Boys you can break,
If single malt whiskies are the boys in the yard (strong, rugged, handsome) then blended whiskies are arguably the finer sex: light, smooth, and demure, with curves instead of blunt angles. That's because blended whisky (in this case, we're specifically talking blended Scotch whisky) must include some grain whisky in the final blend recipe. This distinguishes blended whisky from a blended malt, since a blended malt eschews the addition of unmalted grain spirit and sticks with a pure mixture of single malt whiskies. "Grain whisky" could refer to just about any fermented and distilled grain wort, but in Scotland it tends to be made from unmalted barley.
Grain whisky is typically produced in continuous column stills, which can purify the distillate to a rather insane (compared to multiple runs in a pot still) 94-plus percent ABV. That's close to the natural limit of modern distillation techniques, and the resulting spirit tends to be very fine, sweet, and "neutral" ethanol. That ethanol is aged in oak barrels like any other Scotch whisky, and over time the alcohol evaporates faster than the water which brings down the proof (water is frequently added before bottling to accomplish this as well). This is not at all unlike the production processes behind many Irish, Canadian, and American whiskies. In fact, you'll notice that blended whiskies naturally deliver that desired "smoothness" that many American whisky drinkers swear by. That could be part of the reason that the vast majority of Scotch whisky sold is actually bottled and sold in the form of blends.
I just told you that with blended whisky, master blenders choose to marry single malt whiskies with base malts and grain whiskies to create an entirely new drink. What John Glaser over at Compass Box has done with Hedonism is something quite unusual. It's a blend of only grain spirits (i.e. not malted barley), chosen by the barrel from undisclosed Lowland distilleries (there are dozens). These grain whiskies are of "varying ages", some old, some rare, but all come from first fill American ex-bourbon casks. That little detail will exhibit some signature trademarks as we dive into the nose. Actually, "dive into the nose" sounds kind of gross, so we'll just "loiter above the nose"... or something. Let's do this.
That first fill bourbon cask has dumped all kinds of sweet, bourbony goodness into this neutral spirit, giving it a distinct tequila character similar to Don Julio Anejo. In fact, at first sniff, I'd challenge you to tell the two spirits apart. Alongside the barrel-aged agave spirit we have coconut cream pie, mint chip ice cream, and a slight sensation of rubbing alcohol. I'm already looking forward to tasting this. Shall we?
C'est magnifique! It's actually a bit flatter (probably the alcohol heat; water tames the fire) on the palate than expected, but it opens to a huge, earthy agave spice very similar to a rested tequila. That spice is quickly drowned in a cream soda with extra fizz, followed by a touch of cognac. I'd reckon this would make a great aperitif, or even a Sidecar if you're mixing. The finish is not overly long, but leaves with a bit of pleasant, buttered sourdough (real butter, not margarine).
I'm not sure what I expected from a grain whisky, especially unmalted barley, but it wasn't this. The comparison to other distilled spirits (tequila, cognac) is as apt as it is curious, and the oak influence - apart from the bourbon and vanilla notes - really doesn't make its presence known. It's good whisky, great even (as long as you weren't expecting Springbank or Aberlour) and I'm thinking I'm always going to try to have a bottle on hand for educational purposes. Hedonism really isn't all about the glory of grain whisky, it's about showcasing grain whisky's contribution in a solid way. If you can find, it is worth the exploration and the understanding. Plus, in an age when whisky prices are running amok, Compass Box tends to be something of a steal.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.