Whisky and Words Number 96: Compass Box Artist Blend

Artist Blend with artistic shadows.

Compass Box is quite the opposite of the typical Scotch whisky maker. It is a very new entrant, having been founded in AD 2000. Instead of hailing their age-old styles and techniques, they have been innovative, sometimes pushing the envelope of where the Scotch industry is willing to go. They are like the old guard in that they are rather expensive—their signature lines start at over $80 here in Oregon, and the top of the line ‘Hedonism’ is over $140…for a non-age statement (NAS) blended whisky. Wow. I’ll get to that one some day.

Today’s pick is their relatively affordable Artist Blend. Artist Blend is also NAS (as most blends are). You can pick this up for about fifty bucks. Still, that’s a cool $15 more than Johnnie Walker Black, which is aged for 12 years. That’s nearly a 50% premium. So, from that perspective, the Artist Blend is a pricey find and I expect it to deliver.

The bottle (and the marketing on their web site) celebrates the artists of Edinburgh, a city famous for its yearly arts festival. (I can attest to that, Edinburgh during the arts festival is a must-see.) The bottle boasts of the high malt content of this blend: 55% of it is comprised of Highland single malts (scuttlebutt has it that it is primarily Clynelish); the rest is grain whisky from Scotland’s lowlands. That’s a very healthy share of single malts for a blend. Most blends, like the aforementioned Johnnie Walker, will not state the percentage of malt in their blend. Aging has been in ex-bourbon, French oak and sherry butts. For how long? Who knows.

Sunny dram.

On to the tasting. There’s a faint but pleasant vanilla with touch of floral wafting gently on my pour. There’s not a strong nose, but it’s well rounded, featuring vanilla, mandarin orange, green grass, and lively cardamom. Deeper nosing uncovers a muted minerality and a sting to the nose. The only blend I have to compare is the Johnnie Walker Black, and it’s a good contrast. The Black is gentler on the nose and has a similar flavor profile but muted in comparison. Compass Box is bringing the flavor, for sure. But some young whiskies get in the way of deep enjoyment of the nose.

The palate is harsh, which is unfortunate as there is a well orchestrated vanilla caramel unctuousness that wants to come out, but there is a rough ride behind it. It left me with a sting on the tongue and a long burn in the throat. This is a whisky meant for mixing—ice or soda at the very least (and in truth I have been enjoying it with some water). A bit of added water tames the harshness and although the vanilla toffee is diluted as well, it makes for a pleasant experience. The finish is more of the same: the vanilla and caramel are nice, the burn in the throat and tongue are not so fun. If we contrast with the JW Black, I really have to honk the nose in the glass before it even begins to sting, and JWB is much easier on the mouth and throat, if a bit duller overall.

Compass Box Artist Blend blended Scotch Whisky, 43% ABV

N.B.: As always the tasting notes are for a neat pour.

Nose: Vanilla, floral and grassy notes, mandarin orange, cardamom. Very well balanced but marred as it has a pronounced alcohol sting on the nose.
Palate: Vanilla and luxurious caramel fight and with an notable alcohol burn.
Finish: The burn in the throat detracts from the lingering vanilla.

Bottom Line: For fifty USD, you can pick up a bottle of NAS single malt like Highland Park’s Magnus. Throw in another $5 and you can get the Highland Park, Glenfarclas or Aberlour 12-year single malts, all of which will treat your palate better. Why spring for a $50 blend? It would be a good choice for a cocktail calling for a subtly citrus whisky. I can’t recommend it for sipping neat, though. You might ask, why try drinking a $50 blended whisky straight and I’ll point you to the aforementioned single malts, and there are a wagonload of excellent American bourbons that can be had for less than $50 that are well crafted and eminently sippable. Competition!

A classy style and good flavor profile, but in need of taming

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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