Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Berskshire Mountain Distillers Ethereal Gin


Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ethereal Gin
Batch 10
43% abv (86 proof)
$30 – $35
Overall Rating:  Bottle

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review system.

When late spring weather turns to the warmer side, I start to crave refreshing drinks.  Scotch gets put away at the slightest hint of winter’s passing.  Bourbon can be satisfying on ice in the heat, but I tend to enjoy it most during the transitional seasons (spring and autumn).  A Mint Julep is a treasure of a cocktail any time in the warm season (even though it’s traditionally used in spring, around the time of the Kentucky Derby), but nothing is so satisfying in the heat, to me, as a chilled beverage accompanied by soda of some kind, and something citrusy.  Enter the gin and tonic.  Now add my search for really good gin.

I like to buy local when I can help it, even in my travels.  Maybe it’s because I live in New England and we have ample supply of ‘local’ goods, or maybe I just like supporting my neighbor, or the little guy.  We rely on each other, after all.  Regardless of reason, local is my preference when it’s available and priced well (sometimes local is unaffordable).  I get into that in slightly more detail here.

Berkshire Mountain Distillers (BMD) is located in Sheffield, Mass, barely outside of Connecticut, my home state.  For distilleries, it doesn’t get much more local than that.  In Connecticut there is only one legitimate distillery that I’m aware of*, so having a distillery as close as BMD is fantastic.

BMD distills and bottles several products in house including a bourbon (not ‘straight’, so one can only assume it’s quite young), and a corn whiskey.  But the subject of this review is not their whiskey.  It’s their gin.  Ethereal, to be exact, which is  a limited yearly release separate from the standard offering, Greylock.  I’m reviewing Ethereal, batch 10 (white label; the label changes color with each batch).  I couldn’t tell you what year this is from as even BMD’s own website has tasting notes only from batches five through eight (at the time of this writing) and the years aren’t listed anywhere.

As I drink gin almost exclusively in a gin and tonic, I’ll be reviewing this gin based only on its presence in that drink.  Here we go…

The eyes.
Clear.  It’s gin…

The nose.
Junpier, of course; a little pine-y.  Little astringency, though it’s detectable.  Pleasantly sweet, slightly citrus, slightly fruity.  Barely floral.

The mouth.
Again, please note that I’m tasting this in a gin and tonic, not straight or in a martini.  This is sweet. Not overly sweet, but I’d easily categorize this as an Old Tom style gin (not knowing a whole lot about the ins and outs of gin, Old Tom is a sweeter, less dry style).  What I’m finding particularly enjoyable about this G&T is that the juniper and light citrus is accompanied by a fruit.  At first I would’ve called it blueberry (which goes smashingly with lemon), but the more I drank it the more I became unsure.  At this point I’d say it’s definitely a berry.  Blueberry, raspberry maybe.  Maybe a mixed berry essence.  Regardless of the exact source, it’s a hit for me.  I tend to enjoy the sweeter style gins, and the combination of juniper, light citrus and berry has me coming back to this for more.  After the tiring, slightly warm day I had today, I knew this was exactly what I wanted.  Sweet, pleasant, refreshing.

Were this a standard offering, and not a special release, I would readily recommend it as a stock item.  I’d easily keep this on hand.  But, given its limited release status and the variations from batch to batch (stated by BMD), I can only recommend this as a bottle purchase.  Certainly, to me, worth the price (at the low $30’s mark) of a whole bottle to enjoy.  What would move this into a regular purchase would be either my own positive experiences with multiple batches, or recipes (or, at the very least, tasting notes) accompanying each batch.  As it is, I have no idea what’s in this batch.  All I know is what I’m experiencing which, for me, takes away from it.  I want to know.  What’s this fruit essence?  Is it fruit or is it something else?  Is the next batch going to be more on the dry side or are they all sweeter given that Greylock, the regularly available expression, is a London Dry style?  Too many questions to make this a regular purchase.  More of a curiosity worth a try.  Though, in fairness, I’ll likely buy another batch to see how it goes.  But as I’ve only experienced one thus far, a bottle recommendation is all I can give it.  If you have had, or have, another batch, let me know how it is.

