Category Archives: Whisky Tastings

Compass Box Tasting – Jan 27 2010

I’ve said it before…John Glaser is an alchemist.  In 2000 he founded Compass Box, a boutique whisky making company dedicated to craft presentation of beautifully blended whiskies.  Note the distinction…Compass Box does not distill whiskies.  Under Glaser’s direction, they purchase and marry whiskies from other distilleries.  I hesitate to say blend, lest you get the idea that we are speaking to the standard blended fair.  This couldn’t be further from the way Glaser approaches his craft.  Compass Box differs from the big blenders (though Glaser’s lineage does include a tenure with Johnnie Walker) in that Glaser approaches the art from a ‘less is more’ standpoint.  Much more, in fact.  His marriage of casks often revolves around only a couple (or a small handful) of truly exceptional whiskies, as opposed to the dozens in many of the big blends.

Glaser is profoundly passionate about his whisky.  I love that.  He is intense and deliberate.  His knowledge and tastes are unquestionable after having sampled the whiskies he has created.  Though not all were exactly to my taste, they were undoubtedly well-crafted, excellent expressions.  

This tasting event was another Willow Park coup, but this should come as less and less of a surprise, as I have yet to attend an event there I did not enjoy.  As usual, Willow Park’s whisky buyer, David Michiels, was on hand to entertain, warm the crowd and…of course…lead you to your next purchase.  Normally Dave would take you to some of his favorites, but tonight was all about Compass Box.

An enlightening eve it was too.  My ignorance to Compass Box’s lineup was rewarded with wide-eyed wonder at such a unique approach to blending. 

The whiskies laid out for education and enjoyment?

Asyla – Blended whisky.  A smooth, light easy sipper composed of grains and malts.  Pleasant, if a little delicate.  40% abv.

Oak Cross – Blended malt.  Components are all Highland malts and you can tell.  Still fairly light.  Fruity and soft.  43% abv.

The Peat Monster – Blended malt.  Not nearly so monstrous as the name would imply.  Nice flavors but could use a boost.  46% **

Hedonism – Blended Grain Whisky.  Grains between 12 and 25 year old.  Full of character and unique.  Big vanilla and coconut.  Quite exceptional.  43% abv.

Eleuthera – Blended malt.  Sadly retired, due to malt availability issues.  Exceptional.  Malty, smoky, fruity.  Gorgeous long finish.  46%

The Spice Tree – Blended malt.  Best of the night and wonderfully deep.  As the name suggests, full of spice.  46% 

I should also note…all whiskies above are non-chill-filtered and natural color.

If the opportunity presents itself for you to sample the Compass Box line I highly recommend it.  Of course…you could always drop by my place for a wee nip at the Spice Tree…

Great night…great host…great whisky.

One final note…you’ll find reviews for several of these here on ATW.

**Latest bottlings are infinitely peatier with the addition of Laphroaig to round out the Caol Ila and Ardmore.

Glenfarclas Tasting – November 25 2009

George Grant (from the long line of Georges and a John) flew in from Scotland for this one.  An absolutely brilliant speaker, George held an audience like a good comedian.  His real adeptness was noticeable in how much information he managed to sprinkle throughout a presentation that made you feel you were simply sharing drinks with an old friend.  While presenting several bottles from the Glenfarclas line, he regaled the ~100 strong crowd with humorous anecdotes and historical tidbits.  We were never less than fully engaged.

One tale in particular, about a double-booking which resulted in a ‘Three’s Company”-esque menage a trois snafu between George and two simultaneous tastings had us in stitches.  Another regarding a peat fire was nearly as entertaining. 

Oh yeah…and it helps too when the product you represent is exceptional. 

The whiskies themselves?  While I didn’t take detailed tasting notes, here’s what I can share (and vaguely remember):

Glenfarclas 10 y.o. – Smart and pleasant.  A little lacking in character when stacked up against all that followed but not bad.  No real finish to speak of. 

Glenfarclas 15 y.o. – A little sweeter.  A lot bigger.  Great whisky.  Lacking the youthful nip of the 10 y.o.  Very nice and highly recommended.

Glenfarclas 21 y.o. – Much bigger.  Smooth, syrupy.  Full of fruity notes and honey.  Nice long development. 

Glenfarclas 25 y.o. – Similar to the 21 y.o. but with a loooooooonger finish.  Nice mouthfeel.  Mature and deep without being pulled down by the oak that can often creep at this age.  Fantastic.

Glenfarclas 105 – Cask strength.  Ahhhhhh…this is how whisky should be bottled.  Warming.  Complex.  Rich.  Delicious.  (See review here:

Glenfarclas Family Cask – Richest and best of the bunch.  Not sure which year this was in their Family Cask Series, but dear gawd, was this good.  Great development into a nice long finish.

It was truly unfortunate that the fellow who was to sit next to us never showed.  So…in not wanting to insult our host, Mr. Grant…we took it upon ourselves to ensure his whisky did not go to waste.

We are no strangers to Willow Park’s adroitness when it comes to bringing in the best to present their best.  This night was no exception.

