Whisky Review – Compass Box, The Spice Tree

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The Spice Tree; the whisky that was, then wasn’t, then was again!

The story of The Spice Tree whisky has been told many times, but just in case it is new to you, here is a quick overview:

It started as an experiment in maturation. Compass Box placed new French oak “inner staves” into a barrel as part of a secondary maturation – a technique that has been practiced by wine-makers for many years. What they discovered is that in addition to the flavors provided by the maturation in American oak ex-bourbon casks, the French oak staves resulted in a whisky full of herbal spice notes…..and The Spice Tree was born. Initially reaching the marketplace in 2005, the original Spice Tree whisky received positive reviews and won awards.

But then……the Big Bad Wolf (aka, the Scotch Whisky Association) knocked on the door, huffed and puffed and ……. threatened a lawsuit. Ah, yes, litigation, the cure for all ills!

Now let’s be fair. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has a difficult task. The SWA is charged with protecting and promoting Scotch Whisky as a global product; this is an industry that is hugely significant for Scotland for the employment and business and tax revenue that it generates. And, the SWA existed only because, sadly, throughout its history, the whisky industry in Scotland has had some very difficult periods tied to poor product quality standards, fundamental mismanagement, and even outright fraud. So, preserving the reputation of the industry is critically important…..and even more difficult today in the face of growing international competition, changing consumer preferences, and the advance of technology.

When the SWA learned that Compass Box was employing “inner staves” in the maturation of The Spice Tree, the SWA investigated, and concluding that such practice was not traditional (and tradition is viewed as a key to the reputation of Scotch whisky as a product) and, therefore, was not appropriate. The SWA demanded that Compass Box cease the practice if they wished to continue to define the product as Scotch whisky.

Now, it is important to understand that being able to identify their product as Scotch whisky was vital to a fledgling Compass Box because of the immediate connection to the quality standards and consumer trust in the product category that existed – giving credit where it is due, the Scotch whisky industry was in very good shape due, in part, to the fact that the SWA has generally done a good job in their role as the industry’s Grand Protector.

Anyway, getting back to the Spice Tree story! Fortunately for us, Glaser and the team at Compass Box did not give up on the concept in the face of the SWA decision. Accepting that they could not successfully wage a (potentially protracted) legal battle against the SWA, Glaser sought an alternative – and acceptable to the SWA – method….and came up with one. Working with their coopers, Compass Box began using American oak ex-bourbon barrels, but replacing the heads with heads made from new, heavy toasted French oak. The new French oak heads served the same role as the inner staves, introducing the herbal spice notes that Glaser desired….and, in 2009, The Spice Tree returned! (Click here to read The Spice Tree Story letter by John Glaser).

There was an actual upside to all the commotion surrounding the SWA decision for Compass Box. The Spice Tree dispute resulted in lots of press coverage, creating a demand for the original release and then sustaining a life for the concept over the three years until the “new” version was released. When the new version hit the market, the carry-over helped generate additional sales. Even Compass Box admits that the new method may even yield superior results, so….a silver lining!

In their marketing material, Compass Box defines The Spice Tree as 100% malt whisky from northern Highland distilleries, primarily Clynelish. Composed of whiskies that are in the range of ten years-old, they are matured in first-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks, then re-racked into the barrels with new French oak heads that have three levels of toasting designed to create greater flavor complexity. Let’s see how that translates in the glass!

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The Spice Tree, Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Color: An amber-gold color, a deeper color than either Asyla or Oak Cross.

Nose: (Neat): Ahhhh! Oh, yes!  The glass is full of lovely spices, delicate fruits, and a rich, soft, warm vanilla.  No question, though, but the French oak is the star, here. Spices galore! Deep, full, expansive spices: cloves, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, all-spice, and a good dose of white pepper just fill the nose. Yet there is enough vanilla and hints of tropical fruits – pineapple, and papaya – to keep it from tilting too far in one direction.  (With Water): Becomes much fruitier with water: ripe Red Delicious apples, mango, pineapple. I also get some honey and the vanilla stays more evident across the nose, keeping an underlying sweetness. However, the spices still hold the stage, bringing a breadth and a depth to the nose that is wonderful!

Palate: (Neat): A quickly sweet arrival with vanilla before the spice notes take over: cloves and ginger, and more pepper rises up to add a bite. There is also a slight saltiness. It becomes much fruitier in the mid-palate, before a rush of warm vanilla cream comes sweeping across the tongue……Rich and creamy mouthfeel, dense flavors. Yumm! (With Water): A beautiful vanilla sweetness, that is more pronounced and also which remains on the tongue throughout instead of fading behind the spices. The spices are softer now, but their presence blends beautifully with the sweet vanilla and delicate fruits.

Finish: All about the spices, a rich, sweet vanilla, and delicate touches of the fruits. Becomes rather tannic at the tail end – possibly the only real shortcoming in this whisky. 

Overall: Even from a distance I get such beautiful aromas from the glass. Where the Asyla is a delicate whisky, The Spice Tree is bold. If Asyla is Enya – soft and soothing, melodic and gentle. then The Spice Tree is Janice Joplin – all raw emotion and exuberance, energetic and edgy.

Spice Tree just hits the mark for me, but I like the herbal spice notes in my whiskies. It possesses a beautiful balance between the sweetness that the vanilla provides and the boldness of the spices, enough complexity to satisfy, and a richness on the palate that just confirms how good this whisky is! If you like some boldness to your whisky, this is one you should try!

 

Rating: 86

 

Details:

Distillery(ies): primarily Clynelish

Type: Blended Malt Scotch whisky

Age: Not Stated – in the range of 10 years-old

ABV: 46%

Maturation: American Oak, ex-Bourbon and ex-sherry, re-racked 60% American oak ex-bourbon and 40% American oak ex-bourbon fitted with French oak heads.

Price: $50 (Specs)

Availability: Generally available

Sample: My own bottle

 

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