Rebel of Blending - Peat Monster from Compass Box
Compass Box Whiskies, in no doubts are the rebels. My husband and I can always go into long discussion on why we love them so much. Unlike a lots of single malts whiskies, we enjoy the complexity of flavours and fascinated by their approach and process that elevates the current whisky market.
The first ever compass box whisky we bought is the Peat Monster. And for all the right reasons, we decided to use this bottle as reference to explain some of the key terms we usually find on whisky bottles and what do they actually mean. And disclaimer, it is my husband who did all the research and contributions to this article.
1. Blended vs Single Malts
Single malts have been dominating the whisky markets for decades, hands down to great marketing. It is always associated to higher quality and uniqueness hence can fetch higher price in the markets. However, the actual term of single malt does not mean single batch or cask but just single distillery. Hence a "single" malt can be composed of various whiskies distilled at a single distillery location, eg a cask of 12 yr old Macallan may be composed of a range of aged whiskies distilled at Macallan, the youngest of which is 12 years old. As a blended malt whisky - this implies that the Peat Monster has been made from a blend or combination of malt whiskies from more than one distillery. If you go to the factsheet provided by Compass Box, their sources of blend are from some pretty big and reputable houses. So blended whisky doesn't necessary associate with lower quality, more so it's an artisan skills of whisky blenders who created the complexity of each bottles with the width of knowledge that determine the quality of the outcome.
2. Natural Colour
Peat Monster label says "Natural Colour" which means the colour of the drink has not been enhanced or changed by the addition of caramel to darken it. The light gold colour has come from the wood the whisky components have been aged in -old oak and some new American oak. As the character of this whisky is "Peaty" the maker chooses to age the whisky in old oak which may add some colour but won't add the typical vanilla tastes of new oak.
3. Non-Chilled Filtered
What does it actually mean? This is an interesting note. Chill filtering involves cooling the spirit to 0 degrees C and filtering off some perceived impurities(proteins, esters and acids). It is mainly a cosmetic measure and some makers don't chill filter, preferring to leave the impurities in as characterful taste components. The interesting bit here is that non-chill filtered whisky can go cloudy when ice is added if they are below 46% ABV. Its therefore significant to note that this blended whisky is bottled at 46% ABV, stronger than the typical 40% spirit bottling but fully explained by the non-chill filtration approach.
With these basic understanding, now we go to the actual Peat Monster: the label describes the taste and aroma sensations as Peaty, Smoky and Complex. It's components have been made from malted barley and distilled and matured in Scotland for at least 3 years. In the case of Peat Monster a selection of 4 malt whiskies from notable distilleries on the island of Islay are chosen to make up 99% of the blend. These have all been aged in "refill hogshead" barrels which are large oak barrels that have been used more than once in the past and are now "old". The reasons for this choice of storage vessel are 1. old oak does not impart any soft,sweet ands mellowing taste characteristics to the whisky - these whiskies are intended to be peaty, smoky and elemental - the hard edges are a part of the taste proposition; 2. hogsheads are large barrels and therefore spirit contact with wood is minimised.
The last 1% of Peat Monster is itself a blend of 3 Highland malt whiskies (from 3 distilleries) which in comparison with the smoky, peaty, sulphurous, iodine, medicinal Islay's, are fresher, spicy and fruity. This Highland blend is aged for a further 2 years in proprietary (Designed by and made for Compass Box) new French oak casks - note this time newer oak - to take some vanilla oak flavours into the highland blend, and therefore into the overall recipe to provide a subtle sweet counterpoint to the more bitter elemental smokiness of the other 99% of the mix.
The whole mix of these constituents are "married" together for an additional period of months (unspecified) - this means that the final blend of the 4 Islay malts and the Highland blend are all then further blended together in refill American oak barrels before bottling, with the aim that the blend then takes on a new and enhanced life of its own. Note that this time the whole blend is exposed to oak again - this time refill American oak.
Compass Box emphasises its whisky making process is more than just blending components and as such it employs additional barrel ageing of its blended whisky before bottling. This allows the maker to add additional taste notes and in this blend some of the final blend IS aged in new American oak and imparts a hint of vanilla to offset the peaty, medicinal flavours. I suspect this also contributes to the natural colour of the final blend.
The Peaty & Smoky elements come from the process of drying the germinated barley (Malted) over a peat fuelled fire to stop the germination process.
Complexity is given from the pot still distillation method, the barrel ageing maturation time and wood type, and not chill-filtering the spirit. This combination of processes retains characteristics of the raw materials and the spirit making techniques.
One more point to note re the term blended malt is that it emphasises that all of the constituents are derived from malted barley spirits. It is more normal for a "Blended Scotch" to have a high component of grain whisky (made from a corn or wheat base) - grain whisky provides mellowness and pleasant sweetness to offset some stronger characteristics of certain malts. I suspect they may be cheaper to produce in bulk too. Therefore the label "blended malt whisky" can tell us a lot about what has been done and what is in our drink.
If you are fascinated by their series, visit them at https://www.compassboxwhisky.com/whiskies/index.php?id=9