Monster of the Moors

peat monster lineup
peat monster lineup

All photos by Ellie Tam. In July of 1971, scientist Alex Olsen was caught in an explosion orchestrated by his diabolical assistant, Damian Ridge. Rather than killing Olsen however, the explosion caused his body to combine with the detritus of the swamp surrounding their lab, turning the hapless scientist into the shambling creature known as Swamp Thing. The problem with Swamp Thing was he had a terrible flavor profile: very intense vegetal notes, with too much musty earth and moss.

peat monster glasses
peat monster glasses

In 2004, scotch whisky mad scientist John Glaser created a monster of his own from the murky peat bogs of misty Scotland. At the behest of the proprietors of Manhattan’s Park Ave. Liquors, one of the world’s premier whisky shops, Glaser’s Compass Box -- already garnering international renown for their masterly blended malts -- created a Monster. Or rather, The Monster - a peaty blended malt made from Caol Ila and Ardmore whiskies and bottled at 54.9% ABV. Unlike Swamp Thing, who would strike fear in the hearts of all who encountered him, the Compass Box Monster was a welcome arrival, even if encountered late on a moonless night whilst unwisely hiking across the moors. Especially then, I imagine.

Like all good monsters, Compass Box Monster escaped the lab and went on a rampage through the whisky world, and its popularity was such that Glaser made it a permanent part of the Compass Box line-up. The recent event Evolution of the Peat Monster, organized by Ellie Tam of NYCWhisky and Robin Robinson, brand ambassador for Compass Box, hosted by Brooklyn distillery Noble Experiment (home of Owney’s Rum) and catered by cheese shop Stinky Brooklyn, afforded imbibers a rare opportunity not only to sample the long-gone original Monster, but to do it alongside every version of Peat Monster Compass Box has released, including the latest, a 10-year anniversary edition. It was a unique opportunity to experience the entire life-cycle of a single whisky and explore how it has changed since that initial experiment.

The impetus for the tasting came when Ellie Tam of the website NYCWhisky (which tracks whisky tastings and events throughout the five boroughs of New York City and the surrounding metro area) came across a few bottles of Monster in a Bonhams auction.

“I’ve been a fan of Peat Monster since I first tasted it years ago,” says Tam. “Shortly after, I had a chance to taste the Reserve. Still being a novice, I was very surprised at how different the two whiskies tasted. Fast forward to May 2014 and I got my hands on a few bottles of Monster. Having tasted the various incarnations through the years, I thought it was a great opportunity for a very rare vertical tasting.”

The one thing impacting the make-up of Peat Monster more than any other factor is the simple obstacle of availability. Sometimes, single malts just disappear, either because they were produced in limited quantity to begin with or because the distiller decides to repurpose a particular malt (as was the case when one of the ingredients in Compass Box’ Eleuthera was suddenly dedicated entirely to making a blend, resulting in the discontinuation of Eleuthera, which could no longer be blended as a result). The first big change to Peat Monster, however, was the result not of shortage but a response to consumer feedback that wanted more peat from the Peat Monster.

Robin Robinson (R) delights the crowd
Robin Robinson (R) delights the crowd

As a result, Glaser changed the recipe, and in 2007 Peat Monster added a third single malt: Laphroaig. In 2008, Clynelish was added to the mix, and in 2011, the recipe was changed again, consisting then of Laphroaig, Ardmore, Caol Ila, Ledaig, and most interestingly, Oak Cross -- another blended malt from Compass Box. For Glaser, it wasn’t about maintaining an exacting consistency from year to year; it was about maintaining an overall expression, but allowing the Peat Monster to showcase variations within those confines, like the blended malt version of a single cask whisky.

The event concluded with a sampling of the 10th anniversary edition of the Peat Monster, a truly wonderful concoction of 15 yo Laphroaig, 17yo Ardmore, Caol Ila, and Oak Cross.

For Tam, as well as Robinson and the rest of the guests in attendance, it was a rare chance to taste the entire lifespan of a single whisky.

“I had no idea what to expect from Monster,” said Tam. “I already knew that the Reserve and 10th anniversary were way different than The Peat Monster. I had no idea that there were tweaks to the blends for the different releases of The Peat Monster. I never noticed the differences through the years, but I guess that’s the point.”