Final note…Instead of bogging this post down with details on the distillery’s history and practices, I am going try my best to nail down George Grant for an interview on ATW.  I’m sure he could put into words much better than I all matters of the Glenfarclas way.


A.D. Rattray Tasting – February 17, 2010

This was another fantastic night at Willow Park. 

Jonathan Bray hosted a night dedicated to the tasting of some wonderful single cask bottlings from the A.D. Rattray line.  For those unfamiliar with the concept of single cask bottlings, the long and short of it is as such…truly magnificent, but truly heartbreaking.  Each cask is bottled as it stands…no marrying with other casks…no blending.  In simplest terms, this means that however many bottles are in a cask are all there will ever be of each particular whisky.  The exclusivity and perfection in these bottles are notable in that extra special attention is given to buying exemplary whisky and to maturing to the ideal age.  These whiskies will break your heart though.  When they’re gone…they’re gone.  As was suggested tonight…buy two.   😉

This was a night to leave the car keys at home (well…they all should be).  Seven whiskies were on offer this evening, all but one being truly brilliant cask strength bruisers. 

A quick rundown of what we sampled:

  • Stronachie 12 y.o. – 43%
  • Linkwood 10 y.o. – 57.7%
  • Clynelish 10 y.o. – 59.7%
  • Tobermory 11 y.o. – 59.9%
  • Springbank 12 y.o. – 59.3%
  • Caol Ila 13 y.o. – 60.5%
  • Caol Ila 22 y.o. – 57.7%

Each had a unique character, and though one or two did not entirely suit my palate, I absolutely understand why A.D. Rattray saw something special in these whiskies.  In particular, the Clynelish, with its rich toffee and caramel overtones, and all three of the last whiskies really stuck with me.  Reviews of these gems will follow in the coming days. 

Though the products, by nature, have a slightly higher price point, I highly recommend suspending your judgment on paying such tidy sums on a few relatively young whiskies until having tried them.  These whiskies are all complex and developed beyond their years.

The event itself was highly entertaining.  Jonathan Bray is an engaging individual with a gift for presentation.  There is something infinitely likeable about a Calgarian from Australia in a kilt.  A relaxed evening (something to do with the six drams of >57%?!?) was made even more enjoyable by an informal lingering discussion with all attendees after the presentation.  Jonathan and Willow Park whisky guru, David Michiels, hung around up front chatting with the crowd and bantering a bit. 

I will most certainly be investigating the Rattray line further. 

A last note to mention:  The Caol Ila 22 y.o. is an exclusive Willow Park bottling.  I know there are a limited number remaining.  If you are a fan of the Islay whiskies…think about this one.  Mellow…rich…mature…beautiful.

Springbank/Tullibardine Tasting – March 24, 2010

A fine night hosted by Andy Dunn, of Gold Medal Marketing.  Andy is a truly engaging speaker.  His sharp wit and caustic humor helped set the tone for another great night at Willow Park.  It is somehow liberating to throw out the pretention every now and then and listen to a great presenter who is casual enough to toss out the occasional insult…catch one in return…be a little naughty…and occasionally dip into the spicier side of our vocabularies.

The malty spread this eve consisted of bottlings from Tullibardine and Springbank.  Tullibardine is a single malt Highland whisky, first distilled in 1949.  The history of the region and the distillery is fascinating, and Andy’s brief aside detailing the history of Blackford was entertaining and enlightening (go…do your research).  The distillery was mothballed in 1994, lying dormant until 2003 when it, and its entire stock of whisky, were purchased by the present consortium, and once again the uisge beatha flowed.

Andy trotted out a young Tullibardine Aged Oak first.  Light and dusty…citrusy and herbal…dry and oaky.  Meh.  Not bad by any means, but a tad underwhelming.

Next up was a 14 y.o. Tullibardine Moscatel.  More of a craft presentation than the first we tried.  46% and non-chill-filtered.  Still fairly light.  I picked up raw grains, freshly cut hay, fruit and chocolate.  This had an interesting pink hue to it.  Maybe just the lighting in there…maybe one too many whiskies…or maybe that actually was the color. 

From here we moved onto the Springbank line.  Though I enjoyed the Tullibardines, this was much more to my liking.  Springbank is one of only three operational distilleries in Cambeltown.  A shame really, as Cambeltown was once home to more than 30 legal distilleries.  Springbank relies heavily on tradition and human involvement in all stages of production.  The whiskies are distinct, colorful and craft-presented (no chill-filtration, no coloring, higher abv, etc), which of course is appreciated.

First up…Springbank CV.  Lots of smoke and fire (almost kerosene-like), some peat and spice, a touch of sherry and a dash of salt.  Decent marks for this one.

Next up…Springbank 18.  Nice…very nice.  Beautiful on the nose, with notes of cream and caramel, light fruits and hot spice.  Even a few drops of water did not mellow this one too much.  The price point is high, but the product is very good.

Springbank 12 Cask Strength.  Now we’re talking.  54.6% abv.  Well done, Springbank, for allowing us the opportunity to decide how strong we like our dram.  This was a solid number full of salt, sherry, smoke and raisin, some pepper and a smoked meat quality to it.  Rich and rewarding.

