world before we go back in time. The modern Teacher’s has an unsurprising nose to me for a blend: it’s initially slightly piney, spirity and thin. There’s some watery maltiness, some light floral character and it’s somewhat dusty. There’s a second wave of aromas – buttercream vanilla and mint. There’s also some light peat on the nose.

The palate was a bit of a surprise – the mouthfeel was thicker than the nose would indicate. Gentle barley, lightly malty, and a nice peaty carpet that gave it some dimension. It wasn’t exceptionally strong nor was it exceptionally nuanced, but it wasn’t bad at all – just a little watery.

The finish, as I expect from most blends, was fleeting and light. Some light peat, some light pear notes and a bit of mint. All in all, it was very light. It was reasonably nuanced for a blend overall and fairly well put together, but just a little watery. That said, it’s one of the few lower-price blends that I would be willing to drink regularly.

Interestingly, days before I did my tasting I saw reviews from two guys in LAWS about a 1970s bottling of Teachers and was wondering if this was a case of the blend staying on profile more or less.

The only thing left to do was to pour the 1950s whisky into a glass. I gave my palate some time to settle down and clear, poured every last drop and prepared to see what happens in 60 years.

The nose was immediately more intense. There was peat and malt right upfront; some lemon and light grassiness followed. A gentle, agreeable wood presence permeated the nose with a little light grain as well.

The palate had rich peatiness. It wasn’t overbearing in the least, just added a lot of dimension. The peat had a slightly rubbery tang to it, but not heavily. The mouthfeel was full and, yes, even creamy. A little faint waxiness and heat asserted themselves. It was malty and biscuity; a little faint lemon and light pine rounded out the palate. The finish was warm and malty, with a little heat towards the end. It was a nice, long and very strong finish.

To say the two whiskies were night and day is an understatement. The older whisky, even allowing for a slightly higher ABV, seemed to have a much more pronounced malt content. There was just an intensely rich, very identifiable single malt quality to the mouth and palate. I’ll have to check out a modern Ardmore to see if it bears more similarity to the old Teacher’s (indicating perhaps a higher proportion of grain whiskies these days) or if it’s more like the new Teacher’s (tipping towards a change in the core malt of the blend).

This was a really fun tasting. It’s very easy to get caught up chasing the latest octave-casked, absinthe-finished, royal trampoline jump commemorative whisky. Digging into the history of a whisky is something I hope to do in the months and years ahead. Fortunately I have some interesting ones to write about that may facilitate this. I doubt I’ll unseat Sku’s fascinating Dusty Thursday series nor will I scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of Serge’s historical notes (and combinations). However, I hope to bring something interesting to the table, or at least share the journey.

Another brief note about glasses… 

Not the kind you wear on your face! One of the most common searches that land here are on glass choice and selection, and they continue to be some of the more active links out of Scotch & Ice Cream. I’ve extolled the praises of the standard Glencairn glasses; they are absolutely phenomenal and my glass of choice when tasting. However, I know not everyone is strictly into nosing all the time, and even I like to just throw some whisky into an old fashioned glass and mix a cocktail or — horror of horrors — have it on the rocks. I’ve never been quite happy with the loss of intensity from the Four Roses glasses I’ve got, nor do I like a traditional straight-walled old fashioned glass.

This week I received two Glencairn Canadian glasses (scroll down to see on that page) that I’d ordered a few weeks ago. They address most of my complaints with the old-fashioned without compromising too much. They’re really great: wide enough to comfortably get some ice in; a nice larger capacity so you can hold more than 2oz comfortably, and the shape still gives you a lot of aromas concentrated at the nose. They seem durable and sturdy, which is high marks for me. If the traditional Glencairn or copita seemed a little too dainty, you might want to check those out.

At a glance:

Teacher’s Highland Cream (modern bottling) 40% ABV
Nose: 
Piney initially, very spirity and thin. A little watery maltiness, some lightly floral notes and a bit dusty. A bit of buttercream vanilla. Faintly minty. Very light peat on the nose. 
Palate: 
Thicker mouthfeel than the nose would indicate. Gentle barley, light malt, and a nice light layer of peatiness to give this some dimension. It’s not very strong and it’s kind of watery, but it’s not bad. 
Finish: 
Fleeting and light. A little peat, some light pears, some light mint. 
Comment: 
Quite light. It’s got a reasonable bit of nuance and it’s better than most blended mass-market whiskies I’ve had. The notes seem fairly well integrated, just watery. 
Rating:
C+

Teacher’s Highland Cream (1950s bottling) 43% ABV
Nose: 
Peat and malt upfront on the nose. Lightly grassy, a touch of lemon. Some gentle wood, but a little light grain on the top. 
Palate: 
Rich peat. A bit towards the rubbery end. Full mouthfeel – lives up to the name. Faintly waxy. Nice heat. A bit malty, slightly biscuity. Faint lemon, faintly piney. 
Finish: 
Warm and malty, with a little heat towards the end. Nice length and presence. 
Comment: 
This is a really nice blend. There are single malts that I don’t think stand up to this. I’d honestly have no problems buying bottles of this if the modern was up to this standard (alas, it’s not). Very, very malt-heavy.
Rating: B

All Blues: Two Johnnie Walker Blue Labels

At the top of the Johnnie Walker range lies the stored Johnnie Walker Blue Label. It’s become an easy shorthand for luxury – just watch an episode of Entourage and see the Chase brothers putting away a bottle of Johnnie Blue at a mega-wealthy family’s private party.

