Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: Compass Box Spice Tree


(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Spice Tree
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
46% alc/vol (92 proof)
$55 – $65
Overall rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Here we are at the third whisky in Compass Box’s (CB) gift pack.  I’ve already reviewed Asyla and Oak Cross.

A quick rehash, in case you’re only here for this review:  My friend Jake and I sat down to review the CB lineup from a gift pack that Jake had purchased.  There were five vials, 50mL each, of the whiskies.  Each whisky had an accompanying tasting video on CB’s website.  We tasted them in their order in the box, which is the same order of the videos.  We didn’t watch the videos until after we had tasted each whisky because we didn’t want our experience to be tainted by suggestion.  I really wanted to make sure that we experienced the whisky on our own before hearing the company marketing spiel.  I’m glad we made that decision as my tasting notes at times did not match up with John Glaser’s (the company’s founder and Whiskymaker).  Had we watched the videos before hand, I feel that I would have been looking for smells and flavors, rather than experiencing what was there.

Knowing what little I did about CB’s lineup going into the gift pack tasting, I really didn’t know what to expect from each of the 50mL vials. The one whisky I knew something about (aside from the obvious expectation of peat in The Peat Monster, being reviewed next) was The Spice Tree.  A little over a month ago, when visiting a friend at a local liquor store, I was given a sample of Brenne to try.  It was like no whisky I had ever tried before (and still isn’t).  Wanting to find out more information, I decided to look up some reviews.  Brenne is a French whisky first aged in first fill Limousin Oak then aged in ex-Cognac barrels.  I incidentally discovered through this review at The Coopered Tot (a whiskey blog I follow, so I trust Josh’s reviews) that The Spice Tree is aged in Limousin Oak as well.  So, given the fascinating whisky Brenne is, I was excited to see what the same oak would do to The Spice Tree.

The leaflet that came in the gift pack had the following information:

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky 46% [alc/vol]
Three Highland single malts from the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron.  Extended maturation in custom-made French oak casks with heavily toasted ends.

It goes on to break down the composition, and the reasons behind each choice:

A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

1.  20% first fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  80% new French oak – clove spice, vanilla, mocha

I tried not to pay attention to the aroma and flavor benefits so as to come to my own conclusions.  Here we go:

The eyes.
The color is very similar to apple juice (Motts, I suppose…I’ve never really payed enough attention to notice if one brand of apple juice looks different from another; I suppose with kids in the house now I’ll be looking more closely so I can start reviewing them…)

The nose.
The nose is very subtle.  I don’t know that I’d call it delicate; more like faint.  There is plenty of spice here, like Christmas baking spices, but they seem to be hiding.  Like when you enter someone’s home the day after they’ve been baking.  You can tell, but it’s not very strong.  I can smell indistinct red berries and Christmas desserts.  I don’t know what it is that keeps me thinking of Christmas food here, but there’s something holiday-esque about the nose.  Like late autumn, early winter New England spices; nutmeg and clove, maybe, but there’s nothing significantly distinguishable.  Just Christmas.  There’s a light apple note, similar to that of Oak Cross.  After a little time, very slight notes of malt, vanilla, and peat emerge.  Toward the very end of my nosing time, I found (strange as it may sound), a plain macaroni note.  Like when hot elbow macaroni is sitting in the colander after it’s been freshly poured into it.  Maybe it’s the sweetness of the malt changing a bit?  I will say that, considering the 46% abv, I expected at least some noticeable ethanol, but there’s nothing.  That’s impressive.

The mouth.
This is a warm, spicy, oaky whisky.  I still detect no ethanol.  It’s hot on the throat and the spices are here, but even less distinguishable than the nose.  I wouldn’t even identify them here as “Christmas”.  I taste malt, light vanilla, and a very slight apple rolling over from the nose onto the palate.  The mouth has more volume than the nose but it’s still disappointing.  I feel like the base that is holding the flavors up is similar to that of Highland Park (if you were to strip away its flavor components and be down to the bare malt base).  The finish is medium, sweet, and semi-spicy.

The nose, while delivering those holiday baked treats, was disappointing.  Perhaps it’s that my expectations were too high based on the name, the use of Limousin oak, and the color (given that CB uses no color additives), but everything here is just too faint.  When I first nosed those baking spices, I wanted them at a higher volume; they’re just too quiet.  Jake put it nicely when he said, “It seems flat, like nothing’s standing out.”  Some may call that balanced, but I found it boring.  I was really looking forward to seeing what Limousin oak would do with this blended malt.  The nose was the most interesting part but those Christmas baked treats were, again, too faint.  They would have wowed me with more presence and richness.  This package in its present form is just not enough for me to want more.  Had I $60 to spend on a whisky, this would not be on the list of candidates.  I think it’s worth a sample as the spice character isn’t like any whisky I’ve had before, but I can’t justify purchasing a whole bottle.  If you like lighter whiskies, and enjoy sweet, spiced flavors, you might like this.  It just didn’t have enough overall presence for me.

Review: Compass Box Oak Cross

(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Oak Cross
Blended malt scotch whisky
43% alc/vol
$45 – $50
Overall rating:  Friend

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Yesterday I posted a review of Compass Box’s (CB’s) Asyla.  As I stated there, it was a part of a CB gift pack with five vials (50mL each) of their standard lineup.  Today I’m reviewing the next whisky, Oak Cross.  After having tasted Asyla first, I was very excited to continue with the lineup, expecting good things.

I’m a little upset with myself that I didn’t take any photos of the gift pack or the whisky itself to post here.  While I appreciate readily available marketing photos, they can sometimes be inaccurate or, at the very least, misleading.  This isn’t always the case, and the CB photos on their website (that I am using here) seem accurate enough.  But there’s something nice about posting real photos of real whisky rather than relying on the brushed up commercial versions.  So for my oversight, I apologize.

As I said on my review of Asyla, I really appreciate the transparency of CB.  The leaflet that came with the gift pack has the following information about Oak Cross:

Three Highland single malts form the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron, with partial aging in French oak.

It goes on to break down the composition with the expected results from each component:

A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

1.  60% First fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  40% New French oak – clove spice

So here we go.

The eyes.
Oak Cross is a light gold.  It has a clean transparency.  Additional generic phrase describing the liquid.

The nose.
The first thing I detect out of the gate is Jolly Rancher apple.  Jake, my tasting partner through the CB gift pack, described it as sour apple.  It’s very apparent and is assertive enough so as not to let other scents through until some time has passed.  After some time in the glass, I’m finding the nose to be light but not delicate, and it softens as time continues to pass.  There is a floral note (carnation).  I detect ethanol but only in extremely faint and infrequent doses.  There is a light peat behind it all, and some distant malt and fresh oak.

The mouth.
The apple carries over to the palate just as strong as it was in the nose.  There’s a light to medium mouth feel and it’s warm but not hot, and spicy on the tongue.  The oak, staves damp with apple brandy, is stronger in the mouth (not surprising given the name).   I was surprised to get little to no vanilla both on the nose and on the palate given the larger portion of first fill American oak.  That is the reason why I didn’t want to watch the tasting video for Oak Cross before I tasted it myself; I wanted to let the scents and flavors come to me, not seek out what I was told is there.  As with the nose, there is peat here but it’s very faint, almost like unintentional leftovers from the malting process.  The finish is medium length with plenty of that Jolly Rancher apple.

Where Asyla has a delicate femininity and a complex white wine character, Oak Cross seems less intriguing of a whisky and I found the sour apple covered over a lot of what I had hoped to discover given the first fill American casks and the French oak which is known for its spice notes.  It was not a bad whisky by any means and, in fact, seems well crafted for a blend.  It was just too plain and uninteresting for me especially after the wonder that was Asyla.  And, given that Asyla is a blended scotch but this is a blended malt (meaning no grain whisky, just a blend of single malts) I had expected more from it.  John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) notes in the tasting video that the blended malts that make up Oak Cross are aged in American oak for about ten years.  After that time, about half of the blend is moved to barrels that have American oak staves with French oak heads (which explains why, to me, there is a lack of expected spice).  This is also one of the tastings where I disagreed with Glaser’s assessment of the whisky.  I did notice an overall sweetness, but found no “light clove” or “mocha” notes.