Finally Andy brought out the big guns.  Springbank Claret Finish (12 year, I believe).  Wow.  Another beefcake bottled at 54.4%.  This deep mahogany whisky was full of rich caramel toffee, vanilla, smoke, apple, spice and peppers, and had a wonderful oily viscosity to it.  Simply amazing.

Look for some more detailed reviews in the days to come.   

Thanks, David and Andy, for another great tasting.

Highland Park Tasting – May 5, 2010

Highland Park comes from a land full of mystery and rich in history and heritage.

 Established in 1798 on Orkney, Highland Park is the most Northerly Scotch whisky distillery in the world.  With its windswept moors, craggy outcrops and ancient religious sites, Orkney is a land rich in anecdote.  This, combined with the wind, rain, lightning, freezing ice, crushing waves and hail provide the perfect setting for home of one of the world’s best malt whiskies.

(from the HP leaflet available on tasting night)

Wow.  What a night.  Though Willow Park always puts together quite a do for these tasting events, this was a night of exceptional aesthetics, entertainment and of course, whisky.  We’ll get to that momentarily. 

Upon arriving early Pat and I wandered through the groaning shelves of whisky and rum.  (Should note…everyone’s flavor favorite in rum is back in stock – EH5 at $29)  After needling David a bit, he was able to get in the last laugh.  I made the mistake of asking him what was new in store.  As we wondered around, him pointing out exciting new product, my eyes hit a rich green tube on the top shelf.  I’m sure Pat will attest, I nearly leapt for it.  Laphroaig 18 year old (48%).  Dear gawd.   Without hesitation, David reached up and scooped the other two bottles for himself.  And just like that…gone!  As I debated spending the $102 for this gem, a few eyes followed me and a gentlemen came up to ask where I’d found it.  I knew if I set it down I’d never see it again.  I put it on hold at the service desk until after the tasting.  More momentarily…

At this point we headed down to the ‘ballroom’ below.  J. Wheelock, of Highland Park, our host for the evening, outdid himself.  The room was nicely done up in blacks, slates and greys.  Large visuals and a solid powerpoint iced the cake.  J. was an engaging speaker with a soft voice and a quick wit, prone to self-deprecation and humility.  Humor was splashed over much of his presentation.  The presentation itself focused largely on history and tradition.  Indeed Highland Park are a very traditional distillery. 

For those that have tried Highland Park, you should have an idea as to just how bold and beautiful a dram it is.  Believe me when I say that nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to taste.  Highland Park 12 has, of late, become my go-to bottle.  Beautifully balanced with just the right complexity.  It seems to please almost all of my moods and cravings.  After making our way through the six whiskies we tried this evening, I was blown away with how meager the 12 seemed in comparison to some of its big brothers.

What we tried:

Highland Park 12 y.o. – Balanced, bold and full of character.  Honey, fruit and smoke.  A little sherry and a bit of tobacco.

Highland Park 15 y.o. – More flowery than the 12.  Peat, hay, sherry, and orange.  Seems quite fresh for a 15 year old whisky. 

Highland Park 18 y.o. – Fantastic.  Peat and smoke (though not too much), creamy and sherried.  Fairly mellow.  Both Pat and I got a hint of Dill Pickle chips on this one.  Odd, but delicious.

Highland Park 25 y.o. – Stunning.  Truly Stunning.  Caramel and chocolate, smoke and fruit, toffee and salt.  Lots of sherry…and a hint of rich unlit cigar.  A favorite, for sure.  48.1%

Highland Park 30 y.o. – Again…amazing.  Peat and smoke, caramel and rich chocolate.  A bit of spice and wood.  Arguably the best nose of the night.

and as a special treat (from Jay’s personal stash)…

Highland Park Earl Magnus – Wow.  Bloody brilliant.  Buttery…rich in caramel/toffee/butterscotch.  Warm and smoky .  Some fruit and nut and hay.  A hint of sesame on the nose.  52.6%…but what a beautifully balanced whisky.  J. said it well…this one “has some personality”.  Only 5,976 bottles of this.  I don’t imagine it will go cheap, but worth every penny.  A true collector’s item.

As another class act on the part of Highland Park, we were told to take home our water glass from the evening.  This was in fact a nicely etched HP glass, perfectly shaped for whisky.  As a few guests opted not to take their gift home, Pat and I each ended up with a set.  As yet another bonus, in a room full of people, there just happened to be a couple empty seats next to us.  We were able to lift a couple extra drams of our favorites from the evening. 

I can say, in all honesty, this was the best tasting I’ve been to. 

Now…back to that Laphroaig…

When I returned to the counter to pick up this bottle (with wife’s permission…happy Father’s Day to me) I actually had to show ID before they would release it to me.  I was told it is the hottest thing they’ve had in store and has sold out everywhere.  As you know, tickets to the tasting are good for $5 off every $20 spent.  I managed to end up with four tickets, thus knocking $20 off this prize. 

This little gem is now at home, awaiting a day when (if?) I break down and open it.  This one will be beautiful.

A great end to a great evening.