I hope that this isn’t going to happen but my bank balance would be better if I didn’t receive samples from Compass Box! I first tasted their whiskies when they were a very young company and I have been consistently delighted by their boutique blends ever since. They transport the drinker to an adventure of complexity and satisfaction that is seldom achieved from an affordable single malt.
At the end of 2015 samples arrived of two stylish drams released to celebrate the company’s 15th birthday - and doubtless to capture the Christmas market too. Priced at £100 and £150 these were not whiskies for a quick sup or a casual purchase. It is the Flaming Heart that has stirred a passion in me: I just don’t think I could write effusively about a whisky called This is not a luxury whisky - but that could be a generational thing! Luckily for me my choice has the lower price tag.
Compass Box under the direction of their founder and whisky maker John Glaser have always pushed the boundaries, and they have certainly challenged the establishment with their open honesty regarding the make-up of these two special releases. The trade organisation that makes and enforces the rules to protect Scotch whiskies said that Compass Box should not have declared in full detail the provenance and ages of the whiskies in these new blends. It is, apparently, too much information and not how the industry runs. Compass Box have since taken the exact make-up of the new blends from their website and publicity. This does not help the consumer to understand how blended whiskies, still regarded by many as inferior to single malts, can have such a price tag. Surely the focus of all in the industry should be to encourage people to trade up? I come from a world where people might question the price difference between mass produced creamery cheeses, mechanised from start to finish and quickly bag matured, and hand-made, small batch artisan cheeses, many cloth wrapped and matured slowly, being turned daily to ensure even texture and aging. Isn’t this the message that Compass Box were trying to get across? These new whiskies have pedigree and depth of flavour from aged ingredients pre vat, and then from the blended whisky ageing in barrel before bottling.
Coming to the world of whisky from food I know of the desperate need in the food industry to clean up, achieve transparency and to let the consumer make their own decisions about what they buy and eat. Preservatives, hidden ingredients and outrages like mechanically recovered meats and misleading descriptors are being tackled and will eventually lead to an industry which can be prouder of itself. Isn’t transparency something that the whisky industry should also be trying to achieve? The non-chill filtered and natural colour movement goes part of the way, but why shouldn’t you list your whiskies in detail when you are making something special that you are proud of? Of course there are people bringing the industry into disrepute by falsely labelling whiskies etc. If other countries making whisk(e)y start to be more open in their labelling could the Scotch whisky industry find themselves following rather than leading the world?
I am new to whisky commentating and could be completely wrong in my thoughts - despite being a woman I am (sometimes but rarely, of course!) wrong! However, it does seem to me that the best produce is the cleanest produce, be it food or drink, and the best produce is usually that which the makers are proud of, and keen to give you chapter and verse about what goes into it and how it is made. I know that there is a team charged with making Scotland the best place in the world for small food and drink start-ups. Let’s hope that their enthusiasm, transparency and success will not show the whisky industry to be behind the times and shrouded in un-necessary and unhelpful secrecy.
Finally, I am back to the point of this blog post - hurrah! Read on - and you can click the arrow above to watch a tasting.
Flaming Heart is a Big Whisky. At 48.9%abv it is powerful stuff and only those with a cigar in hand (so not me, although there are times when I would….) or a liking for vindaloos and habanero chillies might always take it neat. It is deeply complex, on the nose and in the mouth. Full, rich, sweet and spicy with an alluring hint of smoke. Sated post-feasting palettes would be reawakened by Flaming Heart.
Does the smoke lead or season the nose? I think the latter as fruit becomes more dominant as the glass passes from side to side. It is certainly a warming whisky.
On the palette, neat, it is surprisingly sweet but the smoke burns its way down the tongue to the very tip on swallowing. It lingers. Spices unpack themselves: white pepper, cloves and then, briefly, a rich sweet flavour of figs and perhaps a suggestion of dates. With the second sip the smoke is more subtle and the figs break through again. I want blue cheese with this: a Gorgonzola picant, or a Cashel Blue? Not a Stilton but maybe a Shropshire Blue, the blued Double Gloucester?
I like to add a generous drop of water, slightly more than my standard 2 or 3 drops because of the abv of the Flaming Heart. This softens the nose but somehow pulls the smokiness to the fore, but it is not too much. It is Caol Isla in this brilliant blend, and that is revered for its controlled smokey elegance. The water releases an oiliness, which usually makes me want to drink whisky with food. Here it just makes me want to sip and contemplate and then sip again. The smoke on the tongue is now more controlled but I want to chew this whisky to get to the bottom of it. Will I get there? It is like a conversation with the best of friends - you just don’t want it to end! A real whisky treat for those who like complex, challenging and rewarding whisky. If you go for full-flavoured, well-cured smoked salmon - Forman’s London Cure comes to mind - I bet you’ll love this. Hurry - only 12, 060 bottles were produced and I have one of them!
PS John Glaser worked for Diageo before founding Compass Box. All the malts in Flaming Heart are Diageo labels, showing what skilled ageing can achieve even with whiskies produced on a massive scale. Caol Isla and Clynelish are the well-known stars of this blend.