This is worth at least a sample, free if you can but don’t hesitate to spend a few bucks to try it if you get the opportunity (if you really like a light scotch that tastes like Jolly Rancher apples aged in oak).

Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla-Box-Bottle(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Asyla
Blended Scotch Whisky
40% alc/vol
$40 – $50
Overall rating:  Stock

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review system.

Your first review is of a blended scotch?  Not even a single malt?

Sigh.  Yes.  While my tagline says “Bourbon enthusiast,” that’s not where it ends.  I also enjoy scotch, rum, tequila, and brandy.  Really anything distilled and aged.  Let’s be adults and move on to the review, shall we?

Jake is my whiskey buddy.  He and I compliment each other well since he is mostly into scotch and I am mostly into bourbon, but we enjoy experiencing the other as well.  So we help each other out.  Fortunately I’m on the cheaper end of the spectrum so I get to benefit from his more expensive purchases.  Thanks, Jake.

A couple of months ago, Jake bought a Compass Box (CB) gift pack which includes five vials (50 mL each) of their main lineup.  The box (a well crafted, black, hinged wooden box that had me wondering how much of the pack price went toward it) included a leaflet with information on the whisky in each vial.  This week we sat down to sample them together and compare notes.  We went through them in the order they are in the box, as well as the order of the accompanying tasting videos found on CB’s website:  Asyla, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, and Hedonism.  I’ll be reviewing all five, in order, starting here with Asyla.

My initial experience with scotch was with blends.  White Horse, Ballantine’s, Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal 12 year, Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black.  Each of them had a very obvious and distinct ethanol presence (like vodka; that smell and taste of rubbing alcohol).  I tried single malts shortly thereafter and never looked back to blends.  Even after I had heard great things about CB’s Great King Street Artist’s Blend, I still avoided it because of blended scotch’s reputation for being harsh and nearly unpalatable.  But one thing i’ve learned in life is to give second chances.  Whiskies change, and so do I.  So, despite CB being a blending house, I decided to give their expressions a fair chance.

I’m glad I did.

One thing I appreciated about CB immediately was their transparency.  The leaflet included in the box tells me about as much as I’d like to know about what I’m drinking.  As I’m used to some producers of American whiskey using fabricated history (*cough* Diageo *cough*), or distilleries being very hush-hush about what’s in the bottle, this is a wonderful breath of fresh air.  CB doesn’t tell me the exact distillery they source their whisky from, but they get awfully close.  About Asyla, the leaflet says:

Single malts from the towns of Alness and Longmorn.  Single grain whisky from Fife.  Aged in 100% first-fill American oak.

It then breaks the composition down even further, with the reasoning behind each choice:

A.  50% Lowland (East) single grain – fruitiness
B.  40% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  10% Speyside single malt – fruitiness

1.  100% first fill American oak – vanilla

As I mentioned above, there are tasting videos to go with each whisky.  Jake and I didn’t want to taint our own experiences by having someone else tell us what we should be smelling or tasting so we opted to watch the videos after we’d finished with each sample.  I found we agreed with John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) on some things, and disagreed on others (not just on Asyla, but the others as well).  I tend to think that a master distiller, or ‘whiskymaker’, certainly knows more about what they make than I do about what I buy.  So I might be inclined to give Glaser the benefit of the doubt and assume he can sense things I don’t.  But, that doesn’t detract from the fact that there were certain notes I just didn’t pick up.

Alright, let’s get down to it.

The eyes.
Asyla is a very light gold, almost like water with a little apple juice added to it.  It looks clean and crisp.

The nose.
I was immediately enticed by this whisky from the first scents.  It nosed much more like a white wine than it did a scotch.  A Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling.  It is light and delicate.  There is white flesh fruit, like sour apples and a faint peat reminding me that this is, indeed, scotch.  Asyla’s nose opens up with a little time in the glass giving way to more of the fruit, and strengthening the white wine essence.  I detect not even a trace of ethanol.

The mouth.
Medium to heavy body, fairly creamy and velvety.  Soft.  Delicate apple carries over from the nose with the addition of a slight note of vanilla.  There’s a slight floral flavor like first spring flowers on the breeze.  There is faint oak here that I really had to search for.  There’s a sweetness here too, but light and far from cloying.  I found the finish to be medium and warm, certainly longer than I would have expected from the delicacy of flavor.  Perhaps it’s the creamy weight in the mouth that helps.  That sweet white flesh fruit carries itself from the nose to the throat.

