About GrandMasterJohn

GrandMasterJohn is widely known as an historian, a gentleman, and a scholar. He is a man of science and is never afraid of whisky based experimentation.

Some Compass Box Love

The Compass Box Logo

The Compass Box Logo

In September 2013, a few members of the Isle of Man Whisky Club attended The Whisky Lounge’s Liverpool Whisky Festival. While there we had the chance to sample many varied drams from the distillers who had tables there, but the ones which left the biggest impression by far were those from Compass Box.

This was not only due to the staff of Compass Box (who spent best part of an hour and a half speaking to us about their samples), but also the incredibly unique whisky they had on their table.

These ranged from incredibly complex blends which defied any preconceptions we might have had to the surprising Delilah’s, a whisky which was described to me as “something you can just knock back again and again for the whole night”.

For a brief description of where Compass Box came from, here is an unashamedly copy-pasted paragraph from their site:

“After many years in the wine trade, American ex-pat John Glaser entered the world of Scotch whisky, learning his art through one of the industry’s largest companies. In 2000, he started Compass Box Whisky Company, based on his commitment to evolving practices in the industry to make great Scotch whisky more approachable and relevant to more people. From the beginning, his vision has been to create one of Scotland’s finest and most exciting whisky companies, re-establishing the standards for quality and style in the industry. Today, John Glaser is considered one of the most respected whisky makers of his generation.”

Looking through the marketing material and reading various other reviews I find that they have a reputation for producing unique blends and offering something a little different from the norm. This individual streak is also something which was being fully embraced by the members of Compass Box while we were at the festival, proudly delivering the background to drinks which had been refused classification as scotch whiskies due to the way they were blended or the woods used in construction of the casks.

This approach will obviously not be to everyone’s tastes, but I believe it is something we should all be happy exists. Wandering round the hall the festival was held in, we received different reactions from every table we approached. As I mentioned above, Compass Box were by far the most receptive to any questions we had and were incredibly enthusiastic about all their products.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there were a few companies which seemed completely disinterested in speaking to us at all, with one distillery simply pouring us a small dram when we asked for a sample without uttering a single word to us. In my opinion this was a disgraceful practise, not only showing a lack of care to their customers (existing or potential) but also a lack of interest in the products they were meant to be convincing us to buy.

The poor experience with this producer early in the afternoon only served to highlight the incredible passion and enthusiasm of Compass Box. Not only did they have what I believe to be fantastic products, but they were also willing to add personal investments by speaking to everyone who visited their table individually, asking how far we had come and discussing our local whisky scene at length.

This combination of fantastically unique products and excellent customer service has led to the Compass Box brand’s mystique in a very short time. You may have noticed that I haven’t really mentioned many of their products by name, and haven’t even touched on the subjects of nose and taste. This is because I simply don’t have the space to even briefly detail these subjects as far as Compass Box is concerned. They were the only table on which we tried every drink on offer (of which I believe there were nine), and they were all completely unique and all worth your time trying.

Compass Box may not have the history or reputation of some other brands, but they offer a unique and ingenious take on whisky which is all fuelled by incredible enthusiasm and love for what they do. This alone makes them worth your time.

Shackleton’s Prize

A photo of the Nimrod Expedition South Pole Party

A photo of the Nimrod Expedition South Pole Party

A few years ago, Whyte & Mackay began a project to recover, and then replicate, a blend whisky which had been recovered from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole of 1907. In this post, I will be thinking about how worthwhile the effort which was put into recreating this blend was, and whether naming it after the great man himself is a worthy tribute, or simply a cash-in on one of the greatest names in the history of exploration.

On 22 February 1908 Nimrod, the ship captained by Rupert England and which had carried Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition towards the South Pole, set sale after unloading personnel and supplies for the journey south at Cape Royds. Here, Shackleton established his base camp, and on 29 October 1908, after sheltering there over the winter, a four man party set off on their planned 1719 mile journey to the Pole and back.

After 73 torturous days of marching, and at a mere 112.2 miles from the pole, Shackleton gave the order to turn back. On 25 February 1909, two of the four men finally made it back to Hut Point, with the other two being picked up by Nimrod on 4 March, and the expedition sailed first to New Zealand, and then home to England.

This hurried departure resulted in a great quantity of supplies being left at the Cape Royds hut, including 3 crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt whisky.

