By Richard Thomas
In most cases, grain whiskey is a very necessary, but rarely spoken of ingredient for blended whiskey across the British Isles. Over in Scotland, the single malts get all the glory, and many whiskey lovers think of vatted malts (an all-malt whiskey blend from different distilleries) as the next step down. In Ireland, malt whiskey occupies the top slot, with pot still coming in second and grain a distant third.
Some years ago, I found myself in a Malaysian flophouse sharing a bottle of bourbon I’d been carrying with a Scotsman. We were talking whiskey, and when I asked him what he had against blended scotch, his answer was “It’s the grain whisky watering down my good stuff!”
Compass Box takes this conventional wisdom and turns it on its head with Hedonism, a premium vatted grain whiskey and a serious throwback in whiskey-making. The company has quite a commitment to the all-grain whiskey idea, with three vatted grains in their Limited Edition line. According to Compass Box, all-grain whiskey was actually quite popular in Scotland about a century ago, but the rise of blended scotch eclipsed them (and most of the blended scotch labels we know today date to the late 19th and early 20th Century). Hedonism represents a return to that largely forgotten tradition.
Made from a selection of 8 to 15 grain whiskeys, Hedonism’s constituents come from distilleries like Cambus and Cameron Bridge. Compass Box looks for older casks of grain whiskey, instead of the young grain whiskey that goes into the typical blended scotch, and most of the selections for Hedonism have been aged in new American oak. The whiskey is married and receives up to two years of secondary maturation. Given the constraints on making Hedonism, Compass Box usually only makes one batch per year.
Hedonism comes in Compass Box’s standard clear glass bottle, adorned with a deep purple label with some very Victorian-looking art. The whiskey is not chill filtered (just like everything from Compass Box), and bottled at 43% alcohol.
In the glass, Hedonism has a pale gold coloring that is light, but full. Many whiskeys with this kind of color begin to reach into translucence, but not this one. The aroma is light, but has a certain fruitcake quality, albeit one with a good helping of citrus, and with hints of vanilla that probably come from the new oak. On the palate, the fruitcake quality is thickly supported with oak, plus a dash of spice coming on at the end. The whiskey has some grainy notes, but these are far from the forefront of the flavor, and the texture is silky-smooth. The finish is warm with helpings of spice and oak, and lasts for a middling-length of time.
The bottom line on Hedonism is don’t let any predisposition to thinking of grain whiskey as the distaff stuff steer you away from it. As an aperitif whiskey it is ideal, and it will do very well as a sipping whiskey as well. Hedonism is a light, subtle, elegant whiskey, the sort of thing I imagine Emily Mortimer (suitably attired in a black evening dress, of course) might sip on at a party.
Hedonism is listed at £64.00 on the Compass Box website. That is about $100 or €80, so yes, this is a pricey bottle of scotch.
Jim Murray of The Whisky Bible labeled this the classic whisk(e)y of its kind, and it has won at least two “Best Grain Whiskey” titles at the World Whiskey Awards.