Knowledgeable drinkers who try Celestial, the latest release from the cult Scotch brand Compass Box, might find some familiar notes in its flavor profile. Designed to emulate the highly sought-after, decades-old bottlings of a now less-than-charismatic blended Scotch, Celestial is the fourth and final member of the producer’s Extinct Blends series, which offers “re-imaginings” of bucket-list spirits that are no longer made.

According to the brand’s Whiskymaking Director, James Saxon, the unnamed model for Celestial was once considered an iconic brand, with strong connections to Islay.

“The very keen malt enthusiasts, they will track down this blend,” he says. “We know through the experience of tasting examples that they make today that it’s a radically different beast to what they were producing in decades gone by. So we wanted to take specific examples of what they were producing in the 1960s, and really take those flavor notes as our blueprint to create something really compelling in a nod to that style.”

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

Though it might not match up to the distillery’s fan favorite Peat Monster, Celestial is the smokiest release in the series. To emulate the historic model, Saxon used Compass Box’s own stocks of Islay spirits, with a careful eye on the character and amount of peat.

“We want a smoke profile that is pronounced, but not the dry, cutting, medicinal quality that your single malts might exude in this day and age,” he says. “We can take some of the soft smokiness that we’re finding from, for example, Caol Ila, and we can take the more tarry, rich flavors from an Ardbeg. Those, together with a little bit of French oak, and we can start to get reminiscent of that character.”

Compass Box is not alone in putting out modern bottles that echo flavors from the past. In recent years, producers of all kinds have released contemporary versions of long-gone spirits. Rum makers have offered emulations of legendary releases even the most fanatic of tiki enthusiasts have never encountered. Bourbon brands have turned out new editions of pre-Volstead and Prohibition-era recipes, often labeled with specific years. And absinthe distillers have recreated historic recipes from before the spirit was banned in France in 1915, as well as modern emulations of the illicit spirits that were produced illegally during the ban.

Imperfect Inspiration, Modern Appeal

Although Saxon jokes about a time machine when he talks about Celestial, he’s careful to add that this is not an exact replica of the earlier spirit. It’s more of an homage, he says, a brand-new whisky in its own right, made using contemporary techniques to create a drink that was simply inspired by the historic model.

“We’ve come at it from a flavor perspective. We’ve used modern whiskey production methods to reimagine a flavor profile that we found in a bottle from yesteryear,” he says. “We’re not trying to make mammoths walk again, you know. This is very much an elephant, but just behaving in a way that might recall that more prehistoric situation.”

That means that there are some big differences between the model and its modern homage. Like all Compass Box releases, Celestial is non-chill-filtered and made without artificial coloring. And while the model for Celestial contained a mere 40 percent ABV back in the 1960s, the new release comes with a fan-friendly 50 percent ABV.

“In terms of no artificial coloring, no chill filtration, that’s a very modern presentation. This is a much higher ABV, much more ‘whisky savvy,’” he says. “You have to balance these things. If it was just a case of recreating, well, it would be 40 percent, and it would be colored to death.”

“If you were tasting Old Forester made in 1924, compared to today’s release, there will be consistent similarities.”

Those modern aspects appeal to contemporary drinkers, as does the slight mystery surrounding the release. Compass Box isn’t saying which brand served as the model for Celestial, though many drinkers appear to appreciate the puzzle. The silence concerning original models holds for two other releases in the series, Ultramarine and Metropolis, though Saxon hints that their names offer clues to their inspirations. The fourth, Delos, was based on Compass Box’s own bottling, Asyla, which was retired in 2018.

“We had to be a little bit cagey when it came to openly using the brand names that we were inspired by, but when it’s our own blend, Asyla, we didn’t have to be so coy,” he says. “That was an easier one to talk about for the sales teams, for sure.”

Other makers have mined their own product lines for inspiration. Last year, Appleton Estate put out its 17 Year Old Legend, which it calls “a faithful recreation of one of the most iconic rums ever produced on the Appleton Estate,” the long-lost J. Wray and Nephew 17 Year Old, believed to have been used for the invention of the Mai Tai in 1944. And in January, Old Forester bourbon released Old Forester 1924 10-Year-Old, the fifth bottling in its Whiskey Row series, which includes releases inspired by recipes from 1870, 1897, 1910, and 1920.

