Blending from the Bog
Or how good blends can be
Blends used to be big and full of quality. Nowadays blends are still big, but mostly in sales. I think that most whisky enthusiasts, when offered the choice between a blended and single malt, would choose for the latter. Even more when there is the single malt involves a single cask version. Why is that? Are blends just, well, blend, boring, and only released to please the large masses. Or is it our present hunger for the distinctive, exclusive and special, embodied just as much in what we drink? The fact is that most distillery bottlings that we consummate are in fact blends, just that these are from the same distillery. Moreover, differences between single casks from a single distillery can be just as large as those from different distilleries (we will go further into into that in one of the next sessions). I agree that single cask releases can offer a more singular experience, but they are often also bolder, more idiosyncratic and not per see representative of the style of the particular distillery. So it depends on what you are looking for. Do you want something that embodies the typical character of the distillery that you like so much? Most of the times you can trust a master blender for delivering just that. Or do you want to take a gamble and trust the opinion of the person who picked a single particular cask? The latter often includes roaming the social media for rumours of a soon to be popular bottling and fight your way onto purchasing that limited available and exclusive rough diamond (a hobby for many whisky enthusiasts nowadays).
During the recent decade, several independent bottlers have released excellent blended malts that have helped to reinstate some of the former glory of blended whiskies. Blended malts being blends that are composed of only single malts without the addition of grain whisky. Compass Box and Douglas Laing are among the prime examples of those important independent bottlers. While Compass Box focuses more on combining surprising flavours, polishing exclusive casks by blending and defying the Scottish Whisky Authorities, Douglas Laing‘s series of regional malts aims to give a representative prime example of the style of the respective Scottish region. Both have now a respectable choice of blended malts that includes a standard range supplemented with occasional special releases. Based on my previous experiences with some of their products, I have become quite fond of the idea that blending can polish the rough diamond that many single cask versions are, into a shining star with a soothing balance and an array of subtle complexities. Maybe, I might even become a fan of them in the future.
John Glaser, the unorthodox founder of Compass Box, explains the difference between single and blended malts.
In this session, we will focus on some of their peated blended malts. Douglas Laing‘s Big Peat with the famous grumpy man on the label, includes single malts from several, but not all, Islay distilleries. Compass Box‘s Peat Monster, on the other hand, offers a mix of Islay and non-Islay peat. We also will taste a recent singular edition from Compass Box without a name since according to them “the whisky has to speak for itself”, therefore called No Name. This is claimed to be the peatiest release from Compass Box so far, and it is rumoured to consist mainly of Ardbeg.
We are having here two independent bottlers who pay much attention to the design of their releases. Douglais Laing‘s series of Remarkable Malts all have indeed remarkable designs and I have already mentioned the (in)famous Big Peat figure that stars the bottles of the same name. Compass Box almost seem to have a special department (or it must be a hobby of John Glaser) to come up with a new exciting design for each release. The earlier batches of Peat Monster only had a small picture of the monster, while for the latest bottling the golden-lined monster steals the show on the black label. The No Name displays a a mysterious series of symbols that apparently are all related to the phenomenology school of thought, and was released together with the Phenomenology.
The Big Peat starts off surprisingly aromatic and sweet. There are evident smells of peat smoke and ashes, but these are richly supported by citrus fruits (lemon, lime and oranges) and sugared almonds. The first distillery that crosses my mind is Caol Ila, then maybe also Bowmore. The coast is close bringing brine, sea wind and beach sand, and I detect a distant hint of rotting sea weed. I think that there is probably not a lot (if any) Laphroaig in here. In the back, I get some lovely red fruits (raspberries, strawberries) and vanilla (ice cream). I must say that the blender who made this at Douglas Laing has achieved a perfect balance between the fruits, peat and many little notes adding to a complex whole! I do like subtleties in peated whiskies, and this one gives me lots of them. Like it is playing with me, the moment you start pinning down a specific note, another one take the place and puts you on the wrong foot. A joyful swirling play, which becomes fresher and more acidic after a while, hinting at pine forests, rotting autumn leaves, mud, grapefruit and lemon juice. There is some Ardbeg in there, but it prefers its role in the background. I also get some smoked honey, vanilla and a bonfire made of fresh branches. A very good start of this session!