Nearly 100 years later, in 2007, the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust stumbled across these crates while carrying out conservation work on the Cape Royds hut. One of the three crates was then flown to Canterbury Museum in New Zealand for further examination, resulting in the recovery of 10 miraculously intact bottles.

In 2011, three of these bottles were then flown back to Scotland for further analysis by Whyte & Mackays own team, including Master Blender Richard Paterson himself.

The team worked carefully with the precious little whisky they had to try to replicate the blend which had been prepared well over 100 years earlier, the original recipe being long lost in time.

This result is the ‘Discovery Edition’ blend, which looked to replicate the original Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt as accurately as possible. A second ‘Journey Edition’ blend took the original base blend of the Discovery Edition, and built on it to create an ‘inspired by’ tribute to the Shackleton story.

While this use of a wonderful story of discovering long lost treasures, and the connection to one of the greatest eras of exploration in human history must have provided a tempting lure to the Whyte & Mackey marketing department, I feel commendation is due to the classy way in which the passive marketing has been approached.

It would have been all too easy to simply call this something like ‘Shackleton Blend’ and let the name do the talking, yet the label is a simple attempt to recreate the style of the original and nothing more.

Perhaps it is these subtleties which create the great paradox of this whisky. While great lengths have been pursued to recreate the taste as a tribute to the original whisky rather than its famous connection, due to its subtle marketing the people who this blend will really matter to will be those who have a love of the heroic tales of those early tales of Antarctic discovery.

And maybe that’s the most fitting tribute a beverage can possibly offer; rather than cashing in by sticking a famous name on the bottle as something to be put on the shelf by a collector with no real interest in the history behind the liquid, this is a whisky which will be sought out and purchased by the people who love the adventure it has been inspired by.

In short, this whisky exists to provide a sense of adventure to those who appreciate it the most. A fitting tribute to one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known.

How many whiskies does your local pub stock

The usual whiskies at H & P

The usual whiskies at Horse & Plough (one of the local joints)

How many whiskies does your local pub stock? If you’re lucky your local might be the sort of pub that keeps a small selection of mid-priced whiskies on a dusty shelf, neatly arranged and mostly unopened. If you’re not as lucky they may only stock the well-known brands (at a guess Jack Daniel’s and Bells), which are mainly there to be mixed with Coke.

I would say that the majority of pubs I’ve been to seem to fall into the ‘essentials-with-something-unusual’ category. The Jack Daniel’s will be hanging upside down behind the bar with the vodka and the gin, and a bottle of something such as Talisker will stand to the side on display as if to say “yep, we’re a whisky bar”.

Most of the time this type of pub tend to stock the same few extra whiskies as each other, so once you’ve been to one you tend not to get anything too unexpected.

Then you get to the actual whisky based bars. In my experience these tend to come in two forms:

The first is the dedicated whisky bar, sometimes a themed bar where the stocking of whiskies fits the theme. A popular example seems the be the American-themed bar, usually serving burgers/hot dogs and stocking a selection of more unusual American whiskies than the standard Jim Beam.

One of my local(ish) bars has gone in this direction. They stock a large, and wide ranging selection of American whiskies, and rather than just the standard Bourbons, there is a selection of Rye and Corn whiskies to choose from, many of which you don’t often see in the UK. I have to say, it makes a refreshing change to be able to walk into a bar and having a whole wall of new and interesting whiskies to try.

The second type of whisky bar/pub I have run into is the “accidental whisky pub”. These are the pubs that have somehow accumulated a great number of whiskies through the years but they have been put on dusty shelves and neglected to 5, 10, maybe 15 years or more. These pubs are rare and the whiskies are usually not set on the usual eye level, and so have to be sought out. And even when you’ve found the elusive dusty bottles you are likely to hear the line “let me just ask the Landlord”. This can sometimes result in being informed that the whisky is for display only and not for sale.

Another of my local(ish) pubs is one of these pubs. Around the top of the bar, at a level that would require a step ladder to reach, there are what must be around 100-150 bottles covered in a thick layer of dust. All of these are for sale.

That’s right; all of these dusty, forgotten, old whiskies can be bought and drunk. And they are usually sold at the price of your run-of-the-mill dram. As you can imagine, it makes for one of the most interesting and adventurous nights out this side of slipping on the PVC.

The bars and pubs which proudly display their wide selection of diverse and unusual whiskies is always something to be savoured but sometimes the cramped, dark, dusty local you neglected at a younger age as being ‘just a bit too local’ might be hiding a wonderful treasure trove of their own.