We typically describe the flavors of scotch whisky in a fairly familiar set of terms and adjectives. We discuss aspects of sweetness, of fruitiness, of spiciness, of peatiness or smokiness. We call them “maritime,” or “fresh,” or floral, or herbaceous. These are all terms that are pretty easy to understand and grasp. But there are also some more eclectic dimensions to how a malt whisky might be described, with connotations that perhaps aren’t so immediately grasped. What does it mean when you call a whisky “meaty”? Or “wild”? These are the less understood corners of whisky’s flavor profile.
Scotch blender Compass Box doesn’t shy away from exploring those sorts of tucked-away corners in its limited release blends. The latest, dubbed Menagerie, is specifically devoted to whiskies the distillery exotically refers to as having “wild” elements that roam off the beaten path. Rest assured, it’s not often you see the word “animalic” in a whiskey description, but Compass Box has used it here. As they put it:
With the Compass Box Whiskymakers continually striving to push boundaries, they were inspired to search out malts with a touch of the wild about them. Lead Whiskymaker James Saxon brought together this blend of single malts from four distilleries: Mortlach Distillery, Deanston Distillery, Laphroaig Distillery and Glen Elgin Distillery, combined with Compass Box’s Highland Malt Blend. The result: Underneath fruitiness or maltiness lurk subtly animalic notes, qualities either built in thanks to distillation, or gained from subsequent maturation.
What we have here, then, is a typically complex blend of malts, ranging in age from 11-20 years, and finished in a variety of ways—in recharred barrels, sherry-seasoned barrels, and some in French oak. The resulting blend is bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof) without chill filtration, in a batch size of 7,741 bottles and an MSRP of $120. That puts it into similarly rarified air as many of the other limited edition Compass Box batches, but it is what it is—at least you’re likely to find it at MSRP. Menagerie began hitting store shelves last month, but should still be hanging around in many places. So with that said, let’s get to tasting and see how this “animalic” blend shapes up.
On the nose, Menagerie unveils itself with mild smoke and earthiness, and it does indeed suggest a certain “meatiness”—like a ham steak grilled over charcoal. I’m also getting stone fruit and dark honey sweetness, along with some mild and hard-to-place herbaceousness. All in all, it’s a pleasant but not particularly assertive nose in my estimation, hinting at a malt blend with at least some peaty presence, but also the promised meatiness.
On the palate, Menagerie proves to be considerably more assertive than on the nose, which is a good thing. Sweet, smoky and spicy all at once, this is a whisky that lights up multiple regions of the mouth simultaneously. The peat presence is actually pretty considerable, contributing a rich smoke that is both sweet and a touch sour, although my perception of smoke can sometimes be a bit more sensitive than others, so bear that in mind. The smoke is met by slight brininess and tar, but also lots of sweet grilled peach, vanilla and honey. As it sits in the glass, it continues to get sweeter, with rich toffee coming to the forefront, although the finish of each sip remains fairly dry and roasty, with the smokiness of Italian roast coffee. Spicy oak and pepper round things out.
All in all, what I find myself ultimately admiring here is the balance between three primary elements: smoke, sweetness and spice. They’re all given moments in which to shine, without any one element defining the overall presentation. It’s a hallmark of skilled blending, which Compass Box has always possessed. This one ultimately doesn’t strike me as all that “exotic,” but it is quite tasty.
Distillery: Compass Box (sourced blend)
City: Chiswick, England
Style: Blended malt whisky
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $120 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.