I spent a most enjoyable afternoon yesterday as the guest of Liquidity, marketers and distributors of Compass Box Whisky Co, at the Bascule Whisky and Wine Bar at the Cape Grace Hotel, in a small group of such esteemed bloggers and writers as Neil Pendock, Siraj Savage (Life is Savage), Dan Nash (Bangers & Nash), Anel Grobler (Spit or Swallow), Paul Snodgrass (Heart FM), and Shayne Dowling (publisher of Whisky).   The whisky tasting and blending competition, led by Liquidity’s Emil den Dulk, was a run-up to the Whisky Live Festival, which takes place in the Cape Town International Convention Centre from tomorrow until Friday, and in Johannesburg from 9 – 11 November.

I felt out of my depth initially, rarely drinking whisky, but gained a lot of interesting information, and learnt a lot about the whisky company I had never heard of before, and its unusual take on whisky blending. Its owner John Glaser has a wine-making background, and he has used the principles of wine-making and blending in the making of the whiskies at Compass Box too, striving for complexity and balance.  Starting the company in 2000, having headed marketing at Johnnie Walker, Glaser tried to address whisky conventions, such as drinking it with or without ice, that it is a drink only for older persons, and that it can only be drunk at certain times of the day.  Glaser wanted drinkers of his brands to enjoy whisky in whichever way they want to drink it, at whatever time of the day, and to appeal more broadly, especially to younger drinkers.  He worked with a bar in London, called Milk & Honey, and they developed a number of cocktails, pushing the mixability of whisky.  Glaser developed a reputation, by asking questions of whisky making, questioning the current ‘traditions’ which are so different to original whisky-making.  He asked, for example, why caramel colouring is added to whisky.  He asked why sherry casks are used for ageing.  He questioned why new oak is not used.  The company has gone back to the traditional and artisanal roots of whisky-making. The first blend of the Compass Box was called The Hedonism.  The company’s original The Spice Tree blend was banned by the Scottish Whisky Council, but is now commercially available.  The company name comes from the care and precision that goes into the making of ships’ compass boxes, which Glaser wants to reflect in the making of his products too. They add no caramel colouring and do not use chill filtration.

We not only tasted four Compass Box Whisky Co products, but were also served four food items, paired to each whisky by the Cape Grace sommelier George Novitskas.  Great King Street is the entry level whisky, consisting of a blend of 50 % grain whisky, and 50 % malt whisky, of which half each of the latter was aged in American bourbon oak, and in new French oak. It derives its name from the address of the company. This whisky costs about R280, and is an everyday, easy-drinking whisky, with hints of toasty oak, vanilla and spice.  It has just been launched in South Africa.  It was paired with a roast lamb and sun-dried tomato crostini, a good marriage.

Oak Cross is aged in American bourbon barrels, with new French oak barrel heads, giving the whisky more complexity, and an aroma of spiciness and nuttiness, with clove, toffee and ginger notes. We tried it neat, and then with a few drops of water added, making it softer and creamier.  It costs R400. It was paired with a goat’s cheese and onion marmalade vol au vent.  The Spice Tree costs R450, and is darker in colour, coming from the barrelheads being charred more heavily, and having been aged for 12 – 14 years. It is more complex. It has aromas of clove, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla. It was paired with beef fillet and a bearnaise sauce, and Shayne thought that the pairing was equally successful with the vol au vent we had with the Oak Tree.

The Peat Monster is an acquired taste, being the only whisky in the range that contains peat, giving it a ‘burnt braai’ or ‘dirty ashtray’ taste.  It has sweetness, richness, and due to the burnt taste, it is not popular amongst women whisky drinkers.  It is heavier, and not something one can drink all night. This is the company’s biggest seller, and costs R450.  We felt that the smoked salmon paired with this whisky was too light in taste for the dominant whisky taste.

The intimidating but fun part of the afternoon was blending our own whisky in teams of two, and I was lucky to have Shayne as my ‘blending master‘.  We were giving measuring cups and pipettes, and four ingredients.  We chose to make a blend of 50 % Heavy toasted French oak malt, 20 % Highland malt American oak, 10% Lowland grain, and 20 % water, not adding any peated malt, and chose the name ‘French Toast’ for it.  But it was the ‘Equilibrium’ blend by Neil Pendock and Siraj Savage that the judges chose as the winner, having a long finish and a good nose, the judges said.  The blending exercise was a good way to get one involved with the product, and to understand the blending decisions of whisky-makers in general, and of Compass Box Wine Co in particular.

Compass Box Whisky Co is inviting attendees to enjoy a whisky blending at the Whisky Live Festival. Bookings can be made at Tel (021) 905-9066.

Disclosure: We received a bottle of Great King Street as a gift. www.compassbox.com www.liq.co.za

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage