Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by the party behind it. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link in this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.AΩ
Early in Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a scene wherein an ape, having just successfully used a large femur bone as a weapon for the first time, flings it triumphantly skyward, the camera going to slow motion as the bone revolves and elevates. Then suddenly the film cuts to a huge space station–shaped almost identically to the bone–drifting lazily through space. It’s regarded as perhaps the most famous “match cut” in cinema history. Essays and even entire film courses have been dedicated to elucidating ‘why,’ but for budding filmmakers and film lovers alike the answer can largely be distilled down to a simple statement: “I didn’t know you could do that.”
I find myself frequently experiencing a similar revelatory sensation when trying a new Compass Box blend for the first time and Ultramarine, the flagship release in a planned four-part series entitled The Extinct Blends Quartet, heralds from an impressive line of illuminating blends from the idiosyncratic Compass Box group. According to their website, the Extinct Blends Quartet was inspired by, and aims to recreate, some famous blended whiskies of the past, notably from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s
Founded at the turn of the millennium by former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser, Compass Box bill themselves as ‘Whiskymakers,’ a term they cheekily boast, “you won’t find in the dictionary, we made it up.” What they mean is that they are not distillers, nor are they mere blenders, but something a bit more and a bit less.
They are first and foremost, whisky LOVERS, an important distinction simply because, in my experience, even when I am not completely engaged by one of their bottlings, I am always keenly aware that I am in the hands of true masters of their craft who are looking to expand and evolve what an experience in the world of Scotch whisky can be, while always being aware of–and almost obsessively devoted to–the traditions and styles of the past. The care and precision with which they blend, paired with their obsessive pursuit of the best barrels the world can supply, is evident in every bottling I’ve sampled.
Though they may style themselves as ‘Whiskymakers,’ in many instances, and with Ultramarine in particular, I think it’s just as appropriate to think of the Compass Box team as conductors. Ultramarine is ultimately composed of whisky from eleven different sources, but the majority of its percentage is made up from four distilleries. Caol Ila, the lighter bodied ‘little brother’ of the Islay style, takes the highest percentage. This is followed by a grain whisky from Girvan, a seaside distillery in the Scottish Lowlands, then more malt whisky from Glendullan in central Speyside, and some more grain whisky from Cameronbridge distillery, another coastal Lowlands house.
With this many different sources, and the styles they bring, balance and harmony are the blender’s north stars and greatest challenge. If this quote by a conductor–attributed cinematically by writer Aaron Sorkin to legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa–is true, and that ‘the musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra,” then one can think of the various distilleries and the region specific styles they bring as being the various musical sections in the symphony that is this blend.
And as one would not want the almost percussively powerful force of Caol Ila’s ocean tinged peat blasts to drown out the subtler sweet vanilla and cream of the Girvan, or muddle the malty cocoa and dried fig flavors of the Glendullan, we rely on the conductor bring all these disparate forces into balance. In this case the conductor is ‘lead Whiskymaker’ James Saxon, and he has played his orchestra with such finesse it calls to mind the original Greek definition of the word ‘philharmonic’: a love of harmony.
If I have waxed a bit meanderingly poetic, forgive me please, but there is no better word I can conjure to describe this bottling than transporting. It is at once both heady and ethereal, assertive yet dainty, evocative of a place to where Scotch can go in the future, while being rooted in, and celebratory of, the spirit’s rich and multiflorous past.
Tasting Notes: Compass Box Ultramarine
Vital Stats: 103 Proof, Age: No age statement, blended from 11 different sources, Price: $400 700ml (Limited Edition 5,430 bottles worldwide
Appearance: Ultramarine shows a deep burnished copper bordering on chestnut, with just the slightest haziness.
Nose: The first wave is an intoxicating blast of lightly charred fig with undertones of iodine, tennis ball rubber, and salinity, all intermingling with an integrated, elegant peatiness. The press release described it as an ‘ethereal peatiness’, a description which initially turned me off for its grandiosity but….well damn if that isn’t just the perfect word for it. After several inhalations, I held the aromas and suddenly imagined I was standing on a shoreline inhaling smoke coming off the water on a foggy afternoon and I half expected to see some siren standing tip-toe on a ship’s bow come bursting through the fog at any moment.
Time in the glass sees a bit more dried fruit character coming to the fore, with that iodine and rubber smell relaxing into more toffee, chocolate, and tobacco tones.
Palate: At a relatively modest 102 proof, I was a bit surprised at how hot this comes in on the palate at first but the heat subsides and then it’s all toffee and malty chocolate mingling with raisin and roasted nuts with a veritable pillow of smoke nestling onto your tongue as you exhale. What is magical is how well everything is integrated, all the different notes and elements playing off each other without dominating or muddying the others. Exceptionally balanced. The finish is medium long and gently smoky with lingering tobacco and nuttiness.