*The only distillery I’m aware of is Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford, Conn, which makes mostly eaux de vie and an aged apple brandy which I have but haven’t yet opened.  There are other ‘distilleries’ in CT like Onyx, which purports to be local, but is in fact sourced corn distillate that’s only bottled in state.  While that may mean locally bottled, and consequently local jobs (which is great) it’s not a local product.  That’s fine, of course, in this capitalist country, but claiming to be ‘Connecticut’s first legal moonshine’ (an oxymoron as ‘moonshine’ is illegal; making it legal removes the moonshining aspect of it, rendering the title meaningless) is a lie.  It’s Connecticut’s first legal bottled distillate at best.

Review: Balcones Rumble

Balcones Rumble & Glass

Balcones Rumble
Batch R14-1, bottled 1/17/14, distilled by CT (Chip Tate)
Aged spirit made from distilled wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and mission figs
47% ABV (94 proof)
$50 – $55
Overall Rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review system.

Balcones (named after the Balcones Fault Zone, I presume – something I learned today), only around since 2008, has already had a sordid history.  I’ll not get into the details here, but you can read about the current tail end of a dispute between Chip Tate, the distillery’s builder and founder, and his financial backers here.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

I describe Rumble above, just as Rumble describes itself, as an aged spirit, not a whiskey.  That’s because to be labelled ‘whiskey’, an aged spirit must be distilled from grain.  Rumble isn’t.  It’s made from wildflower honey, turbinado sugar (natural cane sugar that has had most of its molasses removed), and mission figs.  After these have been distilled, it’s aged in small oak barrels in Waco, Texas, home of this genuine craft distillery.

Craft is a word with ever broadening definitions in the whiskey world (and I’m sure in the world at large).  Many a producer has bottled whiskey sourced typically from MGP (Midwest Grain Products in Indiana), slapped their home spun story on a label, and claimed it to be of their own making.  Not Balcones.  They distill and age everything on site.  After recognizing the genuine craft nature of this distillery’s expressions – a real diamond in the rough – I was eager to purchase a few different bottles and give them a try (despite their relatively high price tag).

So after a trip to Total Wine in Norwalk, Conn., I came home with some potential treasures.  Let’s see how Rumble fared.

The Eyes.
Light copper, maybe an orange brass.

The Nose.
Slight alcohol, buttered raisin toast, dried figs and dates,  other dried golden fruits (not really sure how best to describe this; golden raisins, maybe?).  Honey, sweet and dessert like; freshly baked and honey-buttered croissants that are nicely flaky on the outside and soft and moist on the inside.

I thought this would remind me of a rum, due to the sugar, but instead it feels more reminiscent of a sweeter, younger cognac.  I’m finding just a slight hint of cinnamon.  This has a really nice nose on it.  Not particularly complex, but something I enjoy breathing in through the olfactory, picking up the essence of the sweet, buttery, honeyed desserts cooling on a rack in the kitchen.

The empty glass smells distinctly of corn which makes me wonder, given the categorization defiance of this spirit (and consequently the label) if this wasn’t aged in the barrels previously used for some of Balcones other spirits.  Their corn whiskey (Baby Blue, or True Blue), perhaps?

The Mouth.
Medium to thick mouth feel. Throat warming (not offensively so).  Sweet but certainly not cloying. Raisins, gentle sweet oak, powdered sugar over french toast, dried stone fruit (apricot, maybe?  Plum?).  Finish isn’t quick, but not quite long enough to say it’s ‘medium’ either.  The one lasting impression after I swallow is that cognac-like, gentle sweetness.  It lingers on with impressions of these fig/date candy wafers my friend used to give me when I was in middle school.  They were sweet the way dried fruit is when it doesn’t have added sugar.  This is sweet, for sure, but pleasantly so.   There’s just enough dry warmth and a smidgen of saltiness to keep it from being too sweet.

This is a refreshing spirit as it’s set apart from the normal bottles of anything dwelling on liquor store shelves.  My first glass left me thoroughly impressed by the nose and disappointed by the mouth.  After my third, however, it grew on me significantly.  The first time around seemed dry and uninspired, but after the final glass for this review, it really blossomed into something enjoyable.  Would I restock it?  Likely not.  Partially because I can’t quite justify a $54 restock fee just for the novelty, partially because it’s not my favorite of Balcones expressions, and partially because the future of Balcones is uncertain.

