Monday, April 9, 2012

Compass Box Hedonism Review - Coconut cream vanilla perfume eau de vie.

I've had the opportunity to taste Hedonism several times recently - particularly paired with Pacari Lemongrass chocolate.   When I attended the event at the St. Giles I took the opportunity to pour myself a 50ml sample from Compass Box brand ambassador Robin Robinson's own bottle of Hedonism and I finally got around to pouring it for critical review.  That's why I have no bottle pictures - just lots of pics of my dram of Hedonism in the lovely fading light.

Hedonism is, quite famously, a blend of grain whiskies - not malt whisky.  That's part of the iconoclastic fun of Compass Box.  They turn a lot of things on their heads.  Peat Monster is a blend of 3 malts - but only one is from Islay.  Orangerie is *gasp* flavored.  Spice Tree and Oak Cross use a unique and spicy kind of oak in the barrel finishing.  They slaughter sacred cows ruthlessly.  Having their highest priced semi-regular expression be a blend of grain whiskies is iconclastic because we've all come to believe grain whisky is cheap - and is what's wrong in cheap blended whisky.  We say of a lower quality blend that it tastes "grainy".  We praise better blends for their higher percentage of malt (and thus lower percentage of grain).  However, as The Scotch Noob pointed out in a recent post called "What does Grain Whisky Taste Like":  the problem with cheap blends is CHEAP grain whisky.  Good grain whisky is a whole different ballgame. 

There are actually a whole bunch of grain whiskies where nicely aged examples can be had that have nice flavors: Invergordon (check out Ralfy video log #256), Carsebridge (Ralfy #255), Cambus, Port Dundas, North British, and Cameronbridge come to mind.  However, the business of vatting - blending - them is almost unknown in the current marketplace.  Other than Hedonism, only Famous Grouse's Snow Grouse expression is a blended grain whisky - to the best of my knowledge. 

So, what's in Hedonism?  The contents, according to the Compass Box cut sheet for Hedonism says:  "Will vary according to batch but typically whiskies from the following distilleries: Cameron Bridge,
Carsebridge, Cambus, Port Dundas or Dumbarton".  That "vary according to batch" part is important.  Unlike the other regular issue Compass Box offerings, each bottling run of Hedonism is a one off.  When the batch is gone the next batch will be a different blend.  FYI - there are two fancier expressions of Hedonism in the Compass Box lineup too:  Hedonism 10th Anniversary (120 bottles made worldwide) , and Hedonism Maximus (1500 bottles made worldwide).  Good luck finding them.  Park Ave Liquors has the Maximus - but it will set you back three benjamins.  Let's get on with the tasting:

Hedonism 43% abv

First fill American oak.  Non chill filtered.  No colors added.

Color: Pale Gold

Nose: Cocoa butter, white chocolate, unsalted butter/Devonshire cream, oak vanilla, medicinal alcohol, faint citrus (tangerine). Subtle, yet rich and dessert like.

Creamy bright opening with sweetened whipped cream. Then the expansion begins with toasted coconut. A bright brassy note that is hard to put words to: citrus or acid without the acidity. The mouth feel is light but has some oil thickness - it's silky. Then more creamy notes with a big floral bouquet of oak vanilla.  Pepper heat arrives late with some warm almost prosciutto fat flavors for a moment, but they disappear as the finish begins. The finish lingers nicely and exceedingly gently: egg custard and birch wood and then finally gentle oak at the fade out.

The dominant impressions here are subtle, off dry, elegant, and tasty. Coconut cream pie eau de vie.  This isn't a big booming dram.  It's more like a 1000 thread count silk pillow.  Silky, rich, buttery, and sweet like a cloud.

Adding a couple of drops of water releases spirit heat in the nose which clears in a moment and amps up the coconut and a slightly meaty and also a slightly herbal note in the nose. The water increases the sense of sweetness as well as the floral and herbal flavors.  I'd definitely recommend experimenting and adding 2-3 drops.  But be careful - Hedonism is very light and subtle.  Only add a little bit of water.  Over dilution is just around the corner.

Conclusions:  Tasty.  Surprising.  Eye Opening.  Excellent.  A whole new world.


Hedonism is $90 at Shopper's Vineyard.  It's between $80 and $110 in general.  That's pretty expensive.  I'm not sure where Hedonism fits on a the value scale.  It's a very unusual item.  I suggest you try it.  If it's your thing, you'll definitely know it.


