...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: Compass Box Spice Tree

Yesterday, I was late to the party for Oak Cross.  Today, I'm catching up with Spice Tree.

In 2005, John Glaser's first release of Spice Tree was deemed illegal by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA); "illegal" meaning he could not call it "Scotch Whisky".  Inspired by his background in wine production, Glaser had the idea of doing what many winemakers have done, lining the inside of casks with new French oak staves in order to bring more spicy notes into a product, but within whisky maturation casks instead.  The SWA said this practice did not follow traditional whisky production methods, thus the product could not be Scotch Whisky.  They also said quality was irrelevant.  This sort of ingenuity and adaptation is not allowed, while caramel dye and teaspooning (adding a trace amount of one single malt to another in order to prevent other companies from releasing certain whiskies as single malts) is embraced.  Anyway, Glaser and company had to go back to the drawing board to find another way to get the same result in their Spice Tree whisky, but in a legal fashion.  They did so -- using toasted French oak cask heads instead -- and released new batches three years later.

Similar to Oak Cross, Spice Tree's malts spend the first part of their lives in American oak, a mix of first-fill and refill ex-bourbon barrels.  But Spice Tree's second maturation, more of it occurs in Compass Box's specially designed casks of American oak staves capped with toasted French oak heads:  80% of the maturation casks with this wood combination, the remaining 20% in first-fill former bourbon barrels.  The malts themselves are the same as Oak Cross's: Clynelish, Dailuane, and Teaninch.

A lot of similarities between Oak Cross and the Spice Tree.  So, what are the differences between them that have necessitated two products with two characters and two price points?  Spice Tree puts more focus on Compass Box's specially designed casks.  There are three different toast levels on these new French oak cask heads, a greater quantity of the final product has been influenced by these barrels, and the secondary maturation time is longer.  Plus the bottling has three more ABV points (46 vs. 43).

Let's see how it turned out.

Company: Compass Box
Type: Blended Malt (formerly known as Vatted Malt)
Distilleries: approximately 60% Clynelish, 20% Dailuane, and 20% Teaninch
Age: at least 10 years old
Maturation: see above
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No
Official product fact sheet PDF

Color -- Light gold
Nose -- Cardamom and nutmeg lead the spices.  Lots of fruit juices and orange candies, maybe some ginger too.  Strawberry jam, bananas, and toffee pudding with caramel sauce.
Palate -- Mostly sweet with some savory, and a thick texture.  Toffee with cracked black pepper.  Swirls of caramel, cinnamon, and brown sugar along with a subtle whole wheat toast note.
Finish -- Peppers and tannins. An extensive floral peppery buzz in the fore with vanilla beans aft.

Nose -- Cardamom with caramelized sugars, citrus fruit, and basil leaves in the summer sun.
Palate -- Vanilla, cracked black peppercorns, honey roasted nuts, brown sugar.  Very rich.
Finish -- Honey, vanilla, and balsamic vinegar.

Indeed, there's more spice in this one.  But also loads of individual fruits in the nose.  It's thicker and richer than Oak Cross, though this one sung better without water.  Oak Cross is a bright all-weather whisky, while this one is more of a brooder......though I'd drink in the summer anyway.

I'm going to conclude by talking about Diageo for a moment.  (Sorry!  But this is constructive!)  As I am working out my Diageo boycott occurring later this year, there are some high quality products for which I'd like to find replacements.  For instance, it'll break my whisky heart to abandon Talisker, but I have glorious (and I don't mean that lightly) independent bottlings of Ardmore to ease that transition.  But what about the Johnnie Walkers I used to adore?  In yesterday's comments, Jordan mentioned he'd be happy to go with Oak Cross instead of Black Label.  Yet what about the great Green Label?  I think Spice Tree is the closest thing I've found as an alternative.  It's not peated, but its lack of filtration and higher ABV give it a denser texture, plus all this fruit and spice are a treat.  And finally, Compass Box is a small business, while Diageo is the largest of them all.  John Glaser is doing an excellent job and I'd rather give him my business.

Availability - Most liquor specialists
Pricing - $55-$70
Rating - 89


  1. Want a sample of Compass Box Great King Street NY when I pop it open? It is limited edition, but it might tide you over on the JWGL front for a while.