According to Old Forester master taster Melissa Rift, the new release stands out due to the 1924 mash bill, with 79 percent corn, 11 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley — a shift from the bourbon’s traditional grist of 72, 18, and 10 percent, respectively — which it used while supplying medicinal bourbon during Prohibition.

“The mash bill is the big difference. It’s a different taste profile,” Rift says. Although she clarifies that this is not an exact recreation, she thinks that Old Forester 1924 10-Year-Old should evoke the character from the 100-year-old version. “If you were tasting Old Forester made in 1924, compared to today’s release, there will be consistent similarities.”

Changing With the Ages

There will be lasting similarities, but to what — and when, exactly? It can melt your brain slightly to consider which version of a 100-year-old spirit you’d be tasting: the 1924 version, right when it was released, or the version from 1924 with 100 years of age on it. Spirits don’t age in the bottle the same way they do in a barrel. Nor do they develop and blossom like fine wines. But they don’t exactly stay the same, either.

“To a certain extent, it’s just obviously a fun marketing gimmick. I do think Old Forester 1920 is a great, great bourbon, and pretty damn close to a Prohibition style.”

“It’s true, whiskey in the bottle does not age in the way wine does,” Saxon says. “However, put anything in glass with an imperfect stopper for 50 years and the effects of those 50 years will play a part on the spirit.”

That’s as true for bourbon as it is for clear spirits like absinthe, for which “pre-ban” bottles dating from before the legal interdiction of the drink are considered its pinnacle — even though those bottles might have tasted quite different a hundred years ago. The Czech distiller Martin Žufánek produced a celebrated recreation of one of the first commercial absinthes, Dubied Père et Fils, in 2018, which many connoisseurs compared to pre-ban absinthe, rather than modern versions. But when I ask Žufánek if drinkers in the pre-ban era were drinking what we think of as “pre-ban absinthe” today, he laughs.

“Exactly!” he says. “They were drinking what we would call modern absinthe.”

For many, modern re-imaginings of spirits have a lot of appeal, bringing us close to rare “dusty” bottles most of us will probably never have a chance to sample. Author of the new book “Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits,” VinePair writer-at-large Aaron Goldfarb says that some historically inspired modern spirits come close to vintage versions, though it’s not always easy to be sure.

“To a certain extent, it’s just obviously a fun marketing gimmick,” he says. Some emulations go well beyond that, including another release from Old Forester’s historical series that sought to emulate the taste of Prohibition-era whiskey. “I do think Old Forester 1920 is a great, great bourbon, and pretty damn close to a Prohibition style.” Other recreations might be more of a shot in the dark. Pretty much no one living on planet Earth tasted the version of Wray and Nephew 17 that inspired the original Mai Tai in 1944. While Appleton Estate’s recreation was “spectacular,” Goldfarb says, it’s hard to know how that really compares to the original.

Though some recreations are destined to live on shelves for years, many will disappear relatively soon. Only 1,500 bottles of Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend were produced, the distillery’s website notes, for a release it says it will never recreate again. With its four releases, Compass Box’s Extinct Blends series comprises under 5,500 bottles in total, which means that the series is nearly as limited as the models it emulates.

“We’re never going to do that again, so they themselves will become extinct,” Saxon says.

That means, of course, that some modern recreations might end up inspiring their own homages further down the road. And at some point, those third-generation versions might be recreated themselves.

While that might sound like a boozy version of an M.C. Escher drawing, Saxon says he thinks of historically inspired bottles as something more melodic — like musical standards, the popular songs that just about everyone knows.

“It’s almost like these are our cover versions,” he says. Modern musicians don’t have to use period instruments like the harpsichord, he explains, just because they’re recording a Baroque composition. “Instead, it’s the synths, it’s the drum machine, but with a similar melody and counterpoint. The tune is recognizable, but it’s a different piece of music.”