Next up is Peat Monster, which is clearly different from the start. The initial smell is much heavier with lots of sulfury notes like bicycle inner tube (the pleasant version) and gunpowder. Then comes the peat, which is sweet, though less vegetal and fruity, rather moving towards smouldering bonfires, cured ham and salted bacon. The fruits are not fresh, but overripe with in particular apples and pears. We are very close to classic Ardmore or Ledaig. After a short while, the heavy smell is balanced by a welcomed freshness represented by mint, sugared grapefruit and tangerines. It is also quite nutty with sugared smoked almonds and peanut butter. Then more ham and bacon, in fact a whole plate of “charcuterie”, accompanied by lemon skin scrapings (a typical Ledaig feature, IMHO) and a fresh whoosh reminiscent of Laphroag. The medicinal freshness enriches over time with lemon, mint and a vinegar-like acidity. Wait, I get a clear sense of crunchy deep-fried meatballs (Dutch “bitterballen”) served with wholegrain mustard. Very tasty, or wait, should I write nosy? Anyway, I really need to taste this stuff.
Finally, the “one without a name”, so No Name, which in the first sniff is, well, I don’t know. Weird? The first thing that come into my mind is very smoky rums, like Caroni or Bellevue. Gasoline, carbon paper, engine oil and chemical solvent. Sweetness and fruitiness that were lurking in the back are now making their appearance. Orange skin and fresh lemon juice, but only a few drops. It appears explosive, but on the other hand nicely balanced. Over time the sweetness increases with vanilla, banana-flavoured pudding, and barbecued marshmallows. I think the Clynelish-y waxiness is nicely present with melted candle wax and olive oil. The nose settles down after a while and becomes fascinatingly aromatic. Floral notes arise (lilies, roses), along with exotic fruits (mango, grapefruit), fresh magazines and pine tree wood. And then it goes back to the Carabbean with molasses, bananas and smoky rum. I do find this slightly on the sweet side after, but it remains very good.
Again starting with the Big Peat, neat of course, which instantly gives me lots of salty vegetal peat, like sea water-infused bog. Ashes, coal, bonfires, cigars, the whole palet associated with peated whiskies is present. The palate is much less fruity compared to the nose, and remains mostly in peatland territories. Over-smoked honey, fallen autumn leaves, mud, some herbs (rosemary and sage), pine wood and tobacco. I believe the influence of Ardbeg is slightly bigger here (or could it be Port Ellen, I never tasted it as a single malt, so who knows). Some lemon juice is present in the back, with hints of orange lemonade and almond paste. It all has a very ‘natural’ feeling, without much cask influence, and the slight touches from bourbon hogsheads and sherry butts have only added nuances to the various original spirits. The aftertaste gives pine trees, cigars and tobacco, and maybe a drop of lime juice.
The Peat Monster brings lots of sea weed and bandages. Oh yeah, we have caught some Laphroaig here (well, it contains 40%). The palate is much fresher compared to the nose, and salty, lemon-y, fishy and, wait, I taste some lovely mustard seeds. Oh, charcuterie with mustard, scallops with drops of lime juice, we have got ourselves a tasty plate over here. That reminds me that I should do another whisky and food pairing this weekend. Coal dust and too-enthusiastically-barbecued meat also join the party. Again, I find this very close to the various spirits and not ruined by any over-active casks. The finish contains liquorice root, freshly cut grass and very smoky apples.
The No Name then, and we expect something explosive (based on the nose). Oh, the strength is quite acceptable, but still very good. A whole full ash tray, unripe bananas, tobacco, freshly cut grass. This is one of those whiskies which is perfectly focused, yet fascinatingly complex. Sweet peat, smoking candles, graphite, coal dust, asphalt, smouldering bonfire smoke, mixed with some drops of juice from a mixture of citrus fruits. The palate is less sweet compared to the nose, and more Ardbeg style. Although Clynelish and Caol Ila stay also on the radar. The aftertaste is ashy and lemon-y and slightly drying. I also get some aromatic notes (edible flowers) and engine oil.
Well, this session has certainly not disappointed me. Not that I expected that anyway. The Big Peat and Peat Monster are both very good whiskies that can measure up in quality with many single cask releases. Prices are even below many of the latter. Chances are high that I will be adding the Big Peat to my collection (I already got the Peat Monster). By the way, the Christmas edition of Big Peat is also a very recommendable buy, with a slightly higher quality (and price). Then to the more e(xc)lusive No Name that is also very good, and IMHO maybe preferable (and affordable) compared to many “special” Ardbeg releases. The scores are very close for all three (see below), also because the first two blended malts of this session managed to surprise me with their quality. Although the No Name wins some points with its complexity and basic quality, the slightly over-active sweetness and the higher price finally result in an only marginally higher/equal score. Anyway, I want to conclude with saying that this little session has let me to even more appreciate this type of blended malts. I think I will quickly pour me another wee dram.
Big thanks to for sharing the samples! The Peat Monster was a highly appreciated birthday gift.
• these are my personal views, so do not take them too seriously… nothing beats tasting these for yourself •