    Funny thing, Spice Tree is actually cheaper than Oak Cross in OR right now. I snagged one bottle right off the bat, but I may need to stock up while it's reasonably priced.

    1. Absolutely! Thank you. Let me know when and we can work something out.

      I'd heard that there were some places that had Spice Tree cheaper. OR must have been one. Good score!

  2. The funny thing is Maker's Mark ended up using the Spice Tree's original method to create Maker's 46. In fact the Maker's 46 official site has photos of the inside of the barrel with the inner French oak staves.

    By the way, I think Compass Box Asyla and Great King Street should cover JW Red and Black in terms of mixer whiskies. And one edge I've noticed with Compass Box is Glaser uses real good quality grain whisky in his blends. Which might explain why he went ahead and made Hedonism.

    1. Yeah, listening to him talk about single grains makes me want to go out and buy some ancient Cameronbridge and Cambus and drink them straight from the bottle. But, you know, baby steps. Cheap baby steps.

      It's funny that with all the rules around producing bourbon, they're still much looser than SWA's. And I'm not sure that's always to the benefit of scotch whisky.

    2. The Highland Stillhouse has some really interesting, old single grain whiskies that I really want to try. Especially because I know where I can get full bottles of the 28 year old Cameronbridge and North British whiskies.


    3. Nice! At first glance those prices look rough, but single malts at that age pull in prices at least twice that. And to me I'd pay Highland Stillhouse's prices to try super old whisky.

    4. They have a pretty consistent '1/5 the price of a bottle' rate for their drams. It's not stellar, but it's cheaper than a lot of places that serve really old whisky.

    5. I'd take a 1/5-bottle price any day. Bar prices have gotten so crummy in LA that 1/4-bottle is a bargain now. I've seen 10yrs and 12yrs go for 1/3- or 1/2-prices. $14 for GF12 when it sells at Trader Joes for $26. $15 for Glenmo 10 when it sells at Total Wine for $26.

  3. To replace Talisker, you might want to think about Kilkerran. I think it has a similar taste profile.

    1. Oh man, I love Kilkerran. Every time I see a good price on it, I pick up a bottle. Good call.

  4. The problem is, Compass Box sources a lot of the whisky they use from Diageo...Oak Cross and Spice Tree are primarily Clynelish...does this indirectly violate your Diageo boycott?

    1. Very good point, Dan. That's part of the quandary I'm sorting through. Almost every blended Scotch whisky has malt or grain whisky from at least one Diageo distillery. I will have to institute some detailed structure...

    2. Frustrating, isn't it? Te Bheag has Talisker, Compass Box relies a lot on Clynelish, etc., etc. Not sure if a total boycott would work or whether you'd just have to settle for boycotting Diageo distillery OB's.

    3. Yeah. Ditching just the distillery OBs has been the option I've been considering the most......along with all of their other brands.

  5. By the way, Compass Box wasn't the only company to get in trouble with the SWA. Bruichladdich created a blend of their whisky and... peated Cooley single malt whiskey (yep, Scotch single malt and Irish single malt blended together) called Celtic Nations. Cute name and supposedly a decent tasting blend. The SWA allowed the first (and only) batch to be sold and then told Bruichladdich to never do that again. A few years later the Teelings are selling off their remaining supply of the blend and since they are selling it in Ireland, it's perfectly legal.

    1. Man, the SWA can be weird. As long as 'Laddie clearly stated what was in it and did not call it SCOTCH blended malt whisky, the heck is the issue? I wonder what the SWA would have preferred them to do. They would have imploded had someone tried to release something like High West's Campfire.

    2. Bruichladdich was actually cheeky enough to call Celtic Nations a Celtic Blended Malt Whisky. Apparently they were planning on more batch releases in the future but they only bottled the first batch before they got caught. Since there were 7200 bottles produced, you can still find a bottle at Binny's.

      Also Loch Lomond distillery is not a member of the SWA because some of their products fall afoul of their rules. Like making single malt whisky in a column still...

      High West and the Teelings are lucky neither of their respective home countries have such strict regulatory bodies. Now to find a bottle of Campfire.