Ailsa Bay Sweet Smoke 1.2 vs Compass Box Peat Monster

I’ve been going back and forth on whether I’m happy with the offering from the advent calendar showcasing Scotch whisky. On one side, I am not that impressed with the overall quality of drams [but I get what I’ve paid for]. On the other, I am happy to be introduced to a variety of distilleries, some of which I wouldn’t have picked up on my own. So at the end of the day, even if I walk away not thoroughly satisfied with a particular dram, I’ve still tried it, formed an opinion, and covered it here. So, overall, I think it’s a fun little journey, one which I am happy to be on. Today I compare one such offering from Ailsa Bay against my very own selection from Compass Box. But first, music! Now playing: Jakob Lindhagen & Dag RosenqvistGasljus.

At first, I am very impressed with the bottle, the modern label, and the crispy clean site design promoting this single malt. But I’m always wary of marketing – often devised to distract you from the actual product – after all, a good whisky speaks for itself. This “scientifically distilled” spirit at “022 parts peat and 019 parts sweet” comes in pretty strong, hitting you right away across all of the senses. There is plenty of peat and a lot more sweetness than I actually expected. But it’s not the PX type of charm and is rather a direct hit of the oak sugars. The finish shows off some of its roughness and bitterness on the edges, and it tastes pretty young, even though it is cleverly disguised with all of that added colour. Even after being diluted with water [it is bottled at 48.9%], where it now feels a bit thin, the alcohol still somehow burns in the mouth. I think it’s missing the oils that are developed in a more mature whisky. The Ailsa Bay was built by William Grant & Sons as a grain whisky distillery to be an efficient producer of four styles of whisky: fruity, meaty, and two peaty expressions. These are then used in Grant’s blends so that their flagship distilleries [like Balvenie and Glenfiddich] can continue and focus on the highly prized single malts. The spirit is “micro matured,” spending only 6-9 months in Hudson baby bourbon casks [to extract all of that sweetness], and then transferred into a combination of a virgin, first-fill, and refill American oak casks for “several years” [which probably means 3]. It’s priced at £55 for no particular reason, but to keep it a “top shelf” single malt. But there is one specific ingredient that is definitely missing from Ailsa Bay – and that is time.

The Peat Monster is a unique blend by Compass Box – an independent Scotch “whisky maker” focused on taking the single malts just a bit further with their selection of whiskies that go into each batch. What I love the most about Compass Box is that they break down the actual ingredients to a sub-decimal of percentage to reveal the makeup of each blend. In this case, this 46% bottle contains about 35% Scotch from Laphroaig, 64% Caol Ila (various casks and ageings) and 1% dress up of some Highland malt. The Peat Monster is smooth, elegant, slightly citrusy [relatively to Ailsa Bay], light and playful, with a delicious punch of peat that makes this monster someone I’d cuddle with and night of the year. The smoke is slightly iodine and medicinal but not so overpowering that it would taste like a dentist’s gauze. Its bitters are pleasant on the edges of the tongue, like a deep, pungent skin of a grapefruit, and it doesn’t linger too long, begging you for yet another satisfying sip. Fans of the two distilleries mentioned above will be in heaven, as the two bring in the various attributes of that coveted smoke. At £46, the blend is non-chill-filtered and has no artificial colouring. There is no age statement, but the latest 2019 edition includes “older and more elegant Islay malts“. There is also a 20th Anniversary “Arcana” limited-edition of this bottle – where the cask-strength version of The Peat Monster spends two more years in French oak custom casks [although the makeup of single malts is now predominantly from Talisker].

Well, then… here are my final thoughts. I did actually enjoy the Sweet Smoke 1.2, and if it wasn’t for The Peat Monster to compare it against, I would have probably rated it high [because I wouldn’t notice the absence of elegance obtained from the age]. But in this particular context, it is like comparing Johnnie Walker Black vs Gold Label Reserve. This is precisely why I bother with these tastings in the first place. So I do not intend to hate on Ailsa Bay. But so much marketing hype, unnecessary scientific jargon and pure handwaving appear to surround this bottle that it makes me think it’s designed to deflect from what’s really bottled inside. And with that, I’ll say that The Peat Monster wins this round.

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