After a long hiatus—over a year, in fact—since the last whisky tasting experience I attended or led, I found myself in a delightful new/relocated space in my own neighborhood, Dongcheng, in Beijing. I moved here in January because I missed this city, and most employers are not keen on letting their workers travel beyond the confines of any one province while there are outbreaks in other regions. I grew tired of my small town outside of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, found a new employer, and my old part-time gig graciously let me go.
There is a heady mix of history and cutting-edge modernity to Beijing, especially once you venture beyond the heated tourist traps where so many people toast in the summer. While we’ve had many 90-100-degree F days (or 40+ C, for our non-American readers), we’ve also had a lot of rain and have been able to avoid the more extreme situation down south, which experienced record-breaking highs this summer.
Beijing itself endured a “soft lockdown” lasting from late April to July, which means that many neighborhoods had their employees work from home, routine testing every 48 to 72 hours occurred in free testing sites that sprang up over town, and various compounds where COVID was found experienced actual quarantines until cases were eradicated. While we lost indoor dining privileges for a while, the powers that be seemed keen to avoid another situation like Shanghai. As a result, life swiftly returned to normal once the outbreak was quelled… and I will also mention that until this year, Beijing had had few cases since early 2020. Regardless, staying home all the time wore thin, and it’s been a delight to get out and about again!
Thus, this tasting a couple of weeks ago was one of the first events I went to since moving back this year. Miao, the owner, recently opened after the lease ran out on a different location. Dongcheng is a fun mix of “Old Beijing” and new, creative small businesses, a different world than the glittering lights of Sanlitun, TaiKooLi, and SoHo buildings just a mile east. It’s primarily made up of hutong siheyuan (courtyard homes) and centers around the Drum & Bell Towers. I live in a little space that’s newly renovated within but anywhere from 500-900 years old in its setting and bones. Forgive me the sentimentality, but it feels like wandering through a secret world when I take my dog for a walk. You never know what’s around each corner, and aggressive renovations five or six years ago ensured that the area, while more drably uniform now, is also much cleaner than hutongs of the past.
In this setting, the bar Shifter is tucked back behind yet another narrow road, though my taxi, thankfully, was able to ease into it, as the day was very hot. I leaped out, walked into the gorgeous setting, and the tasting began. The main purpose was to unveil the Orchard House, but to my surprise, also included several of the best of Compass Box and a unique taste of the Glasgow. Let’s go!
Compass Box Orchard House – Review
Scotch blended malt whisky. 46% ABV, non-chill-filtered.
“No color added:” as a bourbon lover first and foremost, this note on other whiskys always startles me, since it’s illegal to add anything to bourbon. Butttt at least it’s there! The descriptions say it is “fruit-forward” and “spirit-driven,” and I grasp the former but not the latter. The fruit is prevalent in notes of citrus, apple and pear, but very, very light.
Color: Cider. This is apple cider in whisky form.
On the nose: Incredibly light, with a touch of citrus.
In the mouth: Is it even there? I’m just joking. It came in with far more heat than expected from the nose, and the overall taste is very like the scents. It does have just a touch of syrup in addition to the citrus, apple and pear. The finish is non-existent, apart from a lasting sting due to the heat on the first sip. Or maybe it was just early in the day for me.
Forgettable, but not unpleasant. I wish the fruit and flavor in general was far stronger, and the heat dialed down into smoothness. “Spirit forward” does not mean “burns your mouth.” Still, it would be excellent in a highball for people who want a whiskeyed alternative to a beer in the summer heat. (I must ask forgiveness of non-American readers. It’s hard to break the “e” habit!) It might also be a good introduction to whisky for people who favor beer or cider.
Drinkable in a highball, but nothing to “wow” you.
At this point, I was not optimistic, as I expected more than a caustic introduction to the mouth followed by such little depth of flavor, but I was thankfully much happier in just a few sips.
Compass Box Hedonism – Review.
Scotch blended grain whisky. 43% ABV.
Color: Light golden yellow
On the nose: Hearty apple, far more present than in the Orchard House. A little spice and notes of vanilla
In the mouth: What a welcome change! Delicious. Tastes like dessert. Chocolate. Full of flavor. Finish is minimal, but no awkward tingling or burn like with Orchard House.
It’s been a decade since Hedonism was profiled on MALT, and a revisit is never a bad idea. This was my take-home favorite of the day, and it was a profound treat after the light nothingness of the Orchard House. I look forward to picking up a bottle soon.
Compass Box The Spice Tree – Review
Scotch blended malt whisky. 46% ABV.
On the nose: All about the Highland Malt. Hits you in the face after the Hedonism. Light, refreshing citrus.
In the mouth: Beautiful. A light, satisfying sting. I didn’t taste the oak much, but it is listed in the flavor notes. Bits of ginger and—you guessed it—spice, an unsweet cinnamon. Finish: Finally! There is one. Some spice is left in the mouth.
This was my second favorite, enough to buy a bottle down the road.
We were only halfway through at this point, but I think I’ve rambled on enough. In Part 2, we’ll cover the Story of the Spaniard, Peat Monster and the Glasgow. For now, the Hedonism was the clear winner of the first three.
Bottle photos courtesy of Compass Box. Other images author’s own.