So, unsure of the future quality or pricing of this distillery’s lineup, I’ll leave it at this:  If you would like to try something different, pleasantly enjoyable, and genuinely ‘craft’, buy yourself a sample at the very least.  If you want to spend the money on something you’d like and is all but guaranteed to be available months or years from now, I’d recommend spending it on a decent cognac instead.  It will either be cheaper than Rumble or quite good if you want to spend an equivalent amount of money.  I have a bottle of Remy Martin VSOP that, while not nearly as unique, is enjoyable to me on the same level.  If, however, you feel that you don’t want to miss out on this kind of opportunity, buy a bottle while the buying’s good.  It may not be on shelves much longer.  Their single malt and Brimstone are already selling out locally.

My overall rating is ‘Nip/Bar‘ because of these factors.

Review: Compass Box Hedonism


(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Hedonism
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
43% abv (86 proof)
$90 – $110
Overall rating:  nip/bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.Here we are (finally!) at the final sample in the Compass Box (CB) sample pack.  To recap, each of the five samples of CB’s main whisky lineup came in a 50mL vial that I split with my whiskey buddy Jake who purchased the pack.  Hedonism was the last vial in CB’s suggested order as indicated through the presentation in the box and through the order of accompanying tasting videos on CB’s website (which we watched only after we had already completed our tasting).

This was the bottle whose packaging I most enjoyed (which never factors into my review of a whiskey, but I do notice it).  I had no idea what to expect from the blend and all I knew going into the tasting was that this, unlike any of the other CB blends (and unlike any blended scotch I’ve ever had) had no single malt in its composition at all.  It is comprised entirely of grain whiskies which are typically used to fill in gaps with blended scotch but here are its only components.

As a quick lesson in scotch terms, a single malt scotch is comprised entirely of one grain: malted barley.  Malted means that the barley was germinated (caused to sprout) by soaking it in water and then this process was halted by drying the barley with hot air.  The germination produces enzymes in the barley which change the starches into sugars.  Barley already contains some sugars but the germination produces others that were not already present.  It also helps to make the barley more yeast friendly.  Grain whisky is produced from any grain other than malted barley (including barley that has not been malted); typically corn, wheat or rye.

 I have my guesses as to which grains are used in Hedonism, but I’ll get to that after the tasting notes.

 The eyes:
A light, soft gold.

 The nose:
At first, there is a similarity to the white wine character of Asyla, but that fades.  This is a complex nose with plenty to observe.  There is very slight ethanol.  There are notes of vanilla and custard, sweet bourbon, and rye whiskey (that sour pickle juice).  There are notes of white grapes, white flesh apples* (Macintosh, Macoun), ginger and citrus (some orange but more lemon).  I’m finding delightful caramelized sugars.  The ethanol, forgotten through the above presentation of teasing scents, presents itself again (still very slight and not offensive at all).

 This is a beautiful, enticing nose with plenty to enjoy and look forward to with each approach to the glass.  After time, and when there is little left in the glass, there is assertive, rich cinnamon and cinnamon dusted rice pudding (sort of a combination of custard and sweetened condensed milk).  I want to smell this whisky for hours.

 The mouth:
Rich, creamy, sweet, hot (not offensively so), and balanced.  This is like drinking desserts.  Creamy custard and sweet grains.  The finish is hot, long, and caramely sweet, like the way your palate feels after eating creme brûlée or vanilla pudding (the good stuff) twenty minutes ago.  That lingering, sweet richness without being cloying.  I really want to continue experiencing this, and it has what I call “the draw” for sure.  It just keeps drawing you back for more.

Hedonism, as defined by, means “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest good,” or, “devotion to pleasure as a way of life.”  I would say that this blend of single grains is aptly named.  I derived plenty of pleasure from even just the nose.  As I said, I wanted to sit and continue to experience Hedonism for hours; there are very few whiskies that I have found this enticing.  More, please.

If I were to wager a guess as to the grains used, I would say rye based on the pickle juice in the nose as well as the ginger and citrus.  I would also guess that the dessert quality of this whisky comes from wheat which has the same sweet effect with American whiskey.  Corn can also impart sweetness but typically identifies itself by a distinct corn smell which I did not detect here.  I could, of course, be completely wrong, but those are my guesses.  The aging in first-fill American oak casks (ex-bourbon barrels) also helps to impart bourbon’s sweet notes.

