Monday, June 10, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. I - Distillery Profiles

As most of the revival of scotch whisky focused on the abundant single malts available in the 1990s and early-2000s, blends continued to be seen by many as bland and uninspired. John Glaser made it his mission to change that perception. Founded in 2000, Compass Box emerged from the roles he had played in the wine trade and at Diageo as the marketing director for Johnnie Walker. This gave him exposure the process of blending, a background in wood management, and the relationships needed to access casks. The company's first release, Hedonism, was an unheard of before luxury blended grain whisky. Subsequent blends and blended malts (whatever term they were known by) continued to expand the approach by creating new flavor profiles from distilleries that, if not named directly, were strongly hinted at.

I asked myself why this model hasn't been replicated in many other spirits, especially rum, from a question posed by Josh Miller on Twitter. While many other spirits have long traditions of producing multi-distillery blends - think of British navy rum or the large cognac houses - few have managed to make the process and results of blending exciting in the way Compass Box has done for scotch whisky blends.

Much of this comes out of the particular history of malt whisky production in Scotland - while it was blend-centric for much of its existence, independent bottlers and eventually the distilleries themselves made the profiles of individual distilleries popular in their own right. These created known quantities that John Glaser was able to riff on, twisting expectations in ways that made the results thrilling. Clynelish is at the core of many of their blends, ranging from the standard GKS Artist's Blend, Oak Cross, and Spice Tree releases, to one-offs like Eleuthera and the Lost Blend. Similarly Laphroaig and Caol Ila have been at the heart of many of their peated blends such as Peat Monster, Flaming Heart, and GKS Glasgow. These more well-known profiles are inflected with less well-known malts and grain whiskies from the likes of Teaninich, Dailuaine, Invergordon, Cameronbridge, Ledaig, or Ardmore.

For most of the spirits world these individual distillery profiles simply haven't penetrated the consumer consciousness in the same way. There are exceptions, such as the profiles of American bourbon and rye distillers, though their origins are often obscured. There is also growing awareness of Jamaican, Guyanese (well, really the sub-marques of DDL), and Martiniquaise r(h)um distilleries or, in a far more limited fashion, Armagnac farm distilleries.

The bottler who has most closely approached the Compass Box model is High West. Founded in 2006, it has taken a similar approach to blending, primarily bourbon or rye, to create new profiles. While this began in no small part as a way to produce cash flow while starting up a distillery from scratch, they have become famous for their blending skills as much as for their own production. A major difference is that High West, at least at the beginning, was significantly constrained in how much information they could divulge. The American whiskey market had no history of independent bottlers revealing their sources, preferring instead to cloak them in veils of fake history. This led to customers attempting to suss out sources from the reported mash bills and other clues. In a sense, High West performed almost the opposite function by making profiles such as those of LDI/MGP or Barton rye famous that had otherwise been completely unknown.

In the rum world what we have seen more of so far are blends from multiple named countries, rather than multiple named distilleries, such as Banks or Plantation. These approach the spirit of Compass Box, but also serve to flatten the diversity within individual countries. While the distilleries of Jamaica or Barbados may share similarities, much as the classic Scottish regions may once have, this doesn't have the same kind of granularity. As Linkwood is not Craigellachie or Glenfarclas, Hampden is not Longpond or Worthy Park. Clément is not Depaz or Neisson.

One release closer to the mark comes from the armagnac bottler L'Encantada. They have done a significant amount of work bringing attention to armagnac farm distilleries, creating excitement about their individual profiles, albeit through single casks. Their XO bottling was a blend of a handful of different single casks from distillers that they had previously bottled casks from. This closely approaches the Compass Box model of riffing on known quantities to create new and exciting profiles.

In many ways this is a chicken and egg problem - without widespread knowledge and appreciation of individual distillery profiles there is less drive for blenders to highlight them, but without engaged customers seeking to discover those individual profiles there is little incentive to put them front and center. We can see glimmers within other spirits categories that this may come about with time and increasingly curious customers, but it may be that relative ignorance will prevent blenders from operating in quite the same mold as Compass Box.

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