  1. "Sunset through the whisky glass"

    Nice photo! ;-)

  2. Thanks, Ryan! I was going to pose the dram against the Newark "Volcano" (the pile of rubble of what used to be the Westinghouse plant) - but it was just easier to use the sunset.

  3. Reviews of Hedonism seem to be all over the place lately. Some, like yours, absolutely sing its praises. Others find it to be pretty tepid. It sounds like this might be a downside to Compass Box's success - with growing demands for product, their ability to source good whisky decreases. I'd definitely like to try them, but I'll be getting minis rather than full bottles, at least to begin with.

    1. Excellent points, Jordan. You make 3 of them:

      1) Tons of reviews for Hedonism.
      - Yes, Hedonism is exciting and Compass Box does a great job of promoting their products. There are a whole lot of new blogs (present company included). Judge each review on its merits and your sense of the palate of the reviewer. You've read a bunch of my reviews - you probably have a good sense of how my tastes dovetail with yours.

      2) People tend to either love Hedonism or find it weak.
      - True. It's a subtle flavor - and also a subtle flavor that takes a long time to open up. Before it airs out and opens up the medicinal alcohol note is strong and the flavor profile is tight and doesn't bloom. It's definitely thin and mediocre then. However the need to air is true of many drams. I suspect something else is going on. Take the coconut flavors. Obviously there is no actual coconut. The congeners and esters present in the grain alcohol develop into those flavors over time, with interaction with the wood. Some people will perceive them as coconut. Others as something else (I've heard toast). Ditto with the oils. Some will find it, like me, silky. Other's might dislike a texture that in cheap blends comes off as "fishy". These are subjective experiences.

      I'll tell you right now, my opinion of Hedonism went up each time I had it. The first time I drank it I would have given it 3 stars; the second and third time 4 stars. It was only with this final tasting - unusually leisurely and with the addition of a few drops of water - that I came away with 5 stars. Hedonism is a fan dancer whose charms emerge over time.

      3) Will Compass Box be able to source good old grain whiskies in the future?
      - I find it striking that all the rest of the regular issue Compass Box offerings are blended to type but Hedonism is labelled a "limited edition" with the expectation that each edition will be a unique blend. That is a clear testimony to the rarity of the components. How much well aged high quality grain whisky is there in Scotland? I have no idea.

      I'd add a fourth question: how does good single grain Scotch whisky compare with Hedonism (I specify Scotch to exclude Irish single grain offerings like Greenore 8)?

      Good well aged grain whiskies are hard to find in the US. My local Park Avenue Liquor sells a 35 year old Cambus for $190:

      K&L seems to just have three: i) a 1979 30 year old Cameronbridge for $150:

      ii) and a 1978 vintage Cameronbridge 30 year - same price

      iii) K&L also has a 30 year old North British for $150:

      The Scotch Noob's article has detailed tasting notes for a 12 year old North British which mentions a similar flavor profile (creamy, floral, herbal). He specifies that he sourced it from the UK.

      Bottom line - Hedonism is very unusual - as a blended grain of high quality. High quality Scotch single grain whiskies are rare and hard to find and the ones on offer in the US seem to be rare expensive highlight selections. That makes Hedonism even more compelling in my opinion.

    2. Jordan, I think there's a good reason reviews are all over the place, and I also think Josh did a good job in his post, because I can see why he likes it, yet at the same time he gave me the requisite info to know that it's not for me (e.g. "light and subtle"). I think it's one of those that gets lost on a palate like mine, though plenty of people enjoy them. Undoubtedly, if you go for a light and subtle dram, Hedonism delivers.

    3. Oops - Josh just made my point. He hadn't posted when I started writing :-P

  4. We crossed posts, Ryan! Thanks for the support. Meanwhile, Jordan is right to wonder about conflicting reviews. It often designates a polarizing flavor profile. Will Hedonism appeal to Jordan? He will have to find out for himself. I'll be very interested to read his review (if he does one)- and G-LO's (which will be hitting soon).

  5. I want to clarify a couple of points:

    1) I'm arguing that high quality single grain Scotch whiskies are rare ***in the US marketplace***. I'm not arguing that they are objectively rare (I have no idea). Ralfy takes pains to tell us there are a million casks sitting in warehouses and I have no reason to doubt him. However, I doubt that a big percentage of that million is the very old nice stuff that's clearly in Hedonism.

    2) K&L also has a 20 year Girvan for $80 and several very old (1960s vintage) selections as well - sorry to have under-reported before. These exceptions rather prove the rule. Decent single grain selections are pretty exotic in the US. I suspect this situation may be changing.

  6. So, any plans to review Flaming Heart?