What I discovered after the tasting (and just prior to my subsequent bottle purchase) is that Hedonism is produced in relatively small batches.  Because of this, and the uncertainty of cask availability with the desired flavor profile, there’s bound to be variation from one batch to the next.  This can, however, be the case with any whiskey as, unless you’re drinking a single cask/barrel, you’re drinking from a blend of many barrels/casks that, upon meeting certain conditions, are dumped and blended together to attain the house’s desired flavor profile.

The difference here is that the grain whiskies, and their sources, may be different from batch to batch.  CB ensures that while variation is inevitable, the same hedonistic profile will be delivered.  As the batch I sampled was not the first, I’m inclined to believe it.  What a luscious beauty.

The latest batch, MMXIV-A (fancy romany numerals for 2014-A), was bottled on Feb 6 of this year.  As Jake purchased the sample pack in March or April, it’s safe to assume what we tasted is from this batch.  That and I believe the sample pack is a relatively new CB product so it’s doubtful he purchased a previous year’s offering.This batch is a blend of two grain whiskies both distilled in 1997 making it a 16-17 year old blend depending on when the whisky went into the barrel and when it was pulled for bottling.  The age isn’t terribly important but it’s nice to know if you’re going to spend ~$100 on a bottle.  These grain whiskies came from the Girvan Distillery in South Ayrshire and the Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife.  CB doesn’t say this directly but the distillery towns are provided and as these are the only grain whisky distilleries in their respective towns, it’s understood.

Because I enjoyed this so much, but it’s expensive, my overall rating was very difficult to arrive at.  Were this even a $50 whisky I would readily recommend it as a stock bottle.  But at or over $100, I just can’t do that.  I waffled between nip/bar and bottle.  I would heartily recommend you at least go purchase yourself a sample at a local whisky bar or wherever you can.  It’s certainly worth that.  But, unless you like rich, sweet whiskies, it may not be worth it to purchase a whole bottle.  I did because my wife and I are expecting a child soon and I wanted something to open for that special celebratory occasion.  That made the price easily justifiable for me.  But under normal circumstances, $100 for this bottle would have me very thankful that I was able to sample it as I passed it by on the shelf for something cheaper.

Between the price and the expected variation from batch to batch (however slight it may be), my overall rating is nip/bar.  That being said, if you want something for really special occasions, I would readily recommend this.

Review: Compass Box The Peat Monster

(photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)
Compass Box The Peat Monster
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
46% abv (92 proof)
$48 – $58
Overall rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Here we are at the fourth Compass Box (CB) expression from their standard lineup.  As per my previous CB reviews, this was part of a sample pack of 50mL vials.  I sat down to do the tasting with Jake, my go-to whiskey buddy (who provided the sample pack).

From the names of their whiskies, this was the only one that created expectation.  I know what peat is and the kinds of flavors it can impart, but will this prove to be a “monster”?  We’ll find out.

The eyes:
Light gold.

The nose:
Hey, peat.  How about that?  I wasn’t expecting that at all…  Sarcasm aside, it’s not a face punch of peat, but it’s gently assertive.  Fortunately, this isn’t a one note blend and there was more to be found as time passed.  Charcoal smoke.  There’s a red berry note that is hard to pinpoint but it reminds me of Apple & Eve’s Bert and Ernie Berry juice or raspberry gelato.  It has that sweet and tart raspberry character to it.  There’s a sweet note far below but I found I could only catch glimpses of it if I inhaled faster than normal (I typically just breathe slowly through my nose above the glass); when I did this, it would separate from the peat and would rise with hints of the berry.  There’s a note of birch beer and hints of melon (cantaloupe).  With time, the peat becomes less assertive and I pick up some hints of white flesh fruit (maybe more of that apple I’ve found in the other CB blends).

The mouth:
Peat (obviously).  The charcoal note carries over to the mouth and is sweet and smoky.  There’s a long, warming heat that carries a medium finish of mostly sweet peat with some malt.