Glaser suggested in the tasting video that this is a “Sunday afternoon in the garden” whisky, which I’m inclined to agree with.  For those beautiful late spring afternoons where the air is comfortably warm but still cool enough to want to be in the sun.  He also suggested that this could be enjoyed with ice, water, or club soda.  I found Asyla to be just too delicate and well crafted to want to add anything and chance washing away the clean, crisp structure (especially at the minimum 40% alc/vol).  I let it be and enjoyed it in its natural form.

This is a beautiful scotch that doesn’t drink like a blend at all.  In fact, if I didn’t know, I would have sworn this is a single malt.  I typically don’t like delicate or lightly flavored whiskies.  I don’t want to work hard to find the scents and flavors.  Delicate whiskies can often mumble quietly to my palate and I’m left wanting to say, “Speak up, please!”  Asyla, while delicate, spoke softly but clearly.  It was a soft voice which, rather than presenting me with an experience, intimately invited me in for one.  In my three years of whiskey drinking, I have only once before called a whiskey “feminine” (Brenne), but here I find myself readily applying that adjective.  Asyla is graceful and elegant.  The white wine character is so intriguing as to draw me back for more.  In fact, the night after I sampled it I lamented at not having any more on hand and was already thinking about buying a bottle.  At its price point, this is a fantastic value.

But Things Change…

Drink:  George Dickel No. 8

I used to be a beer drinker.

My first experience was around age 14.  My dad, enjoying a sample pack with a firend, let me try a sip (I asked).  It took two glasses of Pepsi and a sandwich to get the horrid taste out of my mouth.  Years later, after reaching legal drinking age (I didn’t drink until I was 21, probably in part because of that disgusting first taste), I ordered a beer over my dad’s birthday lunch.  Freshly able to purchase alcohol, and having learned that my palate had changed drastically since my early teens (thanks to my culinarily ecclectic ex-girlfriend), I ordered a Blue Moon.  Mostly for the name, because I didn’t know a thing about beer.  It came in a glass with an orange slice perched atop.  “The hell?” I thought.  But surely this New Orleans styled pub knows what they’re doing.

So, as with all new foods, I leaned in for a smell.  The light spice of the beer was complimented beautifully with the fresh, soft citrus of the orange.  I took a sip, making sure I could smell the orange in the process.  “My gosh!” I thought.  “I get it!”  It was delicious.  The waitress wondered out loud when I would move the slice into the beer, but I was new to this and didn’t want to push past this first understanding too quickly.  I wanted to savor it.  Baby steps.

Years, and many beers and a few brewery tours later, I knew beer.  I can tell you now what I like, what I don’t like, and what I’d altogether like to avoid.

When I was in the phase of beer exploration, I read an article in the NY Times about Irish whiskey leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.  The author made it sound absolutely delicious.  Ever the curious explorer, I stopped in my local go-to liquor store to peruse their Irish whiskey section.  There were several options.  Most I’d never heard of.  In fact, I’d probably only heard of Jameson at that point.  Someone seeing the lost look in my eyes suggested I steer clear of Michael Collins as it was high on celebrity but low on quality.  I ended up purchasing standard Bushmills as it was relatively cheap and obscure (to me).  I took one sip and that bottle is still unfinished.  Gross.  I was pretty sure that whiskey would never be my thing.  But things change.

A few months later the NY Times posted another article on whiskey, this time rye.  It lead me to give whiskey another shot.  A driving factor in my decision was the article’s mention that it was Humphrey Bogart’s drink of choice.  As I adore Bogie, and my mom says we’re distantly related, I wanted to give rye a shot.  Back at the store, I asked an employee if they had any rye whiskeys in stock.  It was Old Overholt or something else I don’t remember.  My wallet being the deciding factor once again, I came home with the Overholt.  That bottle is also still unfinished (though it is less unfinished than the Bushmills).  Gross.  Now I was certain that I would never drink whiskey.  But things change.

After my visit to Louisville, I understood whiskey.  Now it’s a hobby that continuously outgrows its shelf space.

