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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