The nose on this blend was an enjoyable experience, much more nuanced than I expected from a scotch bearing this name.  That red berry note was enticing and kept me searching for more complexity, and the overall smell experience was nice.  The mouth had less complexity and seemed to center around a sweet, malty peat with little else detectable, at least by my palate.  Because if this, the Peat Monster experience peaked for me at the nose (which, to be honest, happens with a lot of whiskies).

So exactly how assertive is the peat here?  When I pour myself a glass of something called “The Peat Monster”, I have certain expectations.  I’m used to scotch like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Kilchoman that are, to me, peat monsters (though not at all one note whiskies).  With that in mind, this isn’t what I would call a “monster” per se, though it’s certainly the most peated of CB’s whiskies.  Relative to the rest of CB’s lineup, this is a monster.  Relative to the scotch world at large, it is not.

The aforementioned Laphroaig is a monster like Sully from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.  It can be scary but it’s also sweet.  It might be able to beat up your palate but it won’t; it’s meek (power under control).  And because of these characteristics I find Laphroaig wonderfully aggressive and simultaneously approachable, and greatly enjoyable.

The Peat Monster is like a monster from Sesame Street.  It is gentle, easy to get along with, and much softer than its name suggests.  I don’t find these attributes to detract from the whisky and, in fact, I’m not surprised.  Delicate approachability seems to be CB’s style.  Where some whiskies do this in a predictable, boring manor, I don’t think The Peat Monster was boring.  The mouth may have been less complex than the nose gave hope for but it’s still a good whisky.  Like Grover, despite its gentle nature, I found it entertaining.

At an average of $53 a bottle, this wouldn’t be my go-to peated scotch.  There are cheaper options that are more to my taste like Laphroaig 10 year ($48) or Quarter Cask (around the same price as the 10 year) or Ardbeg 10 year ($48).  I think it’s fair to compare these because while The Peat Monster is a blend, it’s a blended malt.  That means it’s only a blend of single malts; no grain whisky added like with Johnnie Walker Black Label (JWBL) or most of the other ubiquitous blends (Famous Grouse, Chivas, Ballentine’s…).  If we were comparing blends, regardless of content, I find Peat Monster wholly more enjoyable than JWBL.  However, it’s difficult to justify the price difference considering that JWBL goes for $30-$35.  If I were to compare it to JW Double Black, which is more fair given that JWDB is JWBL’s more peated brother, I’d probably go with JWDB given the average bottle cost is $35.  I’ve only had JWDB once and it was a while ago, but I remember liking it.  And for $23 less, I would easily give JWDB a good chance over The Peat Monster.

My overall rating of The Peat Monster is Nip/Bar.  I came to this rating because I think it’s worth a try; you may enjoy its gentle Sesame Street monster character over more assertive peat monsters.  But I can’t justify recommending a whole bottle given its price compared to cheaper peated scotches that are as good, if not better.


Review: Compass Box Spice Tree


(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Spice Tree
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
46% alc/vol (92 proof)
$55 – $65
Overall rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Here we are at the third whisky in Compass Box’s (CB) gift pack.  I’ve already reviewed Asyla and Oak Cross.

A quick rehash, in case you’re only here for this review:  My friend Jake and I sat down to review the CB lineup from a gift pack that Jake had purchased.  There were five vials, 50mL each, of the whiskies.  Each whisky had an accompanying tasting video on CB’s website.  We tasted them in their order in the box, which is the same order of the videos.  We didn’t watch the videos until after we had tasted each whisky because we didn’t want our experience to be tainted by suggestion.  I really wanted to make sure that we experienced the whisky on our own before hearing the company marketing spiel.  I’m glad we made that decision as my tasting notes at times did not match up with John Glaser’s (the company’s founder and Whiskymaker).  Had we watched the videos before hand, I feel that I would have been looking for smells and flavors, rather than experiencing what was there.

Knowing what little I did about CB’s lineup going into the gift pack tasting, I really didn’t know what to expect from each of the 50mL vials. The one whisky I knew something about (aside from the obvious expectation of peat in The Peat Monster, being reviewed next) was The Spice Tree.  A little over a month ago, when visiting a friend at a local liquor store, I was given a sample of Brenne to try.  It was like no whisky I had ever tried before (and still isn’t).  Wanting to find out more information, I decided to look up some reviews.  Brenne is a French whisky first aged in first fill Limousin Oak then aged in ex-Cognac barrels.  I incidentally discovered through this review at The Coopered Tot (a whiskey blog I follow, so I trust Josh’s reviews) that The Spice Tree is aged in Limousin Oak as well.  So, given the fascinating whisky Brenne is, I was excited to see what the same oak would do to The Spice Tree.

