Friday, November 7, 2014

Whisky Review: Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend

I really enjoyed the other offering America has gotten from Compass Box's Great King Street blend line, the New York Blend. However, there are some critical differences between the two.

Most notably, the New York Blend was primarily malt whisky, with a smaller proportion of grain (80% malt/20% grain). Artist's Blend has a high malt content for a blend (48.6% malt/51.4% grain), but still has a significant amount of grain whisky. Secondly, the NY Blend was 25% heavily peated malt whisky, mostly from Islay, whereas the malt in Artist's Blend is unpeated, primarily from the Highlands with a smaller amount of Speyside whisky (as that component is described as being 'meaty', I'll hazard a guess that it might be Mortlach). In both cases, the casks are primarily first-fill ex-bourbon casks. NY Blend also used refill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, while Artist's Blend has new French oak casks and a smaller number of first-fill ex-sherry casks. Lastly, NY Blend was bottled at 46% while Artist's Blend is bottled at 43%, but neither was colored or chill filtered.

Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend

Nose: lots of vanilla and jammy fruit (raspberry, plum), some citrus (orange, mostly), solid but not overwhelming amount of oak (some of it clearly the spicier French oak), sweet grain and malt, floral esters. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes more prominent and it seems less complex and younger overall, though the vanilla stays strong, with some of the floral elements underneath.

Taste: sweet grain, a solid undercurrent of oak throughout, overtones of berry and fruit esters, fading out with more grain. After dilution, the grain component becomes more prominent, with the oak retreating to reveal younger whisky flavors.

Finish: sweet grain, hints of berries, bittersweet oak, floral esters

The most noticeable difference between Artist's Blend and other mid-range blends is the influence of the first-fill ex-bourbon casks. The whisky for most blends seems to come from refill casks, some of them used many times before, which limits the influence of the wood on the spirit. In this whisky the wood is rather prominent, especially on the palate. While that gives it some amount of structure, the other components aren't enough to generate real interest. In trying to make it broadly appealing, I feel like it has slipped into being simply boring.

In many respects, I find Artist's Blend most useful as a canvas for further blending. A small amount of a more flavorful malt, whether it be sherried or peated, can bring out a lot more depth and nuance of flavor, transforming a fairly insipid whisky into something far more interesting. And as blenders learned back in the 19th century, it really doesn't take much - a few drops of an Islay or Campbeltown single malt are enough to radically transform the character of the whisky.

So while I can't recommend Artist's Blend (even JW Black Label has more going on), it has inspired me to do more of my own blending.

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