My palate isn’t the only thing that has changed over time.  I have matured.  I understand now that the future, by and large, is uncertain.  I was absolutely certain at age 14 that I would never consume beer again.  Ever.  I was absolutely certain after Bushmills and Old Overholt that I would never consume whiskey again.  Ever.  But things change, and here we are.

Please excuse this awkward transition.  I’ll circle back, I promise.

Wife and I decided together that four was an excellent number of children but we hadn’t decided when to start.  She, being the gracious wife that she is, left the decision to me.

In addition to learning that the future is uncertain, I’ve learned to trust my gut.  I knew that I wanted to marry my beautiful wife nine months into our dating relationship.  I knew that we shouldn’t purchase a house right away.  I knew, when the time did come, that the house we live in now was our new home before I even walked in the door.  The latter was definitely my gut because the amount of updating that the house needed (needs) scared buyers off for a while before we showed up.

Having listened to my gut, all of the aforementioned decisions (and plenty of others), though each came with its challenges, proved right for us.  So, when it came time to choose a ‘when’ for children, I listened to my gut.  Which was scary.

A few years went by after Wife gave the decision to me, and, despite my brain worrying about the passing time and our increasing age, my gut waited quietly.  Despite the future’s uncertainty, I can’t explain why I’m feeling at peace about one thing over another (except to say that it’s divine providence).  But eventually I come to understand why I was led in a particular direction.

About a year and a half into owning our house, we received a very memorable phone call.  It is amazing to me how two minutes into a conversation, your life can alter drastically.  I can’t go into detail but, suffice it to say, an infant member of Wife’s family needed a new home.  We were the prime choice.  Fairly young, semi-newly weds, a house in a great neighborhood in a very family-friendly town.  No children of our own yet to take our attention away from the needs of this helpless infant who was going to need a lot of special attention.

Buttercup has been with us for almost a year now and we’ve all adjusted well to the new rhythm of our family and our home.  I can’t imagine life without her.  Wife and I have grown and learned so much about each other through this process.  A year ago, I’d have never guessed that this is where our family was headed or that Buttercup would be joining us on our voyage through the uncharted and uncertain waters of the future.  But things change and our duo is now a trio.

And so it is with the whiskey world at large.  When the bourbon glut happened during the ’80s and ’90s, because national interest in the drink seemed to disappear, it was uncertain as to whether distilleries would even remain open.  Some didn’t.  But things change and our nation remembered its flagship beverage and interest returned many fold.

I started my hobby when sales were really picking up.  I didn’t know this, of course, because I hadn’t succumbed to marketing charm or my peers’ drinking preferences (after all, the drinks of choice here in Connecticut are vodka or beer).  I had discovered whiskey because I had visited its main source.  I didn’t know about the previous glut or the current shortage; I just knew that I liked whiskey.  I was walking along enjoying my bourbon, exploring the expressions available, and broadening my appreciation.  I had no idea of the changes happening around me.

But now I know.  I know that many of the blogs I read are by authors who experienced the wonderful glut (much great whiskey, aged good and well with the number of years right there on the bottle, and priced beautifully).  I know that sales have gone through the roof and now there’s a shortage (some great whiskey if you know where to look, aged less with the number of years gone from the bottle, and priced rather high).  And now I’m among the bloggers who see the current trends of bottles missing from shelves, age statements missing from bottles, prices reaching absurd levels, and large corporations disregarding the quality of the whiskey for quantity.  And I wonder about the future of this drink.

I’ve bunkered some bottles of my favorites, but when those are gone their replacements have gotten harder to find.  I managed to pack a bottle of W.L. Weller into my suitcase coming home from a trip to California two years ago, and since then I haven’t seen a bottle of it anywhere here at home.  I have half a bottle of Elmer T. Lee left and that’s nowhere to be seen around here either.  If things get bad enough, and prices get high enough, I’ll just have to ration my bunker and try to weather the storm.  I’ll have to trust my gut.

We could enter another glut period when people get fed up with corporate shenanigans and higher prices for lesser whiskey (if we do I’ll be dancing in the aisles as the prices drop and the ages rise).  But then, we could also see scarcity and rising prices continue.  The future of whiskey is hazy at best.

But things change.