The leaflet that came in the gift pack had the following information:

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky 46% [alc/vol]
Three Highland single malts from the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron.  Extended maturation in custom-made French oak casks with heavily toasted ends.

It goes on to break down the composition, and the reasons behind each choice:

A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

1.  20% first fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  80% new French oak – clove spice, vanilla, mocha

I tried not to pay attention to the aroma and flavor benefits so as to come to my own conclusions.  Here we go:

The eyes.
The color is very similar to apple juice (Motts, I suppose…I’ve never really payed enough attention to notice if one brand of apple juice looks different from another; I suppose with kids in the house now I’ll be looking more closely so I can start reviewing them…)

The nose.
The nose is very subtle.  I don’t know that I’d call it delicate; more like faint.  There is plenty of spice here, like Christmas baking spices, but they seem to be hiding.  Like when you enter someone’s home the day after they’ve been baking.  You can tell, but it’s not very strong.  I can smell indistinct red berries and Christmas desserts.  I don’t know what it is that keeps me thinking of Christmas food here, but there’s something holiday-esque about the nose.  Like late autumn, early winter New England spices; nutmeg and clove, maybe, but there’s nothing significantly distinguishable.  Just Christmas.  There’s a light apple note, similar to that of Oak Cross.  After a little time, very slight notes of malt, vanilla, and peat emerge.  Toward the very end of my nosing time, I found (strange as it may sound), a plain macaroni note.  Like when hot elbow macaroni is sitting in the colander after it’s been freshly poured into it.  Maybe it’s the sweetness of the malt changing a bit?  I will say that, considering the 46% abv, I expected at least some noticeable ethanol, but there’s nothing.  That’s impressive.

The mouth.
This is a warm, spicy, oaky whisky.  I still detect no ethanol.  It’s hot on the throat and the spices are here, but even less distinguishable than the nose.  I wouldn’t even identify them here as “Christmas”.  I taste malt, light vanilla, and a very slight apple rolling over from the nose onto the palate.  The mouth has more volume than the nose but it’s still disappointing.  I feel like the base that is holding the flavors up is similar to that of Highland Park (if you were to strip away its flavor components and be down to the bare malt base).  The finish is medium, sweet, and semi-spicy.

The nose, while delivering those holiday baked treats, was disappointing.  Perhaps it’s that my expectations were too high based on the name, the use of Limousin oak, and the color (given that CB uses no color additives), but everything here is just too faint.  When I first nosed those baking spices, I wanted them at a higher volume; they’re just too quiet.  Jake put it nicely when he said, “It seems flat, like nothing’s standing out.”  Some may call that balanced, but I found it boring.  I was really looking forward to seeing what Limousin oak would do with this blended malt.  The nose was the most interesting part but those Christmas baked treats were, again, too faint.  They would have wowed me with more presence and richness.  This package in its present form is just not enough for me to want more.  Had I $60 to spend on a whisky, this would not be on the list of candidates.  I think it’s worth a sample as the spice character isn’t like any whisky I’ve had before, but I can’t justify purchasing a whole bottle.  If you like lighter whiskies, and enjoy sweet, spiced flavors, you might like this.  It just didn’t have enough overall presence for me.

Review: Compass Box Oak Cross

(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Oak Cross
Blended malt scotch whisky
43% alc/vol
$45 – $50
Overall rating:  Friend

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Yesterday I posted a review of Compass Box’s (CB’s) Asyla.  As I stated there, it was a part of a CB gift pack with five vials (50mL each) of their standard lineup.  Today I’m reviewing the next whisky, Oak Cross.  After having tasted Asyla first, I was very excited to continue with the lineup, expecting good things.