If you’ve started to jump into rarer or more costly single malts, the buy-in for Johnnie Walker is not unfathomable. However, for those who have more down-to-earth budgets, or for those who have not gotten deep into the hobby, the price tag alone makes it unattainable.

Unattainable?

Even bars charge ridiculous prices for pours of Johnnie Blue. All this mystique results in a premium-priced whisky being compartmentalized outside of most peoples’ acceptable buy-in.

Beyond Blue lies the King George V edition of Blue, made using whiskies that were available during the reign of King George V (1910-1936). Most notably, this means an inclusion of the storied whisky from Port Ellen, which has been closed for nearly 30 years now. King George is a relatively limited edition – by Johnnie Walker volume – of 60,000 bottles, 7,300 in the US.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try these two whiskies and thought this would be good to share, similar to the Macallan 30 review from the launch of this blog.

Johnnie Walker Blue is surprisingly light. It’s sweet and malty on the nose with just a whiff of peat – nothing powerful. There’s not really much more to the nose – very straightforward. It is reminiscent of Clynelish in a way, but a little less assertive. The palate is medium to light – it’s not thin but it’s not mouth-coating. It’s moderately sweet with faint peat. There’s a very gentle bit of heat to it, faintly taking the form of pepper. There’s malty sweetness on the palate as well as a faint saltiness – not at all unlike some of the Islay distilleries. The finish is as smooth as you’d expect it to be; very light and not particularly long lasting. It’s got some slight heat to it though with a little pepper. There’s plenty of malt and after a while, a faint woody mustiness. This is a note I haven’t found a better way to describe – dry and earthy; the closest I could describe it is like the exterior rind of a cantaloupe. I get it commonly on Old Pulteney and it’s not uncommon on the Japanese whiskies I’ve tasted.

All in all, Blue is a very easy-drinking and light whisky. There’s a little dimension to it, but not much. The main turnoff for this standard Blue is the value for the price. There are single malts that do similar things (Clynelish, Old Pulteney, Aberfeldy) at a much better value. The faint heat and smoke give it a little personality, but for such a luxury image, it’s actually a bit of a milquetoast whisky.

With the expectations lowered, it was time to move on to the King George V edition of Blue. I didn’t expect much after the standard Blue.

The nose showed more depth – it still had the gentle malt of Blue, but added in much more. The peat was more assertive with a faintly rubbery tang – hello, Port Ellen – as well as some more bold peppery heat. There’s also some slight butteriness, and some light floral and vanilla notes develop. A slight hint of pineapple provides a little juicy dimension to the nose. Already, the nose showed a much greater nuance.

The King shows a little more depth...

The palate was again quite light – white pepper and cinnamon with heat out of the gate – with a bit of faintly rubbery peat. The buttery note from the palate carried through, and the malt was evident as more of a grainy note.

The finish competes with the nose in terms of being the best part of this whisky – there’s nice pepper and chili oil, similar to Talisker. There’s malt and hay on the finish, and the whole thing lasts for a reasonable length.

King George V ends up being a reasonably nuanced Johnnie Walker, with a little more happening than standard Blue Label, offering a bit more than you might get from any one single malt. It’s still somewhat light on the palate though. Having a price well in excess of the Blue makes this a tough sell though.

That said, there are deals to be had on King George V. Don’t succumb to the $500-600 retail that many are selling for. Very cursory searching revealed these available at $350. That’s still more than I think this is worth, ultimately, but if you subtracted out the price of the decanter and box, this would be much closer to being a good value.

All said, I don’t think I’m going to be spending  lot of time in the future with the Blue Label editions. King George V is certainly nice, but its price is out of step with what it provides. Standard Blue Label is just disappointingly simple.

At a glance:

Johnnie Walker Blue Label – 40% ABV
Nose:  Gently malty; sweet. Faint peat but not too powerful.
Palate:  Medium-light mouthfeel. Somewhat sweet; faintly peaty. Gentle heat – just a touch of pepper. Malty – a bit of sweetness. Faint saltiness.
Finish:  Smooth, light finish. A slight bit of heat on the finish – a little pepper and plenty of malt. After a bit there’s some woody mustiness.
Comment:  It’s kind of plainly middle of the road. Not much happening – it is similar to an older malt that’s kind of aged past its prime and lost some fire. The faint heat and smoke gives it some personality but it’s kind of milquetoast. That said, at 40% and sweet and malty, it is pretty solidly drinkable. After all that: It’s a lot to pay for blandness.
Rating: B-

Johnnie Walker Blue Label – King George V Edition 43% ABV
Nose:  Malty and gentle, with some light-to-medium peat with a faintly rubbery tang. Pepper, light pineapple, and slight butteriness. Light floral notes develop. Vanilla.
Palate:  Light in the mouth. White pepper, faint cinnamon. A bit of rubber and malt. Slightly buttery. Slight grain.
Finish:  Nice pepper and faint chili oil. Malty and with a bit of grain – hay. Reasonably lasting finish.
Comment:  This is much better than the standard blue label with more nuance. It’s still somewhat light for my tastes, but the pepper and peat give it a lot of depth that are missing from the standard blue label. Good in spite of the price tag.
Rating: B