Monday, February 6, 2012

Have just tried - The Last Vatted Malt

This whisky was released in November last year and was bottled to mark the change in law by the UK Government.  The Last Vatted Malt is produced by boutique whisky producer Compass Box and the clue as to the law change is in the name.  As the clock struck midnight on 22/23 November, it became illegal to use the name 'vatted malt' on any product.  A vatted malt is a whisky that is made using two or more single malts, and from that point onwards they would have to be referred to as 'blended malts'.

Compass Box was founded in 2000 by John Glaser and is based in west London. They also now have offices in Edinburgh. Their ethos is to buy whisky from a small number of distilleries and then craft them together into their own unique products. All are produced and released in small batches, often using only two or three whiskies to create a unique product with a catchy name. By doing their own blending and vatting, Compass Box have less restrictions than traditional independent bottlers and is a former winner of the prestigious Whisky Magazine's Innovator of the Year.

Compass Box believe that the law and name change will create confusion with consumers and whisky drinkers, as they may mix up 'blended malts' with blended whiskies - these contain whiskies made from other grains in addition to the single malts.  Therefore, the Last Vatted Malt was born and the last ever bottle was filled on Westminster Bridge, next to the Houses of Parliament, in London as Big Ben approached midnight.  We were delighted to be invited to that and to read fully about the law and name changes, plus that event on Westminster Bridge - click here.

The Last Vatted Malt is made up of just two un-named single malts - a 36 year old distilled in 1974 and from Speyside which has been matured in first-fill ex-sherry casks (strongly rumoured to be from Aberlour), and a 26 year old distilled in 1984 from Islay which have been matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks (strongly rumoured to be from Caol Ila). It is being released at the natural cask strength of 53.7% ABV and there are just 1,323 bottles, retailing at £175 each.

Our tasting notes
The colour is a dark amber brown and the nose is rich, expressive and sumptuous.  An initial note of burnt brown sugar quickly gives way to some sweeter aromas, namely malty cereal grains and soft, earthy peat.  This peaty aroma evolves with time in the glass - at times is feels mossy and at others it is reminiscent of creamy coal tar soap.  There are other elements adding further depth - spiced orange (think of marmalade), caramel, toasted almonds, vanilla and marzipan.  This nose is very positive and the combination of aromas is stunning and deserving of your prolonged attention.

On the palate, things kick off with the soft, sweet peat smoke again.  This time it seems to evolve in to having a tobacco/cigar-like quality.  There are plenty of notes vying for attention - wood spices (think of cinnamon bark and oak) grip your taste buds and add pleasing dryness, bittersweet cereals give further intensity and dark dried fruits bring good sweetness (imagine raisins, figs, prunes and dates).  More subtle notes of vanilla, coconut, spiced/cloved orange peel, dark chocolate and bitter espresso contribute to a wonderful compexity and combine well with the ever present and prominent smoke.

The finish is very long and rich with plenty of drying smokiness present.  This becomes increasingly tobacco-like and is reminiscent of the feeling when you have finished smoking a cigar.  Further woody spice combines with this and some robust cereals and a lovely fudge brownie chocolate note to create a finish that lingers for ages.  Delicious.

What's the verdict?
Compass Box rarely do things by halves and this is no exception.  The careful selection of the two casks and subsequent combining of them shows their skills.  The smoky whisky could easily overpower the sherry casked one, but it doesn't - the marriage seems perfect.  It is easy to see why they have won a hatful of awards. This whisky is a fitting tribute to all of the vatted malts that went before it in over 150 years of the old naming process.  It can only be hoped that all forthcoming blended malts can be this good or better. Very few whiskies would make us part with £175, but this could well be one of them.

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