I’m a little upset with myself that I didn’t take any photos of the gift pack or the whisky itself to post here.  While I appreciate readily available marketing photos, they can sometimes be inaccurate or, at the very least, misleading.  This isn’t always the case, and the CB photos on their website (that I am using here) seem accurate enough.  But there’s something nice about posting real photos of real whisky rather than relying on the brushed up commercial versions.  So for my oversight, I apologize.

As I said on my review of Asyla, I really appreciate the transparency of CB.  The leaflet that came with the gift pack has the following information about Oak Cross:

Three Highland single malts form the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron, with partial aging in French oak.

It goes on to break down the composition with the expected results from each component:

A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

1.  60% First fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  40% New French oak – clove spice

So here we go.

The eyes.
Oak Cross is a light gold.  It has a clean transparency.  Additional generic phrase describing the liquid.

The nose.
The first thing I detect out of the gate is Jolly Rancher apple.  Jake, my tasting partner through the CB gift pack, described it as sour apple.  It’s very apparent and is assertive enough so as not to let other scents through until some time has passed.  After some time in the glass, I’m finding the nose to be light but not delicate, and it softens as time continues to pass.  There is a floral note (carnation).  I detect ethanol but only in extremely faint and infrequent doses.  There is a light peat behind it all, and some distant malt and fresh oak.

The mouth.
The apple carries over to the palate just as strong as it was in the nose.  There’s a light to medium mouth feel and it’s warm but not hot, and spicy on the tongue.  The oak, staves damp with apple brandy, is stronger in the mouth (not surprising given the name).   I was surprised to get little to no vanilla both on the nose and on the palate given the larger portion of first fill American oak.  That is the reason why I didn’t want to watch the tasting video for Oak Cross before I tasted it myself; I wanted to let the scents and flavors come to me, not seek out what I was told is there.  As with the nose, there is peat here but it’s very faint, almost like unintentional leftovers from the malting process.  The finish is medium length with plenty of that Jolly Rancher apple.

Where Asyla has a delicate femininity and a complex white wine character, Oak Cross seems less intriguing of a whisky and I found the sour apple covered over a lot of what I had hoped to discover given the first fill American casks and the French oak which is known for its spice notes.  It was not a bad whisky by any means and, in fact, seems well crafted for a blend.  It was just too plain and uninteresting for me especially after the wonder that was Asyla.  And, given that Asyla is a blended scotch but this is a blended malt (meaning no grain whisky, just a blend of single malts) I had expected more from it.  John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) notes in the tasting video that the blended malts that make up Oak Cross are aged in American oak for about ten years.  After that time, about half of the blend is moved to barrels that have American oak staves with French oak heads (which explains why, to me, there is a lack of expected spice).  This is also one of the tastings where I disagreed with Glaser’s assessment of the whisky.  I did notice an overall sweetness, but found no “light clove” or “mocha” notes.

This is worth at least a sample, free if you can but don’t hesitate to spend a few bucks to try it if you get the opportunity (if you really like a light scotch that tastes like Jolly Rancher apples aged in oak).

Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla-Box-Bottle(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Asyla
Blended Scotch Whisky
40% alc/vol
$40 – $50
Overall rating:  Stock

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review system.

Your first review is of a blended scotch?  Not even a single malt?

Sigh.  Yes.  While my tagline says “Bourbon enthusiast,” that’s not where it ends.  I also enjoy scotch, rum, tequila, and brandy.  Really anything distilled and aged.  Let’s be adults and move on to the review, shall we?

Jake is my whiskey buddy.  He and I compliment each other well since he is mostly into scotch and I am mostly into bourbon, but we enjoy experiencing the other as well.  So we help each other out.  Fortunately I’m on the cheaper end of the spectrum so I get to benefit from his more expensive purchases.  Thanks, Jake.

A couple of months ago, Jake bought a Compass Box (CB) gift pack which includes five vials (50 mL each) of their main lineup.  The box (a well crafted, black, hinged wooden box that had me wondering how much of the pack price went toward it) included a leaflet with information on the whisky in each vial.  This week we sat down to sample them together and compare notes.  We went through them in the order they are in the box, as well as the order of the accompanying tasting videos found on CB’s website:  Asyla, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, and Hedonism.  I’ll be reviewing all five, in order, starting here with Asyla.

