Don’t discount blends when it comes to Scotch whisky

These are some of the blended whiskies made by Compass Box. Krista Slater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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These are some of the blended whiskies made by Compass Box. Krista Slater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Blend is not a bad word, as we’ve said countless times while trying to turn people on to one of our favorite whisky brands, Compass Box. With the popularity of single malt scotches, it has been an uphill battle.

Since Scotch whisky is a big category to grapple with, let’s start with a few definitions for our purposes: Single malt whisky is made from a malted barley mash in a copper pot still at a single distillery. Grain whisky is made from wheat, corn or rye (sometimes with a small amount of malted barley), using a continuous column still. Blended whisky is a blend of grain and malt whiskies.

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While single malt whisky’s superiority now seems unquestioned, in the early 1980s there were only a couple dozen brands being sold. Nowadays, there are at least 125 distilleries making multiple expressions of single malt whisky, plus barrels being sold from defunct distilleries.

This is not to say single malt whisky isn’t great; it is just to say that its superior status is just over a quarter century old.

Compass Box celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2020, meaning its origin came at the height of single malt orthodoxy. It is the creation of an American, John Glaser, who fell in love with Scotch whisky while working for Johnny Walker.

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In the realm of wine, blending is about creating balance, complexity, and a product whose sum is greater than its parts. Think of the great wines of Bordeaux. But, in 2000, blending whiskies was viewed as a dilution of quality in the pursuit of mass production. However, Glaser blends single malt whiskies for consistency and a unique flavor profile.

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Glaser also believes in transparency, both in his whisky, where there are no artificial additives or excessive filtering, and in revealing his whisky sources and blend percentages. This is looked down on in Scotland, and got Glaser in trouble in 2005 with Scotch’s governing body, which only added to his reputation as whisky’s “l’enfant terrible.”

Glaser disputed his bad boy image when he sat down with a group of Atlanta bartenders in 2019, although he admitted, “I might be a heretic” — one who differs in opinion from an accepted belief or doctrine.

A sampling of Compass Box whiskies

Artist Blend: A tribute to Edinburgh and its creatives, this blend of 47% single malt whisky, 45% single grain whisky and 8% blended malt whisky is fruity, creamy and rich. An easy-to-sip scotch, it also is priced for high balls and cocktail creativity.

Hedonism: This is the whisky that started it all for Compass Box. It’s a blend of single grain whiskies that are picked for their quality and ageablilty. With hints of vanilla, coconut and milk chocolate, Hedonism is an alluring treat.

Tobias and the Angel: This limited release is selling for around $800-$1,000 on the internet, though it was much lower when we purchased it. A true rarity, this is a blend of two single malt scotches — 50.9% Clynelish from the Highlands region and 49.1% Caol Ila from Islay — with the average age around 40 years old. It’s like eating dried apricots in a big leather chair in an ancient library, smoking jacket optional.

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