My initial experience with scotch was with blends.  White Horse, Ballantine’s, Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal 12 year, Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black.  Each of them had a very obvious and distinct ethanol presence (like vodka; that smell and taste of rubbing alcohol).  I tried single malts shortly thereafter and never looked back to blends.  Even after I had heard great things about CB’s Great King Street Artist’s Blend, I still avoided it because of blended scotch’s reputation for being harsh and nearly unpalatable.  But one thing i’ve learned in life is to give second chances.  Whiskies change, and so do I.  So, despite CB being a blending house, I decided to give their expressions a fair chance.

I’m glad I did.

One thing I appreciated about CB immediately was their transparency.  The leaflet included in the box tells me about as much as I’d like to know about what I’m drinking.  As I’m used to some producers of American whiskey using fabricated history (*cough* Diageo *cough*), or distilleries being very hush-hush about what’s in the bottle, this is a wonderful breath of fresh air.  CB doesn’t tell me the exact distillery they source their whisky from, but they get awfully close.  About Asyla, the leaflet says:

Single malts from the towns of Alness and Longmorn.  Single grain whisky from Fife.  Aged in 100% first-fill American oak.

It then breaks the composition down even further, with the reasoning behind each choice:

A.  50% Lowland (East) single grain – fruitiness
B.  40% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  10% Speyside single malt – fruitiness

1.  100% first fill American oak – vanilla

As I mentioned above, there are tasting videos to go with each whisky.  Jake and I didn’t want to taint our own experiences by having someone else tell us what we should be smelling or tasting so we opted to watch the videos after we’d finished with each sample.  I found we agreed with John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) on some things, and disagreed on others (not just on Asyla, but the others as well).  I tend to think that a master distiller, or ‘whiskymaker’, certainly knows more about what they make than I do about what I buy.  So I might be inclined to give Glaser the benefit of the doubt and assume he can sense things I don’t.  But, that doesn’t detract from the fact that there were certain notes I just didn’t pick up.

Alright, let’s get down to it.

The eyes.
Asyla is a very light gold, almost like water with a little apple juice added to it.  It looks clean and crisp.

The nose.
I was immediately enticed by this whisky from the first scents.  It nosed much more like a white wine than it did a scotch.  A Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling.  It is light and delicate.  There is white flesh fruit, like sour apples and a faint peat reminding me that this is, indeed, scotch.  Asyla’s nose opens up with a little time in the glass giving way to more of the fruit, and strengthening the white wine essence.  I detect not even a trace of ethanol.

The mouth.
Medium to heavy body, fairly creamy and velvety.  Soft.  Delicate apple carries over from the nose with the addition of a slight note of vanilla.  There’s a slight floral flavor like first spring flowers on the breeze.  There is faint oak here that I really had to search for.  There’s a sweetness here too, but light and far from cloying.  I found the finish to be medium and warm, certainly longer than I would have expected from the delicacy of flavor.  Perhaps it’s the creamy weight in the mouth that helps.  That sweet white flesh fruit carries itself from the nose to the throat.

Glaser suggested in the tasting video that this is a “Sunday afternoon in the garden” whisky, which I’m inclined to agree with.  For those beautiful late spring afternoons where the air is comfortably warm but still cool enough to want to be in the sun.  He also suggested that this could be enjoyed with ice, water, or club soda.  I found Asyla to be just too delicate and well crafted to want to add anything and chance washing away the clean, crisp structure (especially at the minimum 40% alc/vol).  I let it be and enjoyed it in its natural form.

This is a beautiful scotch that doesn’t drink like a blend at all.  In fact, if I didn’t know, I would have sworn this is a single malt.  I typically don’t like delicate or lightly flavored whiskies.  I don’t want to work hard to find the scents and flavors.  Delicate whiskies can often mumble quietly to my palate and I’m left wanting to say, “Speak up, please!”  Asyla, while delicate, spoke softly but clearly.  It was a soft voice which, rather than presenting me with an experience, intimately invited me in for one.  In my three years of whiskey drinking, I have only once before called a whiskey “feminine” (Brenne), but here I find myself readily applying that adjective.  Asyla is graceful and elegant.  The white wine character is so intriguing as to draw me back for more.  In fact, the night after I sampled it I lamented at not having any more on hand and was already thinking about buying a bottle.  At